One of the most surprising things that has happened in Israel over the past few months has been the unrest that has occurred across the country in solidarity with Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Is this tension new or was it there all along?
Nourooz lives in the Northern town of Tarshiha not far from the Lebanese border. In 1963 it was decided that a new Jewish town of Ma’alot would be built on land there and that the two towns would merge to form Ma’alot Tarshiha. I was interested to hear if co-existence had been achieved there and what life was like in reality for Nourooz and her family.
Palestinians (or Arabs as they are called in Israel) make up roughly 20% of the population of Israel. There are many different circumstances, but most were allowed to remain after the state of Israel was created in 1948 by accepting Israeli citizenship to become Arab-Israeli. In theory, they should have equal rights to Israeli citizens, but the reality is very different, and discrimination and inequality prevail in most aspects of civil life.
Examples of this include the low level of investment that the Israeli state makes in towns with an Arab majority, the number of Arabs that are found guilty at trial, the severity of their sentences, the number of planning applications that are refused, the lower wages that are paid to Arabic staff and so the list goes on. When so many people have come out to protest within Israel, many are therefore fighting for their own freedom as well as in solidarity with their families and friends in the West Bank and Gaza.
I asked Nourooz how mixed her town was in reality, and she said that Tarshiha has remained an Arabic town despite the merger decades before. Her family and neighbours tended to shop in local Arabic shops, and she said that she would walk her dog around the neighbourhood at night feeling quite safe. That had changed dramatically over the past few weeks.
The recent violence that erupted across Israel took lots of people by surprise and when we spoke it was clear that she was still shaken by this. She speaks Arabic and Hebrew fluently and has very strong English skills. She explained that since the violence begun, she has had to ‘think twice if I should speak Arabic’ and that she no longer felt safe on the streets. For several days her family were too afraid to leave their house.
Nourooz used to live in Haifa, and she said that a mix of Jewish and Arabic people lived in her apartment building without obvious tension. Reflecting on the recent violence she said, ‘I was shocked at the amount of hatred’ and she was now questioning if that hatred had been lurking there, underneath the surface all of this time. She said it was the first time she had felt like this and that the trouble had left a ‘deep and bad scar’ that would take time to heal.
Alongside a feeling of distrust towards others, the recent violence has reinforced the feeling that the state and the police don’t treat people fairly. Nourooz took part in a peaceful protest in Haifa, and similar to events in Sheikh Jarrah, her experience was that the police used disproportionate force to dispel crowds of peaceful protestors. She saw people injured and arrested and concluded that the police ‘intention was to hurt’.
Despite violent clashes in Haifa, things were even worse 15 miles north in Akko. This excellent article explains what factors may have influenced this and suggests that despite recent events, that Haifa has taken more steps over the past decades to work towards a society based on co-existence.
Nourooz is engaged to be married and she will move to Jerusalem this summer to live with her husband and his family. I asked her how she felt about this and she replied that she had ‘mixed up feelings’ about it. She is obviously excited about her wedding, but she said that in Jerusalem there was a ‘feeling of tension, like a ticking bomb’ and that you have to be even more careful with everything you do.
Since the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel on 21 May, tensions are still running high, but some form of order has returned across Israel and Palestine. Like many young people, Nourooz wants to be able to start her married life knowing that her family is safe and that she has a home here. As well as this though, she says that ‘the apartheid, violence, occupation, terror and inequality must be acknowledged, spoken about and treated. Occupation is still treating us as numbers… Our lives have no value to them, our basic demands and rights are invisible to them. We are invisible to them. War crimes are going on for years, and no-one is doing anything to stop this’.
She ends our conversation stressing that existence needs to be come before co-existence. They are powerful words that I imagine unite many Palestinians, whether they have Arab-Israeli status within Israel, or live in the West Bank or Gaza. Any sense that peace has been restored here is fragile and meaningless until these wrongdoings are put right.