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The war forced Israel’s Arab citizens to explain that no, they are not Hamas

Haifa and Jerusalem

When Aya Najame, a 20-year-old Arab Muslim, was a little girl growing up in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, she went on cultural exchange trips to Jewish schools to learn about the way of Jewish life. Jewish children did the same, visiting Najame’s school to learn about her life.

Arab citizens and permanent residents in Israel make up just over 20% of the country’s population. The estimated 2 million people are distinct from Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza – but they are far from a uniform group.

Most are Muslim, but there is also a significant Christian Arab minority. And while approximately 1.5 million people hold Israeli citizenship, many of those living in Jerusalem only have permanent residency status and are not full citizens. Some identify as Arabs, others as Palestinians, still others as Druze, a religious sect prevalent in Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

Some speak fluent Hebrew and live in mixed communities like Haifa, while others reside in segregated cities and say they feel like second-class citizens due to discrimination by Israeli authorities. Several hundred choose to serve in the Israeli army each year, even though they are exempt from mandatory service. Many have family in the West Bank and Gaza.

Haifa is not like the rest of Israel, Najame says.

“We live together here, Arab people and Jewish people. We work together, we go to the same places,” she told CNN.

“Haifa is the most comfortable place,” Najame said. “As soon as you leave Haifa you start to feel more uncomfortable, it’s (a) little bit hard to describe, it’s just an uncomfortable feeling.”

Ashraf Ashkar, a 35-year-old Israeli Arab, works in a restaurant in the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas in Haifa. He said he has friends who serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and friends who are in areas of Israel that the Palestinian militant group Hamas brutally attacked earlier this month. “I talk to them all the time, I have a friend, an Arab, who joined the reserves last week,” Ashkar said, adding that Israel is his home.

But he is also keenly aware of his own family history. His ancestors were evacuated from Iqrit, a village north of Haifa, by Israeli forces during the 1948 war. They were told they could return in a few weeks, but were ultimately not allowed to do so. do, Ashkar said. Israel’s Supreme Court later ruled that the eviction was illegal and said Igrit’s families should be allowed to return to their land – but before they could do so, the Israeli army razed the village in the 1950s.

“It’s complicated when you don’t really know where you belong. I try to avoid thinking about it too much,” Ashkar said.

The Hamas terrorist attacks, which Israeli officials say killed more than 1,400 people in Israel on October 7, and the subsequent intense Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which Palestinian officials say have so far more than 4,100 deaths in the enclave, have considerably increased tensions within the enclave. a time when relations between certain groups were already strained.

Since December, Israel has been governed by the most right-wing government in its history. Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some opposition leaders joined an emergency war cabinet to manage the war. The government’s Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, is an extremist who has been convicted of supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism. The finance minister is Bezalel Smotrich, who supports the abolition of the Palestinian Authority and the annexation of the West Bank. Neither is part of the war cabinet, although they retain their ministerial functions.

B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, said the rhetoric of Gvir and Smotrich has emboldened extremists and led to an increase in attacks against Palestinians, particularly from from right-wing groups and Israeli settlers. As of mid-September, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported 216 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank that resulted in injuries, and 582 incidents that resulted in property damage.

CNN asked the IDF for comment on the rise in violence but did not receive a response.

“The settlers made it clear that they wanted to attack us. The general environment is one in which we always feel like we are the next target. And to be honest, we are the next target,” said Diane Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer who lives in Haifa and who previously served as legal adviser to the Palestinian side in peace negotiations.

She said that after the Hamas attacks, hate speech against Palestinians reached new heights. “You hear statements like ‘people are human animals and they need to be finished off,'” she told CNN.

Buttu said that as a Palestinian in Israel, she feels like she is seen as a threat by default. “The only way I won’t be part of the group of humans and animals is if I first denounce (terrorism). I have to prove my humanity to them… but I never ask the Jewish people to denounce settler violence, to denounce these attacks,” she said. “I never ask them to prove that they are not settlers. »

Naim Khoury may experience the feeling of being observed with suspicion. The 39-year-old lawyer, who lives in Haifa, said the consequences of October’s violence are being felt even there, in a city generally seen as a case study of successful coexistence.

“Some people look at us with suspicion now because we are Arabs. And being Arab means being a terrorist,” he told CNN. “But we condemn the terrorists, we condemn everything they have done and we (mourn) every life lost.”

Khoury said he has many friends who serve in the military and police, and yet even they sometimes face similar suspicions.

“In Haifa, we always try to preserve good relations and have this coexistence and so it’s very sad that every time something happens that concerns security, the Jews automatically ask me: ‘What ‘do you think as an Arab, does it suit you?’ “, he said.

Abu Nader has run a small café in the Old City of Jerusalem for 49 years, in the same building where he was born and lived all his life.

Like many Palestinians here, he is a permanent resident of Israel, but not a citizen. He told CNN he was never interested in obtaining citizenship. “Why? Rights? What rights? he told CNN.

Nader has seven children – five daughters and two sons – and 24 grandchildren, some of whom live in other parts of the city, meaning they are sometimes not allowed to come visit. When tensions rise, as is often the case in Jerusalem, Israeli police sometimes restrict access to the Old City, allowing entry only to Palestinians who have a permanent address there or who have passed a certain threshold. age.

Buttu said restrictions on the movements of permanent residents are just one example of discrimination – adding that even those who hold citizenship can be targeted.

Abu Nader was born in the Old City of Jerusalem.  He spent his whole life in the city.  Photographed in his café in the Muslim quarter.

“There are all these laws that directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, including laws that prevent me and others from moving to certain cities,” he said. she said, referring to an Israeli law that allows villages and towns in certain regions to operate “admissions committees.” They have the power to prohibit people from moving in if they are deemed “unsuitable” for the “sociocultural fabric” of the community.

The law was expanded this year and now applies to establishments with 700 households, compared to 400 previously. Adalah, an NGO that focuses on the rights of the Arab minority in Israel, said the expanded version of the law covers 41% of all localities and 80% of the state’s territory.

“As a Palestinian living in this country, your whole existence is either about creating a safe space for yourself where you live and work in an area that you know, where you are safe, where you can speak Arabic, where your political views are known and where you don’t need to measure your words, or you totally assimilate to the other side. Everywhere in between is the space of utter discomfort,” Buttu said. “But even when you fully assimilate, there remains a question mark.”

The coffee Nader serves at his café is strong and very sweet, prepared in cezve, traditional long-necked copper pots.

“Some people call it Turkish coffee, some people call it Jerusalem coffee, Palestinian coffee or Israeli coffee…when I feel like it, I call it Palestinian coffee,” he said, eyeing a spoonful of sugar bubbling from the bottom of the coffee maker. . “When I’m not in the mood, I call it Jerusalem Coffee…to avoid politics”


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