Israeli Arabs: The Mayor of Nazareth

Israelis debate the geographical merits of their land with as much intensity as they attack their politics and politicians, but few deny the beauties of the Galilee, the 700 square miles of hill country which stretch from Acre in the west through Kinneret and Safad, into the lush Hula Valley in the northeast, bordering on Syria and Lebanon. North of the town of Tiberias, in the Upper Galilee, Jewish kibbutzim grow abundant crops on former swampland. On a clear day, the magnificent heights of Mount Hermon can be seen from the orchards and cotton fields, and the quietude almost lets one forget the dangers lying over the hills. In the south and southwest, away from the Sea of Galilee in an area of basaltic plateaus and steep gorges, water from the National Carrier helps irrigate land for wheat and other crops, while vines and deciduous fruit trees grow on the hillsides.

Here in the central and western Lower Galilee one finds relatively few Jewish settlements, and these are scattered in a somewhat deliberate pattern among the much more numerous villages of Israeli Arabs. In recent years, and particularly since 1973, the government has followed an unannounced but undenied policy of encouraging additional Jewish settlement. Late in 1975 some 6000 acres of land, much of it Arab owned, were scheduled for requisitioning. Arabs have resented this, as they have other government policies, and tensions in the region have steadily grown. Many have feared that the danger here was as real as that in the north.

At the end of March these fears were suddenly confirmed. Following several weeks of violence in the administered West Bank, Israeli Arabs began a twenty-four-hour general strike in the Galilee to protest the land expropriations and what they feel to be a policy of national oppression and discrimination against them. Businesses closed, roadblocks were erected, and within hours violent clashes erupted between Arabs and government security forces. Stoning and shooting occurred in scores of places. Six Arabs were killed and more than seventy Jews and Arabs were wounded in the worst violence to occur between Israel’s two groups of citizens since the founding of the state. Shock waves rumbled in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in Ramallah and Jaffa. And not surprisingly, for those familiar with the Galilee, attention centered on Nazareth.

Arafat’s agent?

Israeli Arabs live with Israeli Jews in a number of “mixed” cities, the major ones being Acre. Haifa, Lydda, Ramla, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. But Nazareth and Shafa ‘Amr are the only wholly Arab cities in Israel proper, and Nazareth, with some 40,000 inhabitants, is far and away the larger. The thousands of tourists who visit Nazareth come to see the place of Jesus’ childhood. Few who climb the dirty streets to the Church of the Nazarene see much beyond the shopkeepers and trinket vendors, and almost none go past the church through the narrow walled streets to the courtyard and the offices of Nazareth’s city hall.

Since December, when Nazareth voters elected Toufik Zayad their mayor, this city has become a place of intense political feeling, a focal point of Israeli Arab dissidence. It was Zayad who described the general strike as a protest against “the policy of national oppression and discrimination”; and it was Zayad’s house that was smashed in the battle that followed, and whose family and friends were reportedly singled out for attack by infuriated government security troops.

Zayad is a nonpracticing Moslem, an intellectual, the author of several volumes of poetry, a father of three, and a communist. He dresses neatly, has a warm and outgoing manner, and treats his guests and visitors with scrupulous politeness, in the traditional Arab fashion. He maintains good relations with persons from all sectors of the Arab population, even those he opposes; and one of his principal advisers on the Nazareth city council is a priest. He himself is married to a Christian.

Bright, articulate, forceful in his views, Zayad is also politically astute. He was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist party in 1972. Shortly afterward, he spent a brief period in Prague as correspondent for the party newspaper, although his formal education stopped with high school. In 1973 he gained national prominence with a poem called “The Great Crossing.” In it he celebrated the Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal, but his use of “crossing was also metaphorical, symbolizing the “coming of age of Israeli Arabs and the need to become more assertive in national politics. Late in 1973, at the age of forty-four, he was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, after serving a term of “preventive detention as a possible subversive. In the view of some observers, he won his seat largely because his poem touched Israeli Arab feelings. Since that time he has carefully built his local political base.

