TAIBEH — A long strip of garages, used car lots and ceramic tile factories greet motorists as they enter the city of Taibeh, the second largest urban center within the chain of Arab towns and villages known as “the Triangle” in northern Israel.
The ugly signs directing shoppers to these businesses are almost exclusively in Hebrew, a plain indication of the Jewish predominance of their clientele. One banner sticks out in Arabic, reading “Taibeh has said its word – we shall protect our land.”
Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman stated that he will not endorse any peace agreement that does not stipulate the annexation of this city of 40,000 to the future Palestinian state, along with its predominantly Arab environs; stretching from the western slopes of Samaria in the north to the eastern outskirts of Ra’anana in the south. In return, Israel is to annex majority-Jewish areas lying beyond the Green Line.
Taibeh’s political connection to the West Bank ended 65 years ago. The city found itself under Jordanian control at the end of the 1948 War of Independence, but was handed over to the Jewish state as part of the armistice agreement signed in Rhodes in March 1949.
At cafe Al-Ustaz in the city center, Abu-Jubran and Abu-Aref sit and smoke cigarettes, Hebrew tabloids scattered on the coffee table in front of them.
Theoretical or not, the sense of insult felt by Liberman’s remarks — a figure the men repeatedly note is an outsider, an immigrant — is palpable
Liberman’s statements are the talk of the day here, and mistrust of (Jewish) outsiders is at its peak. This reporter was immediately suspected of being a Shin Bin agent when his small audience learned he spoke Arabic. What other reason would I have to study the language? Even after the candid interview (conducted in flawless, eloquent Hebrew), the two middle aged men refused to have their photos taken or to divulge their real names.
“Only someone whose head is screwed up would think like this,” Abu-Jubran, the elder of the two, told The Times of Israel, referring to Liberman’s statement. “Does he really think this is the way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? If he does, let him go back to Moldova.”
This was not the first time the notion of annexing the Triangle to “Palestine” was floated by Israeli politicians. Liberman first voiced it a decade ago, when as transportation minister he considered the ethnic homogeneity of both nation states to be essential for sustainable peace. Documents leaked by Al-Jazeera in 2011 revealed that Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, raised the idea of population exchange in her talks with Mahmoud Abbas as foreign minister in 2008. The Palestinian negotiators reportedly rejected the idea out of hand.
On January 1, Israeli daily Ma’ariv claimed that the idea of redrawing the border to exclude 300,000 Arab Israelis was recently presented to the Americans in the presence of Secretary of State John Kerry.
Nevertheless, Abu-Jubran said he was not fearful of being unilaterally deprived of his Israeli ID card. “The whole thing is hypothetical,” he said, while remarking on the ascendancy of the Israeli right. “There’s order in the world.”
Theoretical or not, the sense of insult felt by Liberman’s remarks — a figure the men repeatedly note is an outsider, an immigrant — is palpable.
“Who is he to decide for us? Anyway, when did he come to this country? How can someone like that decide for someone whose grandfather’s grandfather was born in Taibeh?” (The Moldova-born Yisrael Beytenu leader immigrated in 1978.)
“We can have a referendum here and the majority will decide. It’s not for him to say. Just as he decided [freely] to leave Russia and come here, we’ll decide freely.”
Reacting to public backlash against his remarks, Liberman posted a provocative note on his Facebook page Wednesday, blasting the duplicity of Israel’s Arabs as well as that of “bleeding hearts on the left and some tagalongs.”
“The Arabs of Wadi Ara have suddenly become lovers of Zion,” the foreign minister remarked ironically. “In various TV interviews we’ve seen those who commemorate Nakba day instead of celebrating Independence Day, waving black flags rather than Israeli flags … these are the exact same people who are in an uproar over becoming Palestinian citizens as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. Suddenly they’re an integral part of the state of Israel, suddenly Herzl is their national hero, Hatikvah is their hit.”
But peace with the Arabs is Liberman’s last concern, Abu-Aref argued. Instead, Israel’s “racist” foreign minister is in a panic over the steadily growing number of Arab citizens in Israel.
“They regret not having thrown us out the same day they threw out the Arabs of Jaffa and Acre in 1948. I’m sure they beat themselves up about that every day; it would have been much easier and neither of us would be here today,” he said.
“You think we don’t like your flag because of its color?” he continued. “We were never asked. We were never given the feeling we belong to this flag.”
Abu-Aref added that Israeli media tends to inflate “small mistakes” by individual Arab citizens, portraying them as a sign of general disloyalty. Two weeks ago, for instance, fans of the Arab soccer club Sakhnin were photographed waving a Palestinian flag during a match with Beitar Jerusalem.
“In Barcelona [soccer matches], fans always wave flags of Catalonia and no one says a word,” he said.
Abu-Aref and Abu-Jubran’s long list of grievances with the Israel “that does nothing for us” could easily leave one wondering why they wish to remain part of the state. The point is they don’t; at least not necessarily. They just want to be the ones to choose; based on a mix of practical and ideological reasons.
“I have an Israeli passport, I don’t need a Palestinian one,” Abu-Jubran said. “It will only allow me to enter Cairo, Beirut or Damascus, but not Europe. There’s no comparison [between the two passports]. It’s absurd.”
Abu-Aref said he will share the joy of Palestinians upon the establishment of their independent state, just as Israeli Jews identify with their Jewish brethren in the United States.
“They’re Muslims, Arabs like me. That’s enough for me to identify with. Why is it that your side can have such feelings and ours can’t?”
Unlike Abu-Jubran, Hajar Masarwah, a native of the Triangle town of ‘Arara living in Tel Aviv and working as a translator and moderator for Arab-Jewish dialogue groups, is concerned that Liberman’s vision may become a reality.
‘I have an Israeli passport, I don’t need a Palestinian one,’ Abu-Jubran said
“Many people are panicking about this,” she said. “I see lots of posts on Facebook. Most won’t accept this under any circumstance. There’s lots of anger. If you ask me how people who hate Israel are bred, that’s Mr. Liberman with all this talk of loyalty and belonging.”
Masarwah said that the government uses the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict both to discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens and to constantly blame them for disloyalty.
“There are many countries in the world with loyal minorities,” she said. “We are a unique minority. On the one hand we share the culture and heritage of the Palestinians, but on the other we were born into Israel and educated to know more about Jews than about Arabs. Many of the subjects in school are taught in Hebrew.”
“You have a group which belongs to a certain nation, but its mentality and culture is diverse. We’re a hybrid. You can see this most clearly through the language we speak, which dramatically changed over the years; we speak neither Hebrew nor Arabic properly.”
In the mid-1990s, when Masarwah was in the tenth grade, an Israeli newspaper published an article about the possibility of excluding Israel’s Arab citizens. Her friends were upset, and the issue was discussed in class.
“I remember our homeroom teacher saying: ‘it won’t happen. It may happen in a few decades, but not now.'”