Learning to Speak Up

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It is the last night of shooting for Elia Suleiman's feature film, Chronicle of Love and Pain. On a quiet street in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, the 40-year-old director's special effects team is having trouble with a Molotov cocktail that's supposed to be thrown in this scene. A group of gawking Palestinian youths offers to help make a good firebomb. "They have experience with this kind of thing," Suleiman says wryly. A 40-year-old from Nazareth, Israel's biggest Arab town, Suleiman takes the gritty realities of life for Israel's 1 million Arab citizens and examines the way identity is shaped for a people caught painfully in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We are Palestinians-plus," he says.

Suleiman is one of a new generation of cultural, political and social leaders among Israel's Arabs. While their parents kept their heads down, today's leaders reject the favored label of the state, "Israeli Arabs," and are asserting themselves as "Palestinians in Israel." The violence of the five-month Aqsa intifadeh has crystallized the question of identity among many young Arabs in Israel and boosted their demands for equality with the country's Jewish majority—and even for an autonomous government of their own. More than 80% of Arabs boycotted Israel's prime ministerial elections in February to protest the killing of 13 of their number by Israeli police early in the intifadeh. And they're demanding that the government commission of inquiry into those deaths, which began hearings last week, pin the blame on top cabinet ministers who backed the hard-line police action. Says Jamal Zahalka, a political activist who speaks with the rhythms and rhymes of a young Jesse Jackson: "This generation is speaking about identity and about our own entity. We have no real equality, but we may speak as equals."

The spark for this new anger came in the first weekend of the intifadeh, at the start of October. Riots throughout the Gali- lee paralyzed northern Israel. It was a demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. But it was, even more, an outpouring of anger about what Arabs see as discrimination by Jews. Infant mortality is twice as high among Israel's Arabs as among its Jewish population. The 10 Israeli communities with the worst unemployment rates are all Arab. But Israel's response was harsh. Human-rights organizations say police resorted to gunfire too quickly, and police officers testifying last week before the commission of inquiry admitted rubber bullets were fired from a short, potentially lethal range.

The inquiry is little consolation to Subhi Lawabdeh. In early October, the 70-year-old retired lab technician, his wife, Raoufa, and his five sons sat listening to local radio throughout the evening. The broadcasts were filled with alarmist rumors about tanks rolling into Arab towns. Lawabdeh begged his 27-year-old son, Iyad, not to go down through the narrow alleys of their neighborhood to Nazareth's main street to confront the police. Iyad told his father not to worry. Minutes later, he was shot through the chest as he threw a tear-gas canister back at police. In their sparse living room, Raoufa now cries quietly as Lawabdeh describes that night. "Iyad is dead," he says, "so I am dead, too."

In the election, the Lawabdehs joined the boycott campaign. Only 16% of Nazareth's voters cast their ballots. In the nearby village of Mash'had, turnout was less than 2%. It was a moment of unity that Nizar Hassan, a documentary filmmaker from Mash'had, had been waiting for. Hassan, 40, made his first film a decade ago. He called it Istiqlal, or Independence, chronicling the resentment felt by Arab citizens toward Israel. Since then, Hassan has documented what he sees as a national conflict within one country. His films fight the exotic stereotypes of Arabs, the assumptions that enable Israel to treat them as backward, second-class citizens. He declines to be photographed sipping from a small cup of Arabic coffee, but he agrees to pose next to the Egon Schiele print hanging above his couch. "The Israelis think I'm primitive because I'm an Arab," Hassan says. "In my films, I say, �Come, see my story the way I tell it, not the way the Israelis tell it.'"

Leading the battle to tell that story is a young married couple, Mohammed Dahleh and Suhad Hammoud. The two are human-rights lawyers representing the families of the 13 killed by the police. The Arabs in Israel are "illegitimate children of the state," says Hammoud, 27. "I don't want my children to grow up in a place they can't think of as their homeland." Dahleh, 32, believes the election boycott divorced the Arab vote from slavish devotion to Israel's Labor Party, which is more favorable to a peace deal with the Palestinians than are right-wing parties. Instead of allowing their agenda to be dictated by Yasser Arafat's interests, Israel's Arabs declared themselves open, in the future, to whichever party offers equality within Israel.

That's what Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon hopes. In his Knesset office last December, Sharon met with Ayoob Kara, a Druze Arab and a legislator from Sharon's Likud Party. Kara urged him to campaign heavily in Arab towns. "You're right, it's important," Sharon said. "And I'll agree to name an Arab minister in my government." Now that he has been elected, Sharon has reiterated his promise to put an Arab at the cabinet table for the first time in Israel's history. And Kara, 44, reckons he's the one for the job, having earned it by breaking the mold of Arab support for Labor and joining Likud 20 years ago. "I say what the Arab street is afraid to say," he says. "I am reality."

Law enforcement sources expect at least three police officers to face jail time once the inquiry into the October killings is completed, but Arab leaders want Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Police Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami to be censured too. In the makeshift home of the commission of inquiry on the ground floor of Israel's Supreme Court, there is a map of Israel next to the judges' dais. It shows a purple dot for every site of major clashes between police and Arab Israelis during the first weekend of the intifadeh. There are 34 purple spots, scattered all over the map. Israel's Arabs must hope that the inquiry will at least peel away a few of them.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad and Aharon Klein/Nazareth

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