Leading up to the UN security council vote on Palestinian statehood on Friday, Impact will be publishing a series of articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a first hand account of an Israeli-Arab girl’s experience living in Israel. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
The street in Tel Aviv where I meet Laila is well kept, with the typical Bauhaus buildings a square and unwavering presence behind us. Both the clean pavement and the characterless apartments are reflected in the dark circles of Laila’s eyes, which blink excitedly as she talks. Laila is an Arab living in Israel, and like many Arab-Israelis, suffers from a conflict of identity between her legal status, as an Israeli, and her cultural heritage, as an Arab.
The media spotlight has recently been on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, due in part to the Palestinian bid for statehood, and the exchange of prisoners after the release of Gilad Shalit. However the short attention span of the press and the grim inevitability of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis have meant that there is little focus on the predicament of displaced Arabs like Laila. Having just turned 16, she has been given her government issue ID. She shows it to me; an identification card that does not describe her identity. As she said to me in rapidly spoken English, broken now and again by both Hebrew and Arabic, if the Palestinians think she is Israeli and the Israelis think she is Palestinian, how is she, let alone anyone else, meant to understand where her national identity lies.
At 16 Laila is the same age as those taking GCSEs, however the subjects offered to her are limited. In her school, unlike the “Jewish kids”, Arab-Israelis cannot do any arts subjects, such as theatre or music, but instead have a limited choice of sciences and maths. Indeed, where they do learn history, it is not, as she says, her own. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) argues along similar lines in light of the new ‘Nakba’ Law (‘Nakba’ meaning ‘catastrophe’, the term for the dispossession of most of the Palestinians in 1948) introduced earlier this year. This law allows the state to impose monetary sanctions for any institution that “marks Israel Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the State as a day of mourning”. In a letter to heads of public and cultural institutions, ACRI stated that
“Academic bodies, educational and cultural institutions … and other entities supported by the government find themselves considering whether or not to include any reference to the Nakba in their events, as even mentioning its occurrence could possibly expose them to reduced budgetary support under the provisions of the ‘Nakba Law’.”
Laila told me that teaching about the history of the Palestinian people was left to the parents of the Palestinian children themselves. That their heritage will be forgotten is unlikely, but a selective education in history conflicts with the democratic ideals that the government professes to uphold. Laila dreams of becoming a doctor, however fulfilling this dream is more difficult for her in comparison to her Jewish counterparts. Whereas they have to major in two subjects at the A-level equivalent, Arab-Israelis must do three. Laila says that Arab-Israelis are not permitted to go to university straight after secondary school, but must wait until the Jewish students have completed their national service.
Laila took me to her home after our meeting in Tel Aviv, and the differences in the architecture and the atmosphere were at once apparent. We can recognise her small town by the minaret of the mosque reaching into the sky, there is a faint smell of burning as we turn into her street. This is because the Israeli authorities do not pick up the rubbish left in the bins in some Arab towns so it gets burnt in order not to pile up in the road.One of the biggest problems she tells me, as we look around her town, is the lack of youth movements for Arab-Israelis. Where nearly all of the Israeli teenagers I met talk enthusiastically about the countless groups they have on offer, the Arab-Israelis like Laila have few equivalents.
Laila stands at her door in the midday sun waving me good-bye until I am completely out of sight, and I am left with a feeling of admiration for the extent of her determination and her spirit. Laila has not only managed to overcome the frustrations of living in a region where inequality has become the norm, but she has channelled those frustrations into a resolve to continue her education in Israel. I only hope that this resolve is strong enough to protect her in some way from the internal struggle she faces between her conflicting identities.