Israel's third-class citizens learn to stand proud

The real threat to the Jewish state comes from within its borders, where Arabs increasingly adopt an

At first glance, it is easy to mistake Umm al-Fahm for a West Bank town. With its skyline of minarets and incongruous houses spread chaotically on a roller-coaster hillside, this might be Nablus or a more vertiginous version of Ramallah.

Talking to its residents only compounds the illusion. They talk of occupation and repression and of a state whose ideological exclusivism makes a just peace impossible.

Only this is not the West Bank, it is Israel. Umm al-Fahm was swallowed up in 1948, as the nascent Jewish state spilled over the borders set out for it by the UN. Today, it comprises a populous triangle of Arab towns absorbed into the northern part of the Jewish homeland.

You would have thought 50 years might have been enough for absorption to give way to integration. Not so. Umm al-Fahm has survived in a physical and emotional no-man's land, inside Israel but not of it; Arab, but with its physical contiguity to the rest of Palestine and the Middle East broken.

Change is in the air, however. Fed up with their life in limbo, Umm al-Fahm's residents, and their neighbours in the north, have come out of the closet. And Israel should be shuddering at the implications.

Umm al-Fahm was thrust into the international spotlight in September, when three youngsters were shot dead and scores injured and arrested as they rose against Ariel Sharon's incursion into the Islamic holy site in Jerusalem, the Haram al-Sharif.

The Israeli right immediately ascribed the most serious outbreak of violence ever inside the "1948" territories to the growing confidence of a treacherous Arab minority in its midst. They pointed at Umm al-Fahm and one man in particular, accusing him of fomenting ideological opposition to the Israeli state.

Ra'id Salah might be a stranger to westerners, but in the holy land he is never far from the headlines. Since his Islamic Movement won the municipal elections in 1989, the 58-year-old technocrat has transformed an otherwise unimportant regional town of 40,000 into the hub of an Arab spiritual and political revival.

When we rendezvous, "Sheikh Ra'id", as he is fondly known, is reading the Koran. His eyes are bleary, his hair uncombed and, for all his 6ft frame, he appears weak - the effects, I am to learn, of a pietistic and frugal lifestyle. Today, heading a local delegation representing the Al-Aqsa Foundation, which raises money to pay for renovation of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel is to pay his respects to the families of 12 Israeli Arabs killed in clashes with Israeli forces.

For Sheikh Ra'id, the toll, which rose to 13 last month, is the price that justice demands. "With this uprising we have tried to deliver a message to the Islamic world that Al-Aqsa is important to us. We're not simply showing solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the West Bank, but we're showing them that it also means a lot to us. Aqsa is more valuable than our blood. And we should sacrifice everything in our duty to protect Al-Aqsa."

I accompany Ra'id on his rounds. The atmosphere is not even remotely funereal: each house is festooned with portraits of the deceased, proclaiming his noble sacrifice, to be seen by the guests, who are still filing in weeks after the deaths. Sweets are served as a sign of the families' happiness.

The father of 24-year-old Mohammad Jabbareen, shot in the chest with a dumdum-type bullet, solemnly accepts the 20,000-shekel gratuity the delegation has brought to perpetuate his legacy. He is "not sad at all, and all praise is to God" that his son became Umm al-Fahm's first martyr. Around 80,000 people poured into town for the funeral, Israel's largest ever. Martyrdom is a source of pride, not grief or anger.

Things are little different at the home of Ahmed Ibrahim Siyam. His father greets the party as though they were attending his son's wedding, not his wake. In the days before he took a bullet in the forehead, Ahmed, 19, had enrolled at university for a degree in management. But worldly aspirations are no match for religious goals. "Ahmed wanted to study, but he achieved the greatest goal. Martyrdom is more valuable than anything. His death was a gift, a very small gift. If two million die, we are prepared to give more. This is the value of Al-Aqsa."

While the concept of martyrdom is ingrained into the Muslim psyche, its popularisation and expression at the public level inside Israel is a new phenomenon. It is just one sign of a marching Islamisation of Arab society. At the political level, it is illustrated by the electoral success of the Islamic Movement in six Arab towns. In Nazareth, Islamists hold half of all the seats - not a mean achievement in a town where 40 per cent of residents are Christian.

"In Israel, local politics is as much about identity as it is about who's going to do the day-to-day things like remove the rubbish, keep the roads moving and improve the sewage systems," explains Professor Mohammad Abu Sway, a politics lecturer at Birzeit, an Arab university outside Ramallah on the West Bank. "The Islamists like Ra'id provide people with a sense of identity. And, as administrators, they also deliver. Ra'id himself is a decent person, humble, with no signs of extravagant behaviour and very honest. You can see sincerity in him. He has a track record of being faithful to his principles, and that's why he wins. And he delivers the basic services."

