Monday, 10 September 2001

Suicide bomb dismays Arab citizens of Israel

By Matthew Kalman

USA TODAY 10 September 2001

DEIR HANNA, Israel - The shock waves of Sunday's suicide bombing in a train station in northern Israel were being felt Monday by the million or more Palestinian Arabs who are Israeli citizens.

Initial reports said the terrorist who blew himself up in Nahariya, killing three off-duty Israeli soldiers and injuring dozens more, was 48-year-old Muhammed Shaker Habashi, from the village of Abu Snan, about 30 miles from here in the Galilee, the northern part of Israel.

Israeli Arab leaders and organizations lined up Monday to denounce the attack. "It's very serious," said Shawki Khatib, chairman of the Israeli Arab Leadership Monitoring Committee, which represents Israel's Arab citizens. "We condemn such people, and we spit them out - not only those who carry out such attacks, but even those who think in this direction."

Khatib and other Israeli Arab leaders warn against concluding that Sunday's attack indicated a new extremist tendency within their community. "This does not indicate a trend and it is not a turning point," said Abdel Malik Dahamshe, one of 10 Arab members elected to the Knesset, Israel's 120-seat parliament. "We have proven ourselves for 53 years. We don't need to prove afresh twice each day that we are citizens."

Israeli observers said Sunday's suicide bombing has generated greater concern throughout the country that the attack by one of their own will add a dangerous new dimension to the 11-month conflict. Writing in Monday's daily Ma'ariv, Israeli commentator Chemi Shalev said, "For much of the public, a suicide bomber from among the Israeli Arabs is a nightmare that has come true."

Relations between Israel's Jewish majority and Arab minority have always been complex. From the founding of the Jewish state in 1948 until 1966, Israeli Arabs lived under military rule. The Druse, members of a religion that grew out of Islam centuries ago but that Muslims no longer recognize as part of Islam, make up about 10% of Israeli Arabs. Christians represent 12%-15% of the Arab citizens. All have long complained of discrimination by the Jewish majority. Despite recent attempts to bridge the gap, Arab Israeli communities suffer from a deficiency of health, welfare, education and transport services.

Palestinian activists had been largely unsuccessful, until lately, in their attempts to exploit the feelings of alienation among Israeli Arabs. Despite feelings of solidarity with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, who often are relatives, Israeli Arabs have been absent from any active role in the recent intifada, or uprising, that has claimed more than 700 lives, most of them Palestinians.

However, with the rise of the extreme religious Islamic movement in the past decade, these feelings have shifted toward political activity on behalf of the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Fundamentalist Muslim groups are trying to enlist young Palestinians to fight and even sacrifice themselves for their cause: an independent Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel. For the first time, observers say, it appears their message is reaching inside Israel to Arab citizens.

"This confers legitimacy on those on the Jewish side who recently began to claim that Israeli Arabs are a fifth column," said Elie Rekhess, a professor of Israeli Arab politics at Tel Aviv University, alluding to a group within a society that helps the enemy.

Thirteen Israeli Arabs were shot dead by Israeli police during a wave of riots in northern Israel last October. The unrest died down after a few days. Since then, Israeli Arabs have been largely quiet, especially after the Israeli government set up an official commission of inquiry into last year's riots. In Deir Hanna, Sunday's suicide bombing hit especially hard. The village's 15,000 Muslims, Christians and Druse were still reeling from the arrests Thursday of four local 16-year-olds on suspicion of planting a bomb at a major intersection 3 miles away.

Israeli security officials say they believe the teens were recruited by a Fatah group loyal to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Jenin. Two of the teens have confessed, Israeli police and their Israeli Arab lawyer say.

But Rasmiyeh Khatib, whose nephew is among the teen suspects under arrest, said Israeli Arabs are good citizens. "We are loyal to the state. We don't want problems. My nephew is a good boy who was led astray. I'm sure he didn't know what he was doing. They played with his head."

In Abu Snan, home to the suspected suicide bomber Habashi, there was outrage that the village could should have produced a terrorist. Most residents are Druse. The highest-ranking Druse soldier in the country, Maj. Gen. Yusef Mishlev, comes from the village.

Sheik Mohanna, the local Druse leader whose son died fighting for the Israeli army in Lebanon, expressed the shock of his community. "Abu Snan has given its best sons for the sake of the country. We are in trauma here in the village. Such people have no place amongst us, none."

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