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Facing a Palestinian state, Arab Israelis find Trump's Mideast plan unworkable

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Image: View of Umm al-Fahm
An Israeli Arab youth sits at a view point overlooking the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm.   -   Copyright  Oded Balilty
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UMM AL-FAHM, Israel — There is a Jewish saying that a fool can throw a stone into a pond that 100 wise men cannot get out.

That's how one analyst described a proposal in President Donald Trump's divisive Mideast peace plan to incorporate a densely populated Arab area of Israel into a future Palestinian state if both sides agree.

The reaction to the suggestion — which was outlined in one brief bullet point in the lengthy proposal — has been fierce, prompting thousands of Arab Israelis across the country to take to the streets.

Arab citizens have slammed the measure as "racist" and part of a long-term Israeli strategy to expand its territory while maintaining a Jewish majority. Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group, said it calls into question residents' citizenship and "reeks of ethnic cleansing."

And now even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who in Washington last month heralded the peace proposal as a "historic breakthrough" — appears to have distanced himself from that section of the plan.

"It's an empty balloon," he told Israeli Arabic-language channel Hala TV this week when asked to address the proposal. "It requires the agreement of all sides, it will not happen."

Netanyahu's chief political rival in the March 2 election, Benny Gantz, has said no Israeli, Jewish or Arab, would be "coerced" into another country,according to the Times of Israel.

With so many inside Israel and the Palestinian territories against the idea, it begs the question why it was included in the Trump administration's Mideast peace plan in the first place. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The plan, dubbed the "deal of the century," says it "contemplates the possibility" that 10 Arab Israeli communities — known collectively as the Arab Triangle — could become part of a future Palestinian state, if both sides agree. Under the plan, the border would be redrawn so that people would not be displaced from their homes.

These communities in an area, which abuts the West Bank, are home to more than 250,000 people, according to Peace Now, which also points out that the area on the proposed map instead suggests 130,000 people would be affected.

"Anyone who has half a brain understands that on any level — from morality, from international law, from practical politics — this is a completely insane idea that can bring only clashes, friction, radicalization," said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international politics at Regent's University London.

"How can you do it in a country that claims to be a democracy?"

Despite Peace Now's assertion that the move would deprive those living there of their Israeli citizenship, it remains unclear if that is the case. The plan states that residents' civil rights would be "subject to the applicable laws and judicial rulings of relevant authorities."

Masked Palestinian militants protest the US-brokered peace plan in Gaza City on Friday.
Masked Palestinian militants protest the US-brokered peace plan in Gaza City on Friday. Mohammed Abed

However, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, told reporters shortly after the proposal was announced that the suggestion was "territorial reallocation — it is not intended to affect anybody's citizenship," according to comments reported by The Associated Press.

Arab citizens make up around 20 percent of Israel's population.

Many are descended from Palestinians who were left living within the borders of Israel after the country was established in 1948. Many still identify as Palestinian and have family members living in the occupied territories, but they are also deeply tied to parts of Israel they call home.

They are citizens and can vote, they typically speak Hebrew and are afforded better rights as Israeli citizens than their Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank. They are increasingly visible in professional roles in Israel, from medicine to finance. But they also face a litany of discriminatory policies, including in housing and unequal allocation of budgets, according to Adalah, a Haifa-based human rights organization and legal center.

In 2018, Israel passed the so-called nation-state law that stripped Arabic of its status as an official language alongside Hebrew and declared that only Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel.

Palestinians and Arab Israelis have long sought an internationally recognized Palestinian state — but many said they want no part in the state described in the plan, with some comparing the patchy land to a bantustan, the territories reserved for indigenous African peoples in apartheid-era South Africa.

"I am all for being under a Palestinian state, but not what Netanyahu and Trump gave to the Palestinians," said Mirvat Eghbarieh, an Arab-Israeli Hebrew teacher from Umm al-Fahm, one of the towns that the Trump plan suggested could become Palestinian.

Mirvat Eghbarieh, back right, and her family.
Mirvat Eghbarieh, back right, and her family.

Eghbarieh said she wants a Palestinian state that can control its borders, has its own military and, most importantly, its own capital in Jerusalem.

The proposed Palestinian state by contrast would be demilitarized, give Israel overall security control and Jerusalem would remain an undivided city as the sovereign capital of Israel, allowing for a Palestinian capital in the city's outskirts beyond the separation barrier.

In the occupied West Bank, the plan permits Israel to extend its sovereignty to the vast majority of its settlements there, communities that are considered to be illegal by most of the international community.

"The 'deal of the century' is not giving [us] a state — it's land theft," Eghbarieh said. "It's ghettos," her husband, Ossama, added.

But it is not just Arab Israelis whose fate was thrown up in the air in Trump's plan. It remains unclear what will happen to Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank that have been earmarked to become Israeli under the plan.

And the proposed map of the future states also suggests that an area in the Negev desert near the Egyptian border that is home to Jewish Israelis could become part of a future Palestine. The numbers of those who would be affected in these areas remain unclear.

Shira Avrahami, a spokeswoman for the Ramat Negev Regional Council, said there are some 200 families living in an area of the Negev desert called Pitchat Nitzana that under the American proposal could become an enclave in the Palestinian territory.

But two Pitchat Nitzana residents who spoke to NBC News appeared unperturbed by the plan as they did not believe it would come to pass.

"This plan is so disconnected from reality," said Tom Alkalay, who lives in the desert region with his wife and three children.

"Can you really imagine such areas disconnected from one another and having roads between them?" he added, referring to the Trump administration's suggestion that "an innovative network" of roads, bridges and tunnels would enable freedom of movement within a future Palestine.

Tom Alkalay and his wife, Roni, said they had moved to their desert village in the Pitchat Nitzana region of the Negev to escape the endless news cycles and stresses of urban life.
Tom Alkalay and his wife, Roni, said they had moved to their desert village in the Pitchat Nitzana region of the Negev to escape the endless news cycles and stresses of urban life.Khaldoon Eid

While some Israelis were confident that the proposal of populated land swaps will not happen, some also dismissed Netanyahu's attempt to distance himself from the suggestion.

"Netanyahu is lying," said Diana Buttu, a former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and an Arab Israeli citizen.

"His objective, and that of Trump, aims solely to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible and take as much Palestinian land as possible," she said, referring to Arab Israelis living in Israel, as well as Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Mekelberg suggested that one reason Netanyahu could be distancing himself from the suggestion was that he was fighting to attract the more moderate right, as well as Arab Israeli voters, ahead of the forthcoming election and knew that from an international perspective the proposal was unacceptable.

"I don't think all of a sudden Netanyahu is becoming a champion of human rights," he added.

It remains unclear whether the proposal will mobilize Arab Israeli voters to turn out in force again in an attempt to stop Netanyahu from winning another term in office when Israel votes for the third time in the space of a year next month.

Ahead of the last election in September, Netanyahu was accused of vilifying Israel's Arab citizens in an attempt to mobilize his right-wing base. But those tactics appeared to backfirewhen an Arab coalition emerged as the third largest bloc in Parliament, making it more difficult for Netanyahu to form a government.

While Buttu didn't think the plan would ever be implemented the fact the suggestion was proposed in the first place was significant in itself, she said, describing it as a "racist" idea.

"It shows you exactly how Netanyahu and Trump view Palestinians in Israel, which is that they view us as a fifth column, as a threat to purity of the state," she added.

Lawahez Jabari reported from Umm al-Fahm, Saphora Smith from London and Freddie Tunnard from Washington D.C.