"But They're Arab!"

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Entering Ben Gurion International Airport is the first.

The airport’s immigration booths are no different to any other in the world, except for those who fit a racial or political profile considered undesirable by Israeli authorities. In a corner to the right in the giant immigration hall is an easily unnoticed room where those who do not immediately receive a visa are asked to wait while they are processed by three separate authorities: immigration, police, and finally, for those deemed most sensitive, Israeli intelligence.

The last time I entered Israel in September 2005, I was detained for over eight hours, interviewed thrice and strip searched. My parents in Australia were telephoned and the security officer who conducted the third interview refused to accept that I was employed by the Australian Government until, as luck would have it, I chanced upon a business card in my wallet and gave it to him. He proceeded to ask me a series of very personal questions, albeit in a polite and professional manner, including whether I was a religious Muslim.

Israel’s aversion is not limited to Australians. A common feature of those detained is ethnicity. According to Adalah, a respected Arab-Israeli human rights organisation, most of the people detained at Ben Gurion are Arab. My own experiences so far confirm this.

When I reached Ben Gurion two weeks ago I was again told to wait in the corner room. Next to me were an old man and his son from Jordan and a woman and her daughter from Carolina in the United States. "I come [regularly]to visit family in Ramallah," explained the old man. "Each time, they keep me here for hours. All I want is to visit my family." The woman from Carolina complained of similar experiences. She is married to a Palestinian man.

The situation is no better for Arab-Israelis. These are the Palestinians and their descendants who were fortunate enough not to be ethnically cleansed from the lands Israel now inhabits. To this day they experience discrimination on a daily basis, something I was reminded of during a conversation with a friend.

In Jerusalem I spoke to Manal Hazzan, an Arab-Israeli lawyer whom I originally met at the University of London last year. Manal lives in Arnona, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood close to predominantly Palestinian east Jerusalem. Arnona was one of the areas occupied by Israel after the 1967 war (it had been under Jordanian control prior to that). After 1967 the Palestinian population was expelled from Arnona, but there remain constant reminders of these previous occupants.

"You can’t escape history," explained Manal. "You will find older houses with Arabic writing and the year it was built. No one denies that Arabs used to live there… when [Jewish occupants] leave the house they advertise it as an Arab house: it’s classic, it’s got an old style – in terms of the building. They don’t deny that these are Arab houses. They simply do not think the Arabs should be there."

When Manal first enquired about the property she is currently renting in Arnona, the landlord assumed she was Jewish. "She refused to acknowledge that we are Arab."

I asked Manal why she thought this.

"First of all, I still have an [Arabic] accent, even though I’m fluent in Hebrew. But in this country many people have an accent. Many Jews immigrate from abroad to this country. So she wasn’t sure what accent I have. But when I told her my name, which is a completely Arabic name, she told me ‘Oh, that’s a very strange name.’"

"I told her I work in an office in Jaffa Gate, which in Jerusalem’s Old City, a Palestinian area. So you have my name, you have me working in a Palestinian area, and my accent. And still she doesn’t get it."

But Manal wanted the landlord to understand that she and her husband are Arab. "If she doesn’t want to rent it to Arabs I want to know it in advance in order for me to move onto another place and not lose the time."

"I told her I’m from Nazareth, which is an Arab town." Instead, the landlord mistook Nazareth for the Jewish town of Mevaseret. "In her mind she refused to hear me say I come from Nazareth. I told her it’s not Mevaseret, it’s Nazareth and her response was ‘Ah, why didn’t you say so?’ even though that was what I had been saying all along!"

It was only after the landlord spoke to her son that she decided to rent the property to Manal and her husband.

"She told me, ‘I spoke to my son, I told him I have a high-quality couple here. But they are Arab. What should I do?’" According to Manal, the landlord was implored by her son to rent the property to the Arab couple because, "they are a minority. You should support them."

Despite this, the landlord does not permit Manal or her husband to put their names on their entrance door or pay their body corporate fees directly. She gave Manal a blunt justification for this.

"She told me, ‘I don’t want anyone to know you’re Arab. I don’t want anyone to know I rented the flat out to Arabs.’ I told her, ‘I’m not going to hide my identity.’ She said, ‘No, no you don’t have to hide.’ I said, ‘Okay, I want to put my name on the door.’ She said, ‘No, no, not that.’"

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel noted in its 2007 Annual Report that such anti-Arab incidents had increased by 26 per cent in the past year. Over 60 per cent of Jewish respondents to a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute said they support the idea that the state should encourage Arab emigration from Israel while, in another poll conducted by the Institute, 78 per cent opposed the inclusion of Arab political parties in the government.

A Haifa University study found that 74 per cent of Jewish youths in Israel think that Arabs are "unclean". Such depressing figures further illustrate how racism in the territories is far from being eradicated.

Mustafa Qadri will be reporting for newmatilda.com from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian
Territories
over the next
two months. He will be documenting the human cost of the conflict for ordinary
Israelis and Palestinians.

New Matilda

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