Hell versus Heaven. Why Palestinians in Israel do not want to join a ‘liberated’ West Bank.

4 May 2023 By Paul Martin

Correspondent.World intends to revisit this 2004 story to see what has changed.

By Paul Martin in Umm-el-Fahm, on the Israel – West Bank border.


Things have not changed much here in the last nine years.

In this sprawling Arab city there is no appetite for a proposal, renewed every couple of years, that the community and others like it might be ceded by Israel to a future Palestinian state.

Although Israeli Arabs of Umm-al-Fahm share much with their fellow Arabs in the neighbouring West Bank, the former say they are more concerned about preserving the rights they enjoy as Israelis – including access to jobs, free speech, a democratic vote and a measure of political freedom. But it’s not a formulation of the issue that local like to state in this way.

“We have a saying here,” said Shoaa Saad, 22, “that the ‘hell’ of Israel is better than the ‘heaven’ of the West Bank.

“Here you can say whatever you like and do whatever you want – so long as you don’t touch the security of Israel. Over there, if you talk about the Palestinian Authority, they can arrest you and beat you up.”

Mr. Saad spoke while serving sweet tea and cakes in father Nabil’s family-run restaurant that, until the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, catered equally to Arabs and Jews who wandered in from a nearby Israeli highway.

That business was further thrown into doubt when a spokesman for the Israeli government in 2004 proposed unilaterally to draw a new border with the West Bank. If there would be no progress toward a negotiated peace, it hinted it may cede some Israeli-Arab areas to Palestinian rule and hold on to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

As many as 20 percent of Israeli citizens are ethnic Arabs, many of them concentrated in a so-called Arab Triangle of cities, towns and villages close to the West Bank.

The idea of ceding some of these population centres appeals to many Jewish Israelis, who fear that the Arabs, with their higher birthrate, eventually will become an increasingly powerful block in democratic elections and might even eventually outnumber the Jews in Israel. In 50 years, the Israeli-Arab population has increased from 160,000 to 1.5 million; there are 6 million Jews in Israel.

In 2004, Palestinian political leaders were as quick to denounce the idea of a swap as were their Israeli-Arab counterparts. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said the scheme was “undebatable and unacceptable,” and senior Arab legislator in the Israeli Knesset, Ahmed Tibi, called it a “racist project” aimed at protecting Israel’s Jewish majority.

In Umm-al-Fahm, many Arab Israelis see the proposal as part of a broader dilemma they face.

“The problem is we’re treated here as B-class citizens, but we’re seen [by West Bank Palestinians] as ‘almost Jews,'” said Issam Abu Allo, 29, one of three young Israeli-trained lawyers who discussed their situation over a late-night dinner at a pizza parlour.

“We don’t want to join an unknown state that doesn’t have a parliament, or a democracy, or even decent universities,” said Mr. Allo, who studied law and social anthropology at predominantly Jewish colleges in Haifa and Netanya.

“We have close family ties in the West Bank, but we prefer to demand our full rights inside Israel. International law says no-one is allowed to make exchanges against the population’s will.”

Before the intifada, or uprising, residents of Umm-al-Fahm readily found jobs in Israeli cities, mainly in the construction industry. But the strains between Jews and Arabs during the intifada have left a legacy of deep distrust.

Many Jews recall that a group of hard-line Islamists was elected to the city council and that local youths at one point had blockaded the adjacent highway, leading to violence in which three young men were fatally shot.

Often overlooked is that Israeli Arabs also have died in the bus bombings targeting Jews. At least two Israeli Arabs acted heroically to help thwart or end terror attacks, one of them suffering injuries in a suicide explosion after calling police with a cell phone to alert them to the danger.

“The last three years of the intifada have made our position much worse,” Mr. Allo said. “Israelis are suspicious of us now. Jobs are being closed to us. I was kept for two hours at the airport. I know a guy who was held several hours at the airport – just because his surname was Arafat.”

The lawyers agreed that “blowing up buses is not the way to bring peace,” but they also supported the Palestinian mantra that the attacks were the result of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Despite generally good experiences with Jewish classmates at Israeli colleges, the lawyers considered themselves culturally different and distant from the Jews.

The restaurant-owning Saad family expressed a far stronger affinity after years of trade with Jewish customers.

“We used to prefer Jewish customers because they really told us how good our food was and, unlike our Arab brothers, never argued over the price,” Mr. Saad said.

“Now we get one Jewish customer a week on average – and I can see how scared he is as he walks nervously in and looks all around. I hope the good situation we had before the intifada comes back.”

He added: “But I doubt it.”