On June 24, 1987, the Palestinian Arab community of Israel conducted a successful countrywide general strike. The “Equality Day” strike was called by the National Committee of Arab Local Council Heads (NCALCH) to demand an end to all forms of racial discrimination against the nearly 700,000 Palestinian Arab citizens who constitute 17 percent of the population within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. As a result of its leadership of the strike, the NCALCH has emerged with enhanced authority as the representative of the entire Palestinian Arab community of Israel.
The strike’s main demand was that the Ministry of Interior, which allocates budgets for all local councils and municipalities, assign funds to Jewish and Arab local authorities on an equal per capita basis. Most of Israel’s Arab population lives in purely Arab settlements: three cities (Nazareth, Shafa ‘Amr and Umm al-Fahm) and nearly 100 villages, about half of which have elected local councils. A small minority lives in six “mixed cities” (Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, Lydda, Ramla, Acre) which are overwhelmingly Jewish. The Jewish and mixed local authorities typically receive four to six times more funds per capita from the Ministry of Interior than Arab local authorities.
Arab local authorities face large budget deficits which leave them unable to meet payrolls or provide an adequate level of services. Several Arab localities have organized annual work camps to carry out municipal development projects on a voluntary basis. Only 11 Arab local authorities have an office of social services, despite the 1958 law mandating all municipalities and local councils to maintain one. Roads, water supply and sewage disposal services are far below the standards maintained in Jewish communities. Municipal cultural, sports and youth programs are minimal. No Arab locality has a public swimming pool, a standard amenity in Jewish localities.
A second major strike demand was for jobs. The national unemployment rate is now 5.6 percent, but it is several percentage points higher for Arabs. The reasons are the historic policy of preferential hiring of Jews and the virtual exclusion of Arabs from employment in the leading sector of the Israeli economy, the military-industrial complex, on security grounds. When the mainly peasant population that remained in Israel after 1948 began to enter the urban wage labor force in large numbers in the 1960s, they filled positions at the bottom of the wage scale as Jews moved into higher paying jobs. For the past two years, new jobs for Arab workers have been limited. There has been virtually no economic growth in Israel since mid-1985, when soaring inflation forced the government to cut back the public sector sharply.
These cuts hit education especially hard. The Ministry of Education admitted several years ago that there was a shortage of 1,200 classrooms in Arab localities. Then 200 new classrooms were built, but this year the ministry proposed to build only 60 new classrooms. The strike demanded more new school construction, especially technical schools. Of Israel’s 45 vocational-technical schools only two (Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm) are in Arab localities. Arabs constitute 10 percent of all teachers nationwide, but according to some estimates Arabs make up as much as 20 percent of all those who have been dismissed due to the lack of funds to pay salaries.
In an effort to raise new funds for hard-pressed universities, the Ministry of Education last spring proposed higher tuition fees for university students who are not veterans of the Israeli armed forces. This means Palestinian Arabs, since only a small minority of the Arab community — primarily Druzes and Bedouins — serves in the military. In a bold though rare victory for liberal principle, all the university administrations rejected this proposal. The issue served as the immediate backdrop of Equality Day.
On September 1, the first day of the school year, Palestinian students and teachers reaffirmed their commitment to the struggle for equal education by holding a one-day general strike.
Although the minister responsible for Arab affairs, Moshe Arens, tried to dismiss Equality Day as “communist incitement,” it was broadly supported throughout the Palestinian Arab community by partisans of all political tendencies. The leadership displayed an impressive capacity for organization, discipline and unity. In order to avoid provocations to violence, there were no mass rallies or public meetings on the day of the strike. This gave the impression of a low level of militancy, but the orderly conduct of the strike made its demands more compelling and elevated the stature of its leadership. Many leading Jewish politicians in the government and Histadrut (trade union federation) gave at least verbal support to the strike.
Equality Day did achieve at least one immediate result: The government announced it would direct additional funds to Arab local authorities. This concession constituted de facto government recognition of the National Committee of Arab Local Council Heads as the leading representative body of the Palestinian Arab community in Israel.
In the long run, the consolidation of a countrywide leadership comprising members of all the political parties from Labor to the Communists may be the strike’s most significant achievement. The National Committee was established in 1975 after the Communist Party (Rakah) won an absolute majority in the Nazareth municipal elections and Tawfiq Zayyad became the first Communist mayor — Arab or Jew — in Israel (or anywhere else in the Middle East).