Zayad’s mayoral victory last December was a landslide. Despite stormy weather, some 75 percent of Nazareth’s voters went to the polls, and 67 percent of them voted for Zayad and his democratic bloc. Eleven of seventeen city council seats went to his supporters, and this despite the fact that Zayad’s opponents in the hotly contested race had the strong backing of the Israeli national government. Shortly before the elections, in fact, the government sent two of its ministers to denounce Zayad and warn against his election. Labor Minister Moshe Baram stated that Israel “could not be expected to show consideration for a city headed by a man who might be an agent of Arafat and his murderous gangs,” a clear hint that Nazareth under Zayad might find it difficult to get government funds. Some in Jerusalem thought that this ploy had backfired and suspected that Zayad would win. But no one was prepared for the magnitude of his victory. Shocked officials suddenly saw themselves confronting the dangers of Palestinian nationalism inside their own borders. With unrest increasing in the administered West Bank, they worried about the effects his election might have on Israel’s 450,000 Arab citizens.

In fact, Zayad’s election helped puncture a popular and prevailing myth among Jewish Israelis (a myth that recent violence in the Galilee may now have totally destroyed): that Israeli Arabs are generally content with full citizenship rights in a Jewish state and are unlikely to be greatly affected by the growing militance of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Israeli Proclamation of Independence promises “complete equality of social and political rights for all citizens without distinction of creed, race, or sex,”and calls on the Arabs of Israel “to play their part in building the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its institutions.” An official government publication recently insisted that “Israel has carried out these pledges insofar as possible in a country under constant siege and menace by the surrounding Arab peoples,” a viewpoint no doubt shared by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews.

But not, however, one held by Toufik Zayad and the voters of Nazareth. In conversation, Zayad emphasizes the degree of government neglect of Israeli Arabs, and claims that they have secondclass status. He condemns subtle and overt discrimination and bitterly attacks Jerusalem’s policy of expropriating Arab land. He charges that in a country where 13 percent of the population is Arab and where Arab children constitute 20 percent of the students in elementary schools, only 7 percent of the secondary school students and only about 1.5 percent of the university students are Arabs. For him the situation is even more serious in terms of municipal services and health care. “Our reservoir.” he argues, leaning over his desk and making his point with enough passion to win office in the Bronx, “our drinking water has been in-des-crib-ably filthy! We drag dead horses from our reservoir! We drag su-i-cides from our reservoir! Human bodies!”

Above all, Zayad insists, his concern is for genuine national equality for Israeli Arabs. He opposes Arab desks and Arab departments in central government agencies, which seem to him a way of perpetuating secondary status for Israeli Arabs rather than a means of preserving cultural or social autonomy. Most Arabs, he maintains, are content with exemption from military service, a provision which, though it diminishes the notion of full citizenship, avoids the intolerable dilemma of fighting other Arabs. But fewer and fewer young Israeli Arabs are willing to accept the notion of “separate but equal,” says Zayad, and cannot understand why more West Bank Palestinians manage to attend universities than do the Arabs who are citizens of Israel. And everywhere in Israel Arabs are increasingly concerned by the degree of suspicion with which the central government regards them. Hence, Zayad claims, his election should be seen not as an internal threat to Israel’s security but as a victory of the champions of true national equality, a crucial step toward building good binational relations.

These relations turn above all, he argues, on the problem of land, and in particular on the question of the “Judaization” of the Arab Galilee region. In and around Nazareth, Arab-owned land has shrunk from some 7500 acres to a little over 2000, while the town’s population has increased fourfold. Most of this territory—all outside the city proper—has been seized by the government for new Jewish settlements, either to dilute deliberately the concentration of Arab inhabitants with the aim of reducing political dangers or to facilitate agricultural growth; and much of Nazareth’s increased population consists of villagers displaced by these seizures. The most ostentatious of the new settlements is Nazerat Illit (Upper Nazareth), where new apartment buildings look down on the old city from surrounding heights and serve as a constant reminder of the problems of Israeli Arab identity. Other land sits idle and uncultivated as claims remain unsettled and the problems of compensation are argued in the courts.

The government maintains its right to land abandoned by the Arabs in the aftermath of Israel’s wars, insisting on a compensation scale equivalent to sums paid in the past, in some cases as far back as 1948. According to Zayad, Arabs who were formerly unhappy with payments of any kind, which tacitly legitimized government expropriations, are now outraged at the compensation scale itself. He speaks of “cynical compensation, and insists that tremendous harm has been done to the government’s image among all Palestinians. More angrily he contends that fully a third of Nazareth’s population are refugees who would return to their native villages if they were not prevented from doing so by the regime.

