Israeli MPs vote to make Arabic language classes compulsory in schools

Arab and Jewish children from the Hand in Hand Jewish-Arab integrated bilingual schools pose with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio during an olive harvesting event west of Jerusalem on Oct 17.
Arab and Jewish children from the Hand in Hand Jewish-Arab integrated bilingual schools pose with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio during an olive harvesting event west of Jerusalem on Oct 17. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli lawmakers voted Wednesday to make Arabic classes compulsory for students from the age of six, in a move backers hoped would help improve ties between Israeli Jews and Arabs.

The vote came amid increasing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, with a wave of deadly attacks on Israelis and clashes at protests in the occupied territories.

Israel's parliament, the Knesset, voted unanimously in favour of the bill in first reading on Wednesday, with about half of all deputies in attendance.

It will now be studied in committee before returning to parliament for a second vote.

Both Arabic and Hebrew are official languages of Israel, but while the vast majority of Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew, Arabic is not widely spoken among the Jewish population.

The bill was introduced by lawmaker Oren Hazan, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud Party, who said it was meant to reach out to Arab Israelis.

"Language is a door to culture," he said. "I am looking reality in the eyes and I understand there is no possibility to walk to peace without understanding each other." Hand in Hand, a centre for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, welcomed the vote, with its chief executive Shuli Dichter calling it "a good and important decision".

Arab Israelis, the descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after the creation of Israel in 1948 and who are citizens of the Jewish state, make up about 18 percent of its population.

The surge in violence in recent weeks has seen nine Israelis killed in attacks.

Many of the attackers have been shot dead, including one in Hebron on Wednesday. Along with those killed in anti-Israeli protests, 60 Palestinians have died in the unrest, as well as one Arab Israeli.