The problematic identity of Israel’s Arab citizens

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
Published on July 23, 2014
A woman cries during the funeral of one of the Israeli soldiers killed during Israel-Hamas fighting.
Associated Press photo

Guest Opinion: The current Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza, the third in six years, has resulted in Israeli Arab protests, led by Balad (National Democratic Assembly), Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), and the Islamic Movement in Israel, in various cities and towns.

Some of the protesters were reported to have waved Palestinian flags as they chanted slogans welcoming Hamas rocket fire at Tel Aviv.

Haneen Zoabi of Balad, the first Arab Israeli woman to represent an Arab party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, has been in the forefront of the recent demonstrations and has called on Palestinians to continue fighting, besiege Israel and refuse to negotiate.

In turn, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch have campaigned to oust Zoabi and her Balad Party from parliament.

All this points to the growing anger and frustration among Arab citizens of Israel, who feel sympathy for their fellow Palestinians and growing alienation from their fellow Israelis. As one person put it, “My state is at war with my nation.”

After all, when someone speaks of an Israeli, what comes to mind is someone Jewish. And no wonder: Israel considers itself the “state of the Jewish people”; its flag, coat of arms, constitution, Hebrew national anthem, monuments and other iconography all stem from Jewish culture, history and religion.

The Law of Return allows virtually any Jew in the world to become an Israeli citizen as soon as he or she enters the country. The Zionist project involved the “negation of the diaspora” and the “ingathering of the exiles,” after the loss of Jewish sovereignty some 2,000 years earlier.

When the Jewish community declared its independence by creating the new Jewish state of Israel in most of Palestine, resulting in a war, the vast majority of Arabs fled or were driven away.

But a remnant, today’s Israeli Arabs, remained within the borders of the Jewish polity. Although they have full civil and political rights, they are, not surprisingly, alienated from the majority Jewish population.

Today, the Israeli Arab population of 1,658,000 represents about 21 per cent of Israel’s more than eight million citizens.  Muslims, including Bedouins, make up 82 per cent of the Arab population in Israel, the remainder Christians and Druze (an offshoot of Islam).

Acre, Haifa, Lod, Nazareth, Ramle and other cities have substantial Arab inhabitants; much of the Galilee has a majority Arab population. The so-called “Triangle,” an area in central Israel adjacent to the West Bank, is also populated by Israeli Arabs: the towns of Umm al-Fahm and Tayibe are the social, cultural and economic centres for residents of the region.

Israeli Arabs tend to be poorer, and their cities and towns receive a lesser share of state spending on infrastructure, education and other services. Arabs are also underrepresented in higher education and most industries.

However, Israeli Arabs are not just a “minority.” They are the kith and kin of the Palestinian Arabs across the 1967 borders, in Gaza, the West Bank and neighbouring states such as Jordan and Lebanon.

And their Palestinian (and Muslim) consciousness, dormant in the first decades after 1948, has been growing.

Israeli Arabs in the past have backed various iterations of Communist parties, which had Israeli Arab leaders. Today, twelve Israeli Arabs, representing various parties, including Balad, Hadash and Ra’am (United Arab List), sit in the Knesset. They seek to transform Israel into a “state for all its citizens,” rather than a solely Jewish one. But no Arab parties have ever been part of Israel’s coalition governments.

The rising sense of Arab consciousness has also led to the establishment of distinctly anti-Israeli groups, in particular the Islamic Movement in Israel, founded in 1971 by Abdullah Nimar Darwish. Today, he remains the spiritual leader of the more moderate southern branch of the movement, which participates in the Israeli electoral process, as part of Ra’am.

Sheik Raed Salah is head of the more radical northern branch, which opposes Israel’s existence. He served two years in an Israeli prison for raising millions of dollars for Hamas.

The northern branch sponsors an annual rally where it claims that Israel plans to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to have it declared an illegal organization.

Various Israeli politicians have raised the idea of transferring parts of the territory in the “Triangle” — along with the 300,000 or so Israeli Arab citizens who live there — to a future Palestinian state in return for annexing West Bank territory, including Jewish settlement blocs.

But right now this is a far-fetched possibility. In the meantime, Israeli Arab anger and frustration grows.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.