BAQA AL-GHARBIYYE, Israel (Reuters) – Thousands of Israeli Arabs, many waving Palestinian flags, demonstrated in this town in Israel at the weekend to voice their fear that U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan could see them stripped of their rights as Israeli citizens.
Trump’s proposal, disclosed last week, would see Israel keep its settlements in the occupied West Bank.
But it also raised the possibility that 11 Arab border towns abutting the West Bank would become part of a new Palestinian state – alarming Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority.
“Israel wants to get rid of these people – their land, their history and their space,” said Mohammed Barakeh, a protester and former Arab member of Israel’s parliament.
Like their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, Arabs in Israel have criticized Trump’s plan, which suggested what it billed as a “two-state” solution for the decades-long conflict.
Critics say that by handing Jewish settlements in occupied territory to Israel and keeping Palestinians under Israeli security control, a viable independent state is impossible.
On Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the land swap idea, saying: “We do not agree at all, in any way, to swap land and residents from Israel to (Palestine)”.
Israel’s Arabs – predominantly Muslims, Christian and Druze – are mostly the descendants of the Palestinians who remained in their homes or were internally displaced following the 1948 war that surrounded Israel’s creation.
Many identify as Palestinians and regularly voice solidarity with those in Gaza and the West Bank.
But they fear losing their rights and ties to the land they have lived on for generations if they are moved from Israel to Palestinian rule in the West Bank.
Ayman Odeh, who heads a coalition of mainly Arab parties in Israel’s parliament, said Trump’s proposal was “a green light to revoke the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab citizens who live in northern Israel.”
Feelings also ran high at the weekend in Umm al-Fahm, a town on a hill that looks down into the West Bank across an Israeli military barrier that winds along its northern boundary.
“I am a Palestinian Arab and a citizen of Israel,” said Umm Mahmoud, 42, a housewife from Umm al-Fahm, as she shopped for home supplies.
“I cannot accept being transferred to the West Bank. Although we are the same, we cannot leave our land, lives and traditions. Although they (West Bank Palestinians) are our family, it is not possible,” she said.
The Trump plan said land swaps could include both populated and unpopulated areas and redrawing the borders of Israel so that the so-called Triangle Communities become part of the State of Palestine would need to be agreed on by both parties.
David Friedman, the Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Israel who was closely involved in the framing of the Middle East plan, denied that residents of Arab towns in Israel would lose citizenship if they eventually fell under Palestinian jurisdiction.
“No one is being stripped of citizenship. We don’t propose that,” he told reporters last Wednesday.
Some Israeli government officials have privately voiced reservations about the idea.
“I regard this as a hypothetical matter. This is something the sides can weigh as an option after the plan is implemented,” Gabi Ashkenazi, a senior member of the opposition Blue and White Party, told Israeli Internet television channel Ynet.
“We unequivocally regard the (Arab) citizens of Israel as equal citizens,” Ashkenazi said.
Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Sinan Abu Mayzer with additional reporting by Stephen Farrell and Nuha Sharaf in Umm al-Fahm, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell