Israeli Arabs Seek Equal Compensation for War Damage

Residents of several Israeli-Arab towns on the Lebanese border claim they have not received as much government compensation as their Jewish neighbors for damage done during the war in Lebanon. The Jewish towns are classified as front-line communities, but the Arab towns are not.

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Residents of four Arab Israeli villages near the border with Lebanon have filed suit with the Israeli Supreme Court. They accuse certain government programs of discrimination. Those programs were designed to compensate people who suffered losses during last summer's war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerillas.

NPR's Linda Gradstein has this report.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: From the porch outside Sulayman Halak's(ph) in the village of Fasuta, you can see the hills of south Lebanon. The border is just over a mile away. For more than a month this summer, as Hezbollah rockets landed in and around the village, Halak was forced to shutdown his bakery. Most of his neighbor fled, and those who stayed huddled inside their homes.

Arabs accounted for almost half the civilian casualties in Israel during the war. After the conflict, the Israeli government promised to compensate all Israelis who suffered business losses. But Halak says Israeli Jews are receiving more than Israeli Arabs. He's demanding equal treatment, and he's gone to the Supreme Court to get it.

Mr. SULAYMAN HALAK: (Through translator) This suit is meant to give us compensation on the same level with the Jews. We are seeking equality with the Jews.

GRADSTEIN: Halak received compensation only for what were described as direct losses - in his case, the salaries he pays his workers. Business owners in nearby Jewish towns also got money to cover their indirect loses like rent, taxes and electricity. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Finance Ministry insists there was no discrimination. She says business owners in towns designated as border communities received more compensation than those further from the border.

In a written statement, the spokeswoman said it had nothing to do with whether the residents are Arabs or Jews. But Sausan Zahar(ph) of Adullah(ph), an organization that works for equality for Israeli Arabs, disagrees. She pulls out a map of northern Israel that shows more than a hundred Jewish towns that are designated as border communities. None of the four Arab towns near the border are included on that list. But dozens of the Jewish towns that are included are miles further from the border than these Arab villages.

In its brief to the Supreme Court, the government said that in the past, Israeli Arab towns where not designated as border communities because they were not likely to be targets of Arab attacks. The government acknowledges Arab villages were hit during this summer's war, and has offered to re-evaluate which town should be designated as border communities.

But Zahar says that's just a stalling tactic, and she urged the court to order an immediate change to the compensation law.

Ms. SAUSAN ZAHAR (Adullah): I don't want to give you time in order to decide. It's very obvious. It's very simple. It's very clear that there is discrimination.

GRADSTEIN: Lawyer Samuel Dakuar(ph), who was representing bakery owner Sulayman Halak, says the compensation law is just one example of the systemic discrimination against Israel's Arab citizens.

Mr. SAMUEL DAKUAR (Attorney): (Through translator) Maybe on paper and according to the law, the state believes in equality, but de facto this isn't true. Every time the state has to give out benefits, we are second-class citizens.

GRADSTEIN: Back in Fasuta, Sulayman Halak says he's still waiting for the rest of the compensation he believes he's entitled to. He says dozens of Israel Arab businesses are on the verge of collapse, and he hopes the compensation won't take too long.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Fasuta.

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