Galilee stirs controversy
From the day of its creation, the state of Israel has developed a fear of the demographic issue. There’s hardly any discourse on Jewish-Arab relations where demography doesn’t play a central role. There’s hardly a discussion of Jewish settlements in the Galilee and Negev where the genie of demography doesn’t assert itself — how many Jews versus how many Arabs. If it’s found that the margin of Jews is high, a sigh of relief is heard. If the margin of Arabs is high, a warning siren is heard.
One can understand and identify with the reasons that, from its first day, Israel had adopted the policy of “the Jewish majority.” The long history of the Jewish people as a persecuted minority has bred a determination to change this situation, to guarantee Jews security in their new/old country. Accordingly, the young nation prepared itself to absorb Jews — as many as possible. Its leaders spared no effort and no resources to make sure that a large gap would remain among Jews and Arabs in the country.
During my many years as a journalist, I have written much on the Galilee and the Negev as part of my work on the towns of the periphery. In the periphery are the development towns, the social and economic distress, the other Israel. But this is also where most Arabs live in Israel.
Any time I tried to understand the reason for the decline in status of the periphery as opposed to the center of the country, the question of demography and the fear that the Arab population will overtake Jewish settlement were raised. Everyone warned about Arab demography. The tone of the words gained urgency when the future of the Galilee was discussed. Since the establishment of the state, the number of Jews in the Galilee has been almost the same as the number of Arabs, and there are some who say that the numbers even lean toward Arabs. That’s the reason why Israeli governments, left and right alike, have not spared resources to change the course of the sensitive pendulum.
Billions of shekels have been allocated to the construction of new localities in the Galilee alongside the bolstering of existing towns. The city of Karmiel was established in the 1960s to prevent Arab territorial continuity. Exceptional benefits were offered to the Jewish population that would deign to move from the center of the country to Karmiel. At the same time, Acre, the mixed city, turned into a strategic goal of Israeli governments. New Jewish neighborhoods were frequently built to maintain the demographic advantage of Jewish residents.
It is not only the demographic issue that incites dread. A territorial continuity of Arab settlement also sparks fears among decision-makers in Israel. One can’t understand the harsh policy toward Bedouin and Arab settlement in the Galilee, and to a great extent, the establishment of West Bank settlements at the very spots where they were erected, without taking into account the fear of an Arab territorial continuity. Accordingly, when the policy of Judaizing the Galilee was announced in the early 1980s, the new hilltop villages established on the ground had two purposes: to strengthen the Jewish presence and put a wedge in the area that would break up Arab territorial continuity.
Recently, the Judaizing of the Galilee once again made headlines following the government’s decision to establish new localities that would add to existing localities. This time, as well, the task was put to the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization. For years this unit has served as the long arm of the government of Israel. The mandate of the division gives it responsibility for land, development and the implementation of the government’s construction plans, within the Green Line and outside of it. Like the defense budget, most of which is unknown to the public, the budget of the settlement division is also not disclosed, and most of its beneficiaries are confidential.
One fact is undisputed: The official and authorized budget of the division does not reflect its actual budget. In 2011 the Knesset authorized a budget of about 62 million shekels ($17.6 million). Actually, 373 million shekels ($106 million) were transferred to it, about 500% of the original budget. Last year, as well, the division exceeded its authorized budget by 300%. Responses to the renewed plan came swiftly. “This is the continuation of the 1980s demographic war against the Arab population,” protested Knesset member Hanna Swaid, a resident of the Galilee and a planning expert by training. “This step is not a planning move, but part of a battle over land.”
Haaretz devoted a Dec. 2 editorial to the “Judaizing” of the Galilee. “This program must be scrapped immediately,” it wrote. “Israeli sovereignty over the Galilee is not being questioned in any way. Whether most of the residents are Jews or Arabs, every resident of the Galilee is a citizen of the state and must be treated as such. … The state’s sovereignty over its lands needs no “reinforcement.” What is in desperate need of reinforcement, however, is the egalitarian, non-racist, nondiscriminatory character of the state. The government must develop the Negev and the Galilee for all its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike.”
What was surprising this time, in a good way, was the response to the plan from some of the heads of Jewish localities in the Galilee. They demanded that the construction and development include Jewish and Arab localities alike. It seems that solidarity in the field has overcome demography and created a unified and unexpected front. The mayor of Safed, Ilan Shohat, said that the plan is wrongheaded, and expressed concern that in the name of strengthening localities it would cause a weakening of all peripheral settlements.
Knesset members have also expressed concern about the plan. “The strengthening of the Galilee and its Jewish and Arab residents could succeed only by strengthening existing localities and not establishing new localities,” said Knesset member Eitan Cabel of Labor, and demanded to convene the Committee for Internal Affairs and the Environment to discuss the plan.
In the last few years discordant voices have been heard in the Galilee that have threatened to unravel the common fabric of life between Jews and Arabs. One example was provided by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed, who forbade the letting of flats to Arabs in his city and in the rest of the Galilee. The rabbi, who recently lost in the campaign for the office of chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, claimed, “The mentality and the style of Arabs drive away the Jews who live in their neighborhoods. We in Safed are fighting to prevent this.”
This statement, backed by dozens of rabbis across the country, stirred up a storm inside and outside the Knesset. Many public figures demanded that he be prosecuted for incitement and racism. After a long examination, the attorney general decided not to charge him, claiming that the rabbi’s words were misunderstood.
That uproar has been forgotten. But it may not be for long. If the new hilltop villages plan will be implemented and demographic considerations will continue to dictate a sole focus on the needs of Jews, it’s likely that this will ignite a major protest among Arab citizens of Israel.
Daniel Ben Simon is a former Knesset member from the Labor Party. Prior to his political career, he was a journalist with the Israeli dailies Haaretz and Davar. Ben Simon has written four books on Israeli society and is the recipient of the Sokolov Prize, an Israeli journalism award.