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No Sidelining Arab-Israelis Over Raid On Aid Flotilla

SAKHNIN, Israel, Jun 3 2010 (IPS) - Normally, in this non-descript sleepy Arab town in Galilee, TV sets are tuned to Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiyya, the round-the-clock Arabic networks.

Thursday afternoon, all eyes were on Israeli Channels One, Two and Ten. As part of their blanket coverage of the flotilla fiasco, all three Hebrew channels were live in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Pandemonium reigned. The plenum was like a boat engulfed by stormy seas.

Jewish and Arab lawmakers traded accusations, threats, and nearly came to blows. The focus of the row was Arab legislator Hanin Zuabi. She was mercilessly heckled by right-wing members for having taken part in the ‘End the Gaza Siege’ flotilla.

“Go to Gaza, you traitor,” said one. “You’ve no right to be called an MK (Member of Knesset) because you spilled the blood of other Israelis,” yelled another. One inflammatory statement followed another, and not just from right-wing nationalist Jews.

Knesset guards surrounded the Arab-Israeli MK for fear someone would try to cause her bodily harm.

The shouting grew more intense when Arab lawmakers took to the podium themselves. “A gang of pirates,” was Muhammad Barakeh’s description of the Israeli government. “You’re crazy. You swim against the world, and harm your nation, driving it down the drain.”

After no fewer than 10 legislators had been thrown out of the plenum, Mansour, one of the TV viewers here, murmured, “Maybe all 120 MKs should be expelled and the Knesset dissolved. Anyway, this country is heading towards fascism.”

Usually the Arab-Israeli minority finds itself on the sidelines of intense national debates. As reflected in the mayhem of the Knesset “debate”, they are now part of the ruckus – perhaps only to push them further to the sidelines.

The regular charges of disloyalty against the Arab-Israeli community by right-wing, ultra-nationalist Jews threaten to spread to the silent majority of Jewish Israelis.

“We’re all Hanin Zuabis,” said Wafa, a women’s rights activist. “Only she had the courage to act to help the children of Gaza.”

It was a pretty uniform feeling among the TV watchers, here at Abu Ali hummus (popular dish made with chick-peas) restaurant-turned-Knesset public gallery – very distinct for the pervasive feeling among Jewish Israelis who are, by and large, falling in line behind their government’s insistence on Israel’s right to keep the Gaza siege in force as “self-defence”.

In contrast to the criticism among their Jewish compatriots, which is only confined to the modus operandi of the botched operation, the trenchant criticism among Arabs is directed at the government’s primary decision to intercept the Free Gaza flotilla by force.

“It was a blunder to try to stop the ship anyway, but once they opted for force, it was a disaster waiting to happen,” says Ahmad, a school teacher. “They’re supposed always to be so smart, this army. They could’ve thrown a cordon around the ships, and just waited for an agreement that Israel inspect the aid ships to make sure there were no guns on board.”

Across town at city hall, Mayor Mazen Ghnaim took up the theme: “Until Israeli governments come to the realisation that it’s a changed world, that you can’t get what you want by pure use of force, I’m pessimistic. Still, I believe this is not how the majority of Israeli Jews feel. The problem is we have no leadership in this country.

“The situation that has developed since this confrontation at sea has been crying out for a major bold diplomatic initiative. Now is the time for someone to say out loud what’s inevitable: Implement the two-state solution along the 1967 lines. Overnight, the conflict will evaporate.

“We should be saying ‘woe betide anyone who chooses violently to challenge the support of the entire international community for those borders. I’d be ready myself to fight anyone, even my Palestinian brothers, were they to disrupt such a peace deal.

“But where’s the leader big enough?”

It is early days yet, and the focus is still on how to take the heat out of the global outcry against Israel with an acceptable solution on how to determine what exactly happened aboard the ‘Mavi Marmara’.

And, how to handle the burning question: What will be the fate of the million-and-a-half Palestinians in Gaza if Israel is allowed to go on with the siege?

“‘Minak l’Allah’ – from you to God,” says Ghazal Abu Raya, the Mayor’s top aide.

Not so much to God, but to Barack Obama, they are saying here.

“A grand plan maybe?” says restaurateur Ibrahim, distributing another round of bitter coffee to the TV watchers at Abu Ali’s. “Now that we’ve hit rock bottom, has Obama got the courage to deliver?”

“I’m encouraged,” says Mahmoud. “Let’s switch to Al-Jazeera. I’ve been listening on radio to what’s happening at the Arab League. The Americans simply won’t let the Egyptians, the Saudis and the Jordanians let Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] walk away from the talks they’ve taken so long getting Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] back to the table.”

“I reckon we can afford another three months to see whether Obama is serious enough or not,” concludes Mahmoud.

Meanwhile, the concern is on the fate of the Arab and left-wing Jewish Israelis who were in the flotilla with Zuabi. At first, there was a threat that the authorities would throw the book at them with harsh sentences. On Thursday, following the expulsion of all the foreign activists, talk turned to their release.

The attorney-general has informed the government that charges against the Israelis would not stand up in the High Court which has been petitioned not to discriminate between Israeli dissenters and the foreign nationals who took part in the “Free Gaza” mission.

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