When the Palestinian Authority received non-member observer status in the United Nations, there was great joy in the Arab communities in Judea and Samaria. Fireworks were lit in Ramallah, Qalqilya and Hebron to express euphoria over the diplomatic victory. But in Tira, no one was celebrating.
In the Arab-Israeli city in the heart of the Sharon, the historic event — that transpired exactly 65 years after the Nov. 29, 1947 United Nations resolution of the partition of Palestine — was just another routine day.
“It was a totally normal day, and I can testify to that,” said Tira’s mayor this week, attorney Mamoun Abd al-Hay. “I didn’t feel that there were celebrations. Most of the residents were satisfied, though there were those who felt that the resolution actually harmed the Palestinians. They think that the correct decision is the partition plan from 1947. But my feeling is that most of the public was happy with the United Nations resolution.”
What reason do you have to celebrate? After all, your own city is totally neglected.
“Tira is part of the state of Israel, and the city is in favor of the two-state solution. Therefore, most of the residents are happy. That is not connected to the situation of the city. Tira’s residents are part of the state and of national politics. That is part of our integration in politics.”
War against corruption
Five kilometers [3 miles] separate Kfar Saba city from Tira, an Arab city numbering about 23,000 residents. Although the two cities are only a quarter-hour drive apart, it seems that an entire world separates them. The wealthy, well-kept Kfar Saba boasts a developed industrial zone. The impoverished, neglected Tira suffers from a crime epidemic, dilapidated infrastructure and deficits.
“The state has been making lots of promises over the years,” says Abd al-Hay. “All the prime ministers admit to, and are aware of, the discrimination against us. There’s lots of plans and talk. But in practice, the gaps between the Arab communities (including Tira) and our [Jewish] neighbors, only grow.”
It is enough to pay a visit to the modest town hall in Tira to see the neglect: the relatively new building, erected 20 years ago, has not been renovated since it was built. The walls have long since lost their original color to stains and fingerprints. Two shamefaced carbage cans of Granolite [stucco aggregate] stand near an unsightly metal bench at the entrance to Mamoun’s office, as if they had been plucked from a street corner somewhere. The mayor sits in an office in which the walls are crowded with binders full of building plans.
“It must be understood that in the future, the big problem of the state of Israel will be how to get along with the Arab residents and citizens, especially the youths who will not be willing to settle for the things we settled for,” continues the mayor. “They see the Jewish communities around them developing positively and dynamically, while the Arab communities are collapsing under deficits and suffering from lousy infrastructure.
“What was acceptable to us will not be acceptable to our children. They are exposed to the media, they have Facebook and YouTube. They see what is happening in the world and around them. They have aspirations for the future and they have demands. They want to feel like equal citizens and to experience full equality.”
The heads of the Arab cities can only bring complaints against themselves. Corruption in the local authorities has gone sky-high.
“Fighting corruption is the state’s responsibility. When I was in the opposition I raised many arguments against the way the local authority was run, but no one listened until it collapsed financially. Today, in addition to responsibility for education and infrastructure, I am also supposed to rehabilitate the financial situation of the local authority. This is not an easy job and necessitates much effort and work, thanks to which we succeeded in lowering the deficit from 90 million shekel, to 35 million.
“While it is the state’s responsibility to fight corruption in the Arab sector, that is not the only reason for gaps. To be candid, the large budgets are invested in the large Jewish communities; you can’t compare them to the governmental budgets invested in the Arab communities. That’s not my allegation alone; Israeli governments and neutral bodies have also confessed to this and pointed to the gaps.
“In addition, let us not forget that the socio-economic status of Israeli Arabs is much lower than that of the Jewish sector. All that is because of lack of investment in the educational systems, because there are no industrial zones and planning in the Arab sector. The Jewish work force is preferred over the Arab one, especially in high-quality work. I am not saying anything new. I say that there is discrimination against the Arab sector. This position has been affirmed and authorized by the Israeli governmental system, the courts, the governments; Knesset members admit it. This is discrimination as policy.”
In addition to his challenging work in developing the city, Mamoun is forced to cope with a high level of crime and a police force that does not really function. “There is a connection between socio-economic status and crime, there is a connection between government investment in education, infrastructure and housing, and crime. It is no coincidence that crime is rampant in the Arab sector, not just Tira. Many youths in the sector have lost all hope. They are not integrated in the work force, they can’t build a house and start a family. This situation leads a large proportion of Arab youths in the direction of crime.”