The problem of land has affected Nazareth in other ways as well. The town lacks a master development plan and is perhaps the only major urban area in Israel without clear guidelines for future growth. Zayad is convinced that this is because the government has not finished confiscating land and is more concerned with Judaization than with Arab welfare. In discussions before the recent bloodshed, he insisted on the need to maintain cooperative relations with the Interior Ministry and other government agencies. But he also talked about the need to “crystallize political consciousness” in Nazareth and the Galilee, and to create a united Arab stand against government discrimination. The twenty-four-hour general strike which he and his Moscow-oriented Rakah party called in protest against further land expropriations was intended to be a step in this direction.

Raising consciousness

Zayad’s writing shows a more subtle poetic conception than do his interviews and political speeches. His first concern is clearly the problem of Arab survival in a Jewish state and society. He writes:

The trunk of the blessed olive, whose roots have embedded themselves in the seventh earth, is always pushing out new shoots, and germinating new olive trees. In the beginning the new shoots are the size of nothing, but they grow and multiply until they cover the earth, in answer to the urge of the violent green life within them. And little by little, they become separate olive trees, standing on their own. And thus the mother olive, whose beginnings are shrouded in a dim distant past, is transformed into an olive grove, which gives shade to lovers of the sun. . . . That olive grove, years after the calamity, is still there, and the thousand songs rumbling over the treetops with every rising of the wind and rustling of the leaves are still there.

Consciousness for Arabs in Israel means to Zayad a feeling of pride in the very act of surviving, and an awareness of victory in the sense of preserving culture and dignity. “They wanted to ‘mop up’ the remaining pockets and drive us out to join the ranks of our dispersed people.” he writes, “in order to deprive those martyr people of any hope of return. But we cried in their face: ‘No! Here we stay!’ . . . and we won the battle for survival.”

Consciousness also involves a willingness to preserve Arab culture. One can perceive a deeper meaning to Zayad’s opposition to Arab desks in the government. “All those who are responsible for ‘Arabic’ affairs and everything related to the Arabs are not Arab,” he writes. “We respect the national, not the chauvinistic cultures of other peoples, but we have to say stop! to those who have tried to deprive us of our national culture with its human and historical attributes, and stuff us with a culture that is an empty husk, a superficial veneer, and infuse us with national nihilism,

For Zayad, consciousness necessarily involves an awareness of the national right of return for displaced Palestinians. This does not mean a war against the Jews. “We have never considered that other people with whom we live to be an enemy,” he says. But it does mean battle with Israel’s rulers: “The enemy is the ruling caste of those people, who have entered into alliance with colonialism against the national liberation movement of the Arab and other peoples, and against the just aspirations of the masses.”

Zayad is a forceful writer and a compelling political personality who appeals to broad sectors of the Israeli Arab community. A strong sense of Palestinian identity exists in Shafa ‘Amr, Ramla, Lydda, and other Arab centers in Israel, fueled not only by the relative military successes of 1973 and increasing international attention being paid to the PLO, but also by the government’s domestic policies, and a sense of identification with those on the administered West Bank. On the side of a building at Haifa University, where Arab students have refused to stand guard duty, someone recently painted a huge banner in two-foot letters: “ZIONISM = JUDAIZING THE GALILEE = RACISM!” Its literal meaning may be an awful corruption, but its underlying sentiments are comprehensible and real. And while a broadly based Palestinian nationalism might itself be a relatively new phenomenon, the Nazareth elections and the recent outbreak of violence, like the Haifa graffiti, suggest the extent to which it has touched long-standing Israeli Arab grievances.

Zayad won broad support in his mayoral race from Moslems and Christians alike. Much of it undoubtedly came from young Arabs (75 percent of Israel’s Arab population is under thirty), and reflected what the writer Kassem Zaid has described as a revolt against “subservience and the acceptance of the word of authority as sacred, qualities which were infused into Arab society in the days of the Ottoman rule.” Nazareth, like other Israeli Arab centers, has traditionally been under the influence of Moslem religious communities, whose feuding and general apathy toward municipal affairs has for years been a serious obstacle to local development. Zayad insists this will change; he has opened municipal council sessions to the public for the first time.