In the background of the Communist victory in Nazareth was the increased national consciousness of Israel’s Arab community as a result of their contact with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the PLO after 1967. The Communists have commanded 35 to 45 percent of the vote in Nazareth since the first Knesset elections of 1949. Their breakthrough to majority status in Israel’s largest Arab city inspired an upsurge in political mobilization, a new sense of militancy and improved political organization. This was reflected in the Land Day general strike of March 30, 1976. (Land Day was organized by the National Committee in Defense of the Land, to protest expropriation of Palestinian land; six Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in the demonstrations.)
The Communist Party, building on the momentum of the Nazareth municipal election victory and its leadership of the Land Day protest, established the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE) as a Jewish-Arab electoral front to contest the 1977 Knesset elections. The NCALCH became an important component of the DFPE. The Front won a majority of the Arab vote and NCALCH chairperson Hanna Mois won a seat in the Knesset on the DFPE list. The DFPE, in which the Communist Party is the dominant element, thus emerged as the leading force in the Palestinian Arab community.
The current head of the NCALCH is the mayor of Shafa ‘Amr, Ibrahim Nimr Husayn, a political independent whose effective leadership is widely respected. The Communists, who tend to exercise leadership in an exclusionary and undemocratic manner, have functioned here responsibly and in cooperation with their rivals. The policy of decision by consensus has kept political differences under control.
Workers and Intelligentsia
In preparing the Equality Day general strike, the NCALCH invited all Arab Knesset members, members of the Histadrut Executive Committee, representatives of the Committee in Defense of the Land, and the national federations of Arab secondary and university students to meet. In this way, all elected Arab leaders with a national constituency were brought into the decision-making processes of planning the strike. The NCALCH also convened subcommittees to deal with specific areas such as health, education and economic development. It drew on the talents of the Arab intelligentsia to prepare proposals and present the government with independent statistical analyses. Thus the NCALCH has begun to function as a semi-official parliament for the Palestinian Arabs of Israel.
Underlying the continuity of the leading role of the Communists from Land Day to Equality Day are important social changes in the Arab community which have, in turn, affected its political development. The proletarianization of the Palestinian peasantry has continued. There is still a fairly rigid ethnic and national division of labor in the Israeli economy in which the most privileged positions are occupied by Ashkenazi Jews. Nonetheless, Arab citizens have become a more permanent and stable part of the wage labor force. Their labor power is critical in agriculture, construction and many services. Food processing and textile industries also contain high concentrations of Arab workers, including a growing number of women. The temporary and casual labor which Palestinian citizens of Israel used to perform in the 1950s and 1960s is now done largely by Palestinians from the occupied territories who have no civil and political rights and are not members of the Histadrut.
The growth and stabilization of the Palestinian working class from within Israel has increased its self-confidence and capacity for political struggle. Many workers have long supported the Communist Party which, in addition to its consistent struggle against national oppression, championed their right to join the Histadrut (achieved in 1959 but implemented only in 1965 when Arabs voted in Histadrut elections for the first time) and for equal wages and working conditions. Other Palestinian workers, especially those dependent on the kibbutzim and the Histadrut for their employment, tend to support the Labor Party or Mapam.
Even the Palestinian Arabs of the Labor Party are now more assertive than in the past. The military government, which controlled the daily lives of Israel’s Arab population until 1966, was kept in place with the help of the votes of Arab Knesset members linked to Mapai (precursor of Labor) and Mapam. Mapai relied on traditional leaders, like the landed magnate Sayf al-Din al-Zu‘bi, who delivered the votes of his clients in Nazareth and surrounding villages in exchange for personal political influence and prestige. Al-Zu‘bi and others like him did not dream of demanding equal rights for the Arab population. In 1976, only two or three non-Communist local council heads dared to support the Land Day general strike.
By contrast, all of the local council heads, including those associated with the Labor Party, supported the Equality Day strike. ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Darawsha, a Labor Knesset member, has made headlines by calling for negotiations between Israel and the PLO and attempting to attend a meeting of the Palestinian National Council. Al-Darawsha gave his support to Equality Day, as did Mapam Knesset member Muhammad Watad. This indicates a broad mobilization of the Palestinian Arab community that has affected many people beyond the ranks of the supporters of the Communist Party or the DFPE.