On the ground, there are other indicators. In Umm al-Fahm, an almost exclusively Muslim town, it is uncommon to find girls without headscarves. The town produces the Islamist Voice of Truth and Freedom newspaper, considered so dangerous that it is periodically banned in Israel and Palestinian Authority-controlled areas. Mosques, frequented by the young, proliferate.

Abu Sway believes the Israeli Palestinians' self-discovery is their attempt to recover from years of repression, especially the humiliating Arab defeats of 1948 and 1967. Faith is their main weapon. "The Palestinians lost touch with Islam for a while. This is probably typical. A nation that falls under occupation loses its internal defence system, and its people become ready to adopt a new identity. And they did. They became Israeli. Their use of Hebrew was just one thing that indicated a lack of identity and a loss of self-respect."

Ironically, according to Abu Sway, the revival has been assisted by Israel's occupation of the West Bank. "Up until 1967, Palestinians inside Israel had been living in isolation because they were not permitted to travel to the Arab countries. Students of religion would therefore come to the West Bank, mainly Hebron. At the very beginning, some of these students formed military cells. Realising that force would not bring about the desired change, they began working at the grass-roots level, educating people about Islam."

The Islamists' success has been marked. Today something like 73 per cent of Israeli Arabs consider themselves to be Palestinian rather than Israeli. Once a year, Umm al-Fahm plays host to a benefit event for Al-Aqsa which draws in 100,000 Muslims.

"This is something out of the ordinary," says Abu Sway. "Remember, we are talking here about a very small population, about 1,100,000 Arabs, not all of whom are Muslim. So to bring 10 per cent of that population to one stadium is astonishing."

Israel has given yet another ingredient to Palestinian identity: a deep-rooted and all-pervading sense of inferiority. Palestinians have twice the unemployment rate of Israelis and twice the infant mortality rate. Discrimination in employment is endemic. Take Hisham, a 24-year-old professional who has just started a trainee posting at an Israeli government ministry after graduating from Tel Aviv University. His experience is typical of the uphill slog that Arabs face to avail themselves of the opportunities open to Jews.

Having initially been offered the job after his interview, subject to security clearance, Hisham was frustrated to hear nothing more from the department for two months. "Then I got a call from the ministry saying I would not be getting the job. I was shocked. I demanded an explanation, and after weeks of pressure they relented and promised me a security interview."

But the weeks passed by and there was still no word from the security services. An exasperated Hisham hired a lawyer to take up his case. Within minutes, the wheels had started to roll. He was invited to an interview in Tel Aviv, where among other questions, he was asked if he hated Jews, was a Muslim fundamentalist, had any political associations with Arab groups or parties, or if he used prostitutes. Hisham recalls: "The test lasted three hours. And it was three months before I heard from them. They wanted me to come back for another test. But weeks afterwards I was still no closer to an answer. I went to canvass senior people in the various ministries for support and put immense pressure on the ministry concerned. Eventually they offered me a post for three months."

Hisham speaks bitterly of the Israeli school curriculum, which left a big gap in his history. It is only through his own investigations that he learnt that "the border between us and the West Bank is only a line drawn by someone many years ago. I have relatives there, just as I have family in Jordan and Lebanon who cannot come back. My body may be in Israel, but my heart and my sympathies are with my people."

The sense of belonging to a sub-class is reinforced by Ra'id time and again: "Zionism is not compatible with peace. Israel still treats us as third-class citizens, discriminating against us on the basis of religion and race. Israel still confiscates our land and our sacred places. After 50 years, the Israeli government is still using the language of force against us. We didn't take anything wrongfully from anybody, nor did we evict anybody, nor did we steal anybody's house and begin to live in it."

He points out that the 1952 Law of Return states that Jews, and only Jews, have a right to settle in Israel and acquire Israeli nationality (perversely, those Palestinians who fled or were driven out in 1948 have no way of returning to their homes or families).

This, then, is what lies at the core of the Israeli-Arab dispute. It is something that the architects of Oslo closed their eyes to in the hope that Palestinians were too tired of conflict to continue to resist. But the Islamist call for a "just peace" and the Islamisation of Israel's Arabs call into question the very nature of the Jewish state. For so long as Israel refuses to face its own past, institutionalised injustice and inferiority will remain the lot of its Arab minority, and its own existence will remain under threat.