The specter of a fifth column, Israeli Arabs, conspiring from within Israel to help Palestinian terrorists emerged anew this week with the arrests of seven Israeli Arabs from one family in the Galilee. Members of the Bakri family were charged with helping the suicide bomber who blew up an Israeli bus Aug. 4 that killed nine Israelis and injured dozens of others.
Just a week ago, five other Israeli Arabs were arrested for allegedly being part of a Hamas terrorist cell in East Jerusalem that was responsible for carrying out eight terrorist attacks that killed 35, including the bombing of the cafeteria at the Hebrew University that killed five Americans and four Israelis.
"This is very aggravating, but to imagine that no one in East Jerusalem would be involved in terror after they are daily exposed to incitement is unrealistic," Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert told The Jewish Week by phone from Jerusalem. "Given the circumstances, one has to say that the population of East Jerusalem has been very restrained and disciplined."
There are about 210,000 Israeli Arabs living in East Jerusalem and about 1.2 million in the entire country, close to 20 percent of the overall population. The deep concern that Israeli Arabs have grown increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause these last two years and could become a serious danger from within is the backdrop over debates as to whether the solution is to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs or take tougher measures against them.
Olmert said he is concerned that these latest arrests will "cast a certain doubt about the others, which is something that will definitely create a problem for them. I hope it will not create a backlash [against Israeli Arabs]."
Since the arrests, Olmert said there has been a "certain outcry … largely from those who said the arrests vindicate their view that it is necessary to divide [Jerusalem between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs]." But he said he would continue to resist such a move.
A poll by the Peace Index in May found that 69 percent of Israeli Jews are opposed to a division of Jerusalem by a fence, wall or other physical object in order to reduce the risk of terror attacks.
Stephen Donshik, director of the Israel office of UJA-Federation of New York, noted that following the arrests, the Israeli media tried to put everything into perspective.
"Last night on the news they said 56 Israeli Arabs were involved in [terrorist] incidents last year and 49 this year," he said. "The news is trying to deliver the message that you can’t blame all Israeli Arabs when you look at this percentage."
He said tensions in the Israeli Arab community increased in October 2000 after 13 Israeli Arabs were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers during rioting in sympathy with Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza.
"These are citizens who have not had an equal share of rights and entitlements for many years," Donshik said of Israeli Arabs. "It is a complicated issue."
Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, cited figures that he said indicate an "increased involvement of the Israeli Arab sector in terrorist incidents.
"In the year 2000, Israeli security forces uncovered eight separate events in which Israeli Arabs were involved in organized terrorist incidents," he said. "By 2001, the number increased to 25 and by mid-2002, the number had already reached 27. Therefore, while there is only a militant minority of Israeli Arabs being drawn into terrorism, the increase in the number of incidents is a rising concern."
Late this week, Interior Minister Eli Yishai was slated to meet with Israeli Arab leaders to discuss the situation, which he termed a "growing phenomenon." But he was quoted as saying that the meeting would not influence his decision to press for legislation to strip Israeli Arabs of their citizenship if they are convicted of aiding terrorists. And Public Security Minister Uzi Landau said he would like to "personally demolish the houses of those who aid suicide bombers."
Although Landau stressed that most Israeli Arabs are "loyal to the state," Knesset member Michael Kleiner disagreed, saying most were loyal to the Palestinian cause. And he called for the death penalty for all Israelis convicted of involvement in terrorist acts.
Several Israeli commentators noted that the Israeli Arabs arrested last week and this week were middle class people with homes and jobs and were not poverty stricken or religious fanatics.
Giora Salz, an Israeli representative of Givat Haviva, a group that promotes Arab-Jewish coexistence, said these latest arrests make his organization’s job more difficult but "at the same time it makes our work more of a necessity."
He said that in the last two years of Palestinian violence, trust has been broken between Jews and Arabs in Israel and that talk of demolitions and loss of citizenship has not helped.
"It means that the Green Line is erased and that Israeli Arabs are considered the same as [Palestinians in the West Bank]," he said.
A similar view was voiced by Yehezkel Landau, co-founder of Open House, an Arab-Jewish coexistence project, who said singling out Israeli Arabs for punishment would be "unjust, unfair and racist" unless the same measures were imposed on Israeli Jews.
"Most Israeli Arabs feel they are outsiders living in a Jewish state, and that feeling has grown," he said. "Under the Rabin government, positive steps were made to fund Arab schools and communities to make up for the growing gap between Arabs and the majority Jewish sector."
But all that ended with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, he claimed, and despite promises by Prime Minister Ehud Barak to allocate $1 billion to help improve the lives of Israeli Arabs, the money was never spent, Landau noted.
Alan Slifka, co-founder of the Abraham Fund, a non-profit organizations that funds Arab-Israeli coexistence projects, said the Palestinian violence has also fostered a divide between Israeli Arabs and Jews so that Jews will no longer shop in Israeli Arab cities.
"As a result of the intifada, there is a feeling by the Jews that all Arabs have to be regarded with a great deal of suspicion," Slifka said.
Meanwhile, Israeli plans for a troop pullback in Gaza and West Bank cities in addition to Bethlehem were put on hold this week because of continued Palestinian unrest in Gaza, including a mortar attack that heavily damaged a nursery school in the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif and an apparent weapons smuggling effort by sea that was thwarted by Israeli forces.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in a statement that he hoped to resume the troop redeployment as soon as Palestinian police demonstrate that they are working to curb the violence. The Palestinians responded by announcing the deployment of police in Gaza to crackdown on militants.