Zayad also won support from Arab professionals, reflecting what Charles Weiss has called in the Jerusalem Post the “time bomb” of Arab college graduates who cannot get the jobs they want and who find themselves bitter over “the difficulty of getting ahead or earning more money in what [is] essentially a Jewish society, while at the same time they are unable to return to traditional life in an Arab village. These and other Arabs no doubt supported Zayad as well because of his forceful resistance in the Knesset and elsewhere to further land confiscations, clearly the hottest political issue in the Galilee before the violent demonstrations began in March.

But underlying all, and perhaps most important, is a resurgent sense of Palestinian identity. Writing in 1973, Kassem Zaid described the difficulties his countrymen have undergone in the process of unwillingly becoming a national minority:

Most of the leaders and intellectuals fled the country, leaving a poor and disorganized proletariat living under abnormal circumstances as a result of the war. The Jews regarded the war as a war of independence, while the Arabs saw in it a defeat and the loss of the chance for establishing a state with a Palestinian Arab majority. All this produced an ambivalence in the Israeli Arab, as a result of which he became a victim of severe inner struggles which shook his feelings of national identity.

Since 1967, however, and particularly since 1973, this ambivalence has been dissolving rapidly. Some observers, like Zaid, believe that Israeli Arabs still generally regard themselves as a community different from other Arab societies. Others, like the sociologist Khalil Nakhleh, insist that there ought to be a collective Palestinian identity, and while arguing the failure of Jewish Israeli efforts at physical separation and cultural assimilation, call for a realization that the Arab minority is “only a segment of the larger Palestinian people.” But for holders of either viewpoint, Mayor Zayad is an important presence; if he is not strictly representative of the Arab community in Israel, at least he deserves attention, even from those who do not share his views.

Joining the party

In this context, Zayad’s formal communist affiliations are, relatively speaking, less important than his role as an Israeli Arab leader. As a member of Rakah. the “New Communist List,” his election as mayor of Nazareth represented increasing communist strength in a historically supportive area. But Rakah’s appeal has consistently been to Arab nationalism rather than social revolution, and for a greater Arab role in Israeli political life. An offshoot of the original communist party of Israel (Maki), from which it split in 1965 over the latter’s apparent Zionist leanings, Rakah has strong ties to the Palestinian cause outside Israel and defines Israel as a warmonger and an imperialist country. It is also closely tied to the Soviet Union. In the 1973 Knesset elections, which took place after the Yom Kippur War, Rakah received only 32 percent of the 145,000 Arab votes, while nearly 50 percent went to the Labor Alignment, or to Arab parties affiliated wuth it. Rakah’s vote was enough to increase its Knesset representation from three to four (one of the new delegates being Zayad), but hardly enough to warrant its speaking for the Israeli Arab community as a whole.

Many interpret Zayad’s recent election as a sign of growing communist sentiment among Israeli Arabs, with all of the international dangers this implies. Zayad has been a party member since shortly after Israel gained independence, and while he ran in Nazareth on issues which he feels are not specifically tied to any particular party affiliation, his own orientation was certainly very clear. After the Galilee violence began in March, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was adamant in attributing the difficulty to “communist agitators who “incited riots . . . broke into schools, beat up teachers . . . and drove out pupils who wanted to study. They threatened and assaulted shopowners who rejected their call. Nevertheless, the basic issues in the dispute are a sense of identity, new social services, material betterment, and a dignified coexistence, not communist activism. And insofar as he can redress these grievances (or insofar as the Israeli government makes him a martyr). Zayad’s own influence and authority among Israeli Arabs is likely to grow.

For Israeli Jews, many issues related to Zayad’s election, and particularly to the recent bloodshed, are far from clear. First among them is the way in which events inside Israel may be tied to developments in the West Bank and the activities of the PLO. A number of Jewish Israelis see the Galilee violence as little more than an extension of West Bank protests, and see those protests as the work of the PLO. But the connections are far from apparent. Many in Nazareth have close ties with West Bankers, and many more no doubt sympathize with their protests. In some sense the West Bank demonstrations may even have sparked the Galilee trouble. But Zayad and his colleagues announced their general strike in February, well before the West Bank towns erupted. More important, Israeli Arab grievances have their own independent origins, related in a way to the broader Palestinian question but also susceptible to efforts at separate resolution. Many Arabs both inside Israel and out like to describe themselves as PLO (particularly to Westerners), whether or not they have any real affiliation. Thus the situation as a whole remains confused. All that seems apparent is that whatever the course of Jerusalem’s policies outside Israel, relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews are in need of improvement.

