Thursday, December 23, 2004

Israeli apartheid

Anti-Arab discrimination in Israel:

Adel Kaadan is standing by the side of a potholed road surrounded by puddles of sewage. "Can you smell it now?" he asks. "My children have to pass this way every day on their way to their classes.

"When I took my eldest daughter for her first day at school I saw that the roof was stuffed with asbestos."

We are walking around Baqa al-Gharbiyah, an Arab town in northern Israel about an hour's drive from Tel Aviv.

As head nurse at a nearby hospital Mr Kaadan is well aware of the health risks in his hometown. But it is not just the rubbish, the asbestos and the sewage - the whole place reeks of neglect.

In one neighbourhood the streets end abruptly with a wall of concrete and barbed wire - Baqa is sliced in half by Israel's new security fence.

"There's nothing to do here - no cinemas, no swimming pool, hardly any sports facilities. So most young people either turn to Islamic fundamentalism or start taking drugs," says Mr Kaadan.

It is not the kind of place he wants to raise his four daughters, aged four to 15, so for almost a decade he has been fighting for the right to move to a Jewish community a few miles away on heavily subsidised, state-owned land.

Things are very different on the Jewish side of the fence:

Katzir is a gated suburban paradise, perched on a hilltop. It was set up in 1982 by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency as a bulwark against the surrounding Israeli Arab villages in the valley below.

Resident Gila Levy takes me on a tour of the tidy streets and immaculate gardens filled with brightly coloured flowers.

She boasts that Katzir is a cosmopolitan place and shows me dozens of new houses built by families from as far afield as Argentina and the former Soviet Union.

Then she takes me to a spot with breathtaking views.

"On a clear day you can see the Mediterranean and at night you can see the green lights and hear the calls to prayer from all the mosques down there," she says.

"I like that. It gives this place a very special atmosphere".

But although Gila is happy to live next to Arabs, she doesn't want them to share her community. She says many other residents feel the same way.

Apparently Israelis feel that Arabs should live with their own kind:

Adel Kaadan first heard about Katzir in 1995 after a Hebrew language newspaper advertised for new residents.

"I went up there to find out more and at first people were friendly because they knew me from the hospital in Hadera - they were ex-patients of mine," he says.

"But when they found out that I wanted to buy a plot of land, their behaviour changed. Some of them became very hostile. It felt like a slap in the face".

At first the Katzir council simply dismissed Mr Kaadan as "socially unsuitable".

When pressed on his reasons for opposing the application, Mayor Yacoov Armor says he doesn't believe that Mr Kaadan or his family really want to integrate with Jews.

"Why would a Muslim want to observe Jewish holidays or send his children to our schools? He just wants to destroy our community by destroying our rules," he says.

Mr Kaadan, a secular Muslim, insists he doesn't mind if his children observe Jewish customs and holidays so long as they get a decent education.

A court ruling in Kaadan's favor allowed him to buy land in Katzir but now the Israelis want to change the law to make it illegal for other Arabs to do so:

Earlier this month some members of the Knesset tried to introduce a new bill which would circumvent the Supreme Court verdict and once again allow for exclusively Jewish communities on state land.

The bill was narrowly defeated and the former Justice Minister Tommy Lapid said he opposed it because "it smelled of apartheid".

So on paper Mr Kaadan remains the winner. In practice though bureaucrats are dragging their feet. There is still no lease and he hasn't started building his house.

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