Along with the growth of the Palestinian working class, there has also been a significant expansion of the ranks of the intelligentsia. University education is no longer a rarity in many villages. Kafr Qara‘, a village of 6,000 in the Triangle region, has 200 university graduates, many of them alumni of Israeli institutions. University graduates have assumed important political roles in many villages, challenging both the traditional leadership of clan chiefs and the status of the Communist Party as the preeminent fighter for Arab rights. Organizations like the Sons of the Village and the Progressive Movement (the Arab component of the Jewish-Arab Progressive List for Peace), as well as several smaller local organizations, draw their support largely from the young educated middle strata.
Many young members of the intelligentsia have adopted a militant nationalist orientation. The Sons of the Village, for example, have called for Arabs to boycott Israeli Knesset (but not local) elections. The Progressive Movement, unencumbered by the class content of the Communist Party line and its uncritical support for the Soviet Union, sharply challenged the Communists in the 1984 Knesset elections, forcing the Communists to compete for nationalist legitimacy.
There is also an opposite tendency towards greater integration into Israeli society. This is represented by the extraordinary achievements of a privileged few in the world of arts and letters, such as novelist Anton Shamas, television journalist Rafiq Halabi and actor Muhammad Bakri. Shamas’ novel, Arabesques, created a sensation when it appeared two years ago because it expresses, in exceptionally eloquent Hebrew, Shamas’ demand to be accepted as a Palestinian Arab into full membership in Israeli society. This individual demand for integration may ultimately pose just as radical a challenge to Israeli society as the militance of the mass movement for equality, because it would require a total reconceptualization of the content of the term "Israeli," transforming it into a territorial-national identity which could be shared by both Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of the state.
The Palestinian Arab intelligentsia does not suffer more from discrimination than the workers; the opposite is probably the case. But they are more likely to feel entitled to equality and more able to express their demands articulately to an Israeli Jewish audience. Despite their qualifications, only a relatively few individuals can find work appropriate to their training. If they do, it is likely to be outside their villages. In the overwhelmingly Jewish cities they are daily subjected to all forms of petty discrimination, abuse and even physical danger.
The citizenship rights of the Arabs residing inside Israel do impose some restraints on how they are treated. Often, however, these restraints are purely formal, as illustrated by the violent attack on Arab residents of the Ramat Amidar neighborhood in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. About 100 Arabs, both workers and students in the nearby Bar Ilan University, had been living in Ramat Amidar for years. During the same week as Equality Day, following a quarrel in the street between Jews and Arabs, some Jews broke into an apartment shared by several Arab workers, smashed furniture and threw one of the Arabs out the second-story window. The next night the Jews returned and set the apartment ablaze. The Arab residents, fearing for their lives, abandoned their apartments.
This incident attracted much comment in the Israeli media, and there were two small protest demonstrations near Ramat Amidar. The more that the Jewish residents of Ramat Amidar insisted that this incident was simply a neighbors’ quarrel and that they were not racists, the more apparent it became that this was one more episode marking the increasing acceptability of unvarnished racism and racially inspired violence in broader sectors of Israeli Jewish society (“but the Arabs have to know their place and not try to date Jewish women”).
The Ramat Amidar incidents highlight the dilemma Israeli society faces regarding its Palestinian Arab citizens. The Arab working class and intelligentsia, despite considerable obstacles, in fact now participate more fully in the Israeli economy and society. Legally they are fully entitled to do so; in practice they have historically been confined to their village ghettos. Their achievements have simultaneously spurred Arab demands for equality and greater opportunity and, at the same time, a vicious Jewish backlash.
The prospect of intensified apartheid does not disturb those such as the perpetrators of the Ramat Amidar attacks. But it is deeply troubling to Israelis who like to believe they live in a liberal society. If Arabs have the right to live in Ramat Amidar, why do they not also have the right to live in a moshav or kibbutz, to establish an Arab university in Nazareth, to own a factory employing Jews, to become a cabinet minister? Even liberal Israelis are sometimes reluctant to accept changes which they regard as a threat to the Jewish character of the state. Moreover, if the Arab citizens of Israel achieve full civil rights and equality, this will intensify the demand for national rights, and is bound to have an impact on the struggle for Palestinian self-determination both within and beyond the borders of pre-1967 Israel.