Government officials have for years accommodated the interests of hamula, or clan hierarchies, in what they regarded as an effort to preserve the social autonomy of Arab towns and villages, even though many hamula leaders were undoubtedly corrupt by Jewish standards. The Israeli government has been reluctant even to place the question of Arab municipal government on the agenda of ministry meetings, maintaining, as an Interior Ministry spokesman stated in 1974, that these were “Arab problems, not ones with which the government ought to concern itself.”Jerusalem officials also argue that many of the funds channeled into Nazareth and other towns were never spent for the purposes intended, and that the resultant shortage of services, which has been amply documented in Israeli Jewish publications, is more a consequence of municipal autonomy and local corruption than deliberate neglect. But Zayad and other Israeli Arab spokesmen, like the Ramallah lawyer Aziz Shehadeh or the poet Ravmonda Tawil. argue for reform, and speak forcefully about bringing new responsibility to the Arab sector. Thus Jewish officials are faced with the dilemma of either abetting changes which conflict with traditional Arab social patterns or resisting them, which strengthens the radical politics of men like Zayad. The mayor’s very election, in fact, is testimony to Israel’s desire to resolve these conflicts democratically. His party is outlawed in all traditional Arab states.

Moreover, the government finds it difficult to disentangle the problems of reform, development, and national security. Zayad publicly calls for complete Israeli withdrawal from administered territories (the Arabs regard them as occupied), the recognition by Israel of the right of self-determination for Arab Palestinians everywhere, and Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist within 1967 borders. Many Israeli Jews might accept these goals if they thought this was all the Arabs really wanted, and that they were not simply offering plausible positions to gain tactical advantage.

The questions of peace and security are naturally paramount, and while few in Israel are anxious to admit it, there is growing concern about the relationship Israeli Arabs might have to any future Palestinian state, certainly any state that reflects at all the exterminationist ambitions of some PLO spokesmen. Unable to separate clearly legitimate Arab political opposition from latent or actual subversion, uncertain as to the nature of relations between militant West Bankers and those building roadblocks in the Galilee, anxious about the growing international respect for the PLO. cramped for space and facing increasing economic difficulties, the government has pressed its plan for developing the Galilee, diluting the Arab population, and assuring its weakness. In the process, an explosive fuse has been lit.

Accentuating the positive

What, then, is likely to emerge in the aftermath of Zayad’s election and the recent bloody violence? One possibility is repression, and perhaps even the outlawing of the communist party, as Sheik Muadi, a Druse member of the Knesset, proposed at a press conference last spring. Such a course, however, would miss the underlying significance of the rioting, aggravating the potential consequences inside Israel of deteriorating relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Given the government’s policy of land acquisition, these relations were bound to deteriorate regardless of events in the West Bank or abroad. But now, even if calm is restored in the Galilee and the current regime succeeds in minimizing direct PLO involvement in West Bank affairs, it can hardly avoid a reordering of attitudes and policies toward the huge Arab community within its own borders. In late 1969, the prime minister’s past and present adviser on Arab affairs, Shmuel Toledano, suggested that a contest was in progress between Arab nationalists and “positive elements,”and indicated that the government would do its utmost to support these positive elements while opposing nationalists. “We shall work.” he declared. “to bring about a situation where an Arab nationalist is ostracized in his own village.” However this policy was implemented. Toufik Zayad reflects its failure.

In the short run, any new government policy is likely to bring an improvement in social services for towns like Nazareth, even if the government hardens its line against Rakah. More funds may become available, and efforts may be made to bring moderate Israeli Arabs into positions of political responsibility. Perhaps more important in the long run, the assumption that Israel has dealt effectively with the problems of binational equality may well give way to a more careful appraisal of Israeli Arab grievances.

Last, and most optimistic, the mayor of Nazareth may come to symbolize a quintessential truth of Israel’s existence. Underlying the problems of security and the endless struggle for survival are vital opportunities for social betterment. However difficult this struggle has been, the vitality of Israel has always been related to the painful problems of inconvenient existence. Toufik Zayad may well end up strengthening the lifeblood of his country.

—WILLIAM G. ROSENBERG