What is the solution?
“Arab residents have to give more to their communities, pay more taxes, but that won’t solve all the problems. The country has to seriously and intensively invest in the educational systems and infrastructures. That is what will bring about essential change, not mere talk. If this won’t happen, the situation will get progressively worse. There will be a big rupture between the Arab population and the state.”
A rupture already took place during the incidents of October 2000, when Arab citizens demonstrated and violently attacked passersby during the Intifada.
“You can’t separate Arab-Israelis from the Palestinian problem. Arab Israelis are Palestinians, they are faithful citizens of the state but at the same time, they are Palestinians. Incidents such as those [in 2000] express a certain anger in the Arab population, especially with reference to their harsh socio-economic backgrounds.
“I am not familiar with even one leader among Arab Israelis who is in favor of disengagement from Israel or changing citizenship to move to another country. The vast majority view themselves as citizens and residents of the state and want to integrate and become part of the country.”
We have no tools
Mamoun Abd al-Hay, 41, was born in Tira. His father, Tarek, was a mythological mayor for many years, and passed away two weeks before the 1993 elections. Mamoun, a graduate of Tel Aviv University law studies and recipient of a master’s degree from Bar Ilan University, followed in his father’s footsteps and entered politics in 1998. In 2008, he won the elections for town mayor on an independent list.
In contrast to Arab Knesset members who oppose government policy in principle and express extreme and provocative opinions, Abd al-Hay is more of an “establishment” person, responsible for his town’s development. While politicians such as [MK]Ahmad Tibi and [MK] Haneen Zoabi enthusiastically support the Palestinian struggle, Abd al-Hay depends on the various government ministries, on public grants and assistance from the state. For this reason, he is forced to be part of the Israeli establishment.
“I am familiar with the criticism of the Arab MKs [Knesset members],” he says when asked if the Arab Knesset members represent him. “You have to understand that the Arab MKs have no tools with which to serve the Arab population, because the power is in the hands of the government. So sometimes they make statements that are detrimental to coexistence, but in principle all the Arab MKs back the two-state solution. This is the correct solution to us as part of the state, and as part of the Palestinian nation.”
What is your position regarding the struggle being waged by MK Danny Danon against Hanin Zoabi?
“Danny knows that this is the way to attract a certain audience in the Jewish population, that’s why he is waging a struggle against Haneen Zoabi and some of the Arab MKs. That improves and upgrades his position in the Likud, just like some Arab MKs make proclamations out of the hope of improving their positions in the Arab population. In general, this is a legitimate debate.”
Are you in touch with the Arab communities in the territories?
“We have connections with all the communities in the West Bank. Look, just this week I received an invitation from the Qalqilya municipality to come and check out options for cooperation in the business sphere.”
Do you recommend that Jews come to visit Qalqilya?
“No. Nowadays there is quiet in the territories, but there are those who would be willing to violate this lull. So long as there is no peace agreement, it is not correct [for Jews] to enter the communities in the West Bank.”
During my interview with Abd al-Hay, the room is penetrated by the sound of the muezzin call to prayer. While the power of religious movements has been strengthening in Tira as in many other Arab communities in Israel, Abd al-Hay does not believe that his city will become an Islamic community like Umm el-Fahem city.
“The Islamic parties are part of Israeli politics, like the religious parties in the Jewish sector. But out of 14 council members, the Islamic movement has only one representative. In the city itself, they maintain their strength, but there are other religious council members. In Umm el-Fahem, the mayor is from the Islamic movement. By us, the representation is from the Southern Islamic movement that is represented in the Knesset and accepts the rules of the Israeli political game.”
Are you concerned that another Intifada will break out?
“Yes. Continuation of the government’s policy will lead to a [violence] outbreak on the part of Arab Israelis, not for nationalistic reasons but due to the demands of the youths for equal rights. My worry is that the Israeli Arab Spring will erupt out of the demand for equal rights.”
We can’t conclude the interview without talking about the most famous Tira figure of all — Sayed Kashua [author and journalist].
“I love his criticism. He passes judgment against Jewish society in an interesting way. Some of the Arabs don’t like his criticism of us. He challenges the discourse within the Arab and Jewish populations.”