Israel's phantom people

About 20 per cent of Israel's citizens are Arabs, and the violence in Gaza has further radicalised them. But the last thing they want is to become part of a Palestinian state
February 28, 2009
May 2008: as Israel celebrates 60 years of existence, Israeli Arab women mourn the loss of their lands in the village of Kfar Qasam

Away from the war in Gaza, another story is unfolding in Israel. Subtler and more nuanced than the conflict with Hamas and so far largely unnoticed by the world's politicians and media, it has potentially far more serious implications for the future of the Jewish state. Israel's Arab minority is becoming increasingly radicalised.

Tens of thousands of Arab citizens took to the streets of Sakhnin, in northern Israel, in January to protest against the Israeli army's incursion into the Gaza strip. Some Arab activists claim that it was the largest protest of its kind since 1948, the year that Israel declared independence, which Palestinians call al Nakba, the catastrophe.

"What we saw on TV from Gaza strengthened our national feelings, and weakened our feelings as Israeli citizens," says Mohammad Zeidan, director of the Arab Association for Human Rights based in Nazareth.

During the first decades of Israel's existence, the Arab minority was quiescent, cowed by Shin Bet, the internal security service, and the experience of living under military rule, which in some areas lasted into the 1960s. They were called "Israeli Arabs." No more. About 20 per cent of Israel's 7.3m population are Arabs, who increasingly call themselves "Palestinian citizens of Israel."

The Sakhnin protests represent the latest stage of an evolving civic confidence that uses the freedoms of Israeli democracy to articulate a Palestinian national identity within Israel's borders. But despite the new solidarity with Gaza, cross-border Arab ties are not simple. When I wrote my book City of Oranges, about the lives of three Arab and three Jewish families in Jaffa, I discovered that the relationship between Arab citizens of Israel and their Palestinian kin across the green line (the 1967 border) can be as fraught as that between Arab and Jewish Israelis.

To those who fled in 1948, the Arabs who stayed are collaborators: they speak Hebrew, pay taxes and are Israeli citizens (although only the 100,000-strong Druse community and the 200,000 Bedouin usually serve in the army). There is envy too: despite the relative poverty among Arab Israelis, they have far better economic and educational opportunities than those living in the West Bank or Gaza.

The Israeli Arabs argue, on the contrary, that they are the real guardians of Palestinian nationhood. After all, they stayed. But few of them would welcome the idea of moving to an actually existing Palestinian state. It is not hard to see why—compared to their ethnic kin in the rest of the middle east, the Arabs in Israel are thriving. They live in an open society with more rights and freedoms than anywhere else in the region. They are citizens of a democracy with free speech, a critical media and an independent judiciary—all of which they use to defend their rights. Arab members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, may call for the dissolution of the Israeli state even as it pays for their salaries and the bodyguards who protect them from Jewish extremists. Arabic is an official language. Women have benefited from the abolition of polygamy and child marriage; they may also vote and be elected to the Knesset.

There is an emerging Arab middle class, consisting of businessmen and lawyers, diplomats and judges, army officers and artists. Israel even has its first Muslim Arab cabinet minister, Raleb Majadele, who is in charge of science, culture and sports for Ehud Barak's Labour party.

Despite his success, Majadele embodies the disconnection and paradox of life in a Jewish state for its indigenous minority. He outraged the Israeli right when he told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot that he stands to attention for Hatikvah, the national anthem, but will not sing it.

Hatikvah (which means hope) is a stirring musical poem that celebrates the "Jewish soul." Majadele and his fellow Arab citizens of Israel are not Jewish. And that paradox, of being non-Jews in a Jewish state, inevitably confers second-class status. Deep disparities remain between Jewish and Arab Israelis—in employment, health, welfare and education. It is almost impossible for Arabs to buy land owned by the state or its quangos, and child mortality rates are higher than those of their Jewish counterparts.

Eight per cent of all civil service jobs are supposed to be given to Arabs but only a tiny number are employed by the state. There were no Arabs at all employed at the Bank of Israel at the end of last year, one parliamentarian noted, lamenting the "deliberate and insufferable" discrimination. "A cycle has been created whereby on the one hand, the Arab population does not know how to establish a proper management system and on the other hand governments have denied them their rights to improve their quality of life." The speaker? Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel is also rare among democracies in having appropriated the property of substantial numbers of its citizens and then preventing them from returning home. These are those Arab Israelis cynically termed "present absentees." Under the 1950 Absentee Property Law Palestinians who fled their homes during the fighting in 1948—but remained in Israel—were classed as "absent." Their property and lands were appropriated by the state, a continuing source of suffering for many Arab citizens. In Nazareth, for instance, almost all the inhabitants of the Saffafri quarter came from the nearby village of Saffuriyya, most of which was flattened in 1948. The land where the village once stood is now covered in pine trees.


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There has been a steady increase in mutual acrimony between Arab nationalists and Israeli right-wingers in recent years. The recent decision by the Knesset to ban the Arab-Israeli parties Balad and the United Arab List-Ta'al from contesting the next general election has further increased Arab alienation. The decision was approved by the 37-member central election committee. Committee members accused the two parties, which together have seven seats in the Knesset, of incitement, supporting terrorism and refusing to recognise Israel's right to exist. But most observers believe that the supreme court will overturn the committee's decision.

Whatever the legal outcome, there are powerful political undercurrents in play. Balad's leader Azmi Bishara left Israel in 2007 after accusations, which he strongly denied, that he had passed information to Hizbullah during the 2006 Lebanon war. His supporters claim that it is his ideas—in particular that Israel should cease to be a Jewish state, and become a "state of all its citizens"—which have made him so threatening. Young activists such as Sami Abou-Shehade, a student at Tel-Aviv university, have been influenced by these arguments. "In many ways Israeli society is not modern," says Sami. "Israel sees all of its Jewish citizens as a big family. When there is a car accident, there is five minutes on the news about everyone who was killed. Of course it is a tragedy, but in most states the television news does not list the names, the ages, of everyone who died, and then film the funeral. Israeli Jews think of the state as some kind of family business."

In recent years many other Palestinian intellectuals and NGOs have also called for Israel to become a "state of all its citizens." Some claim parallels with the anti-apartheid struggle and argue that a viable Palestinian state is no longer feasible, so the Palestinian territories and Israel should be merged into one country with equal rights for all citizens. Such demands are unrealistic and counterproductive. They have produced anger on the Israeli right, and consternation on the Israeli left, which is more supportive of the Arab cause. For the Israeli left and centre, the injustices endured by Arab Israelis, from dispossession to the non-existent Arab employees of the Israeli National Bank, are civil rights issues that can be resolved.

But Israel's Arab elite has a new vision—and their proposals are a threat to Israel's continued existence. The changes they demand would alter Israel so fundamentally that it would, in effect, no longer exist. Its name would be changed; its anthem and flag would be abolished, as would the law of return which grants automatic citizenship to Jews. There would be an Arab veto over all legislation affecting the Arab community or Arab-Jewish relations. How this bi-national or multicultural state would work in practice and deal with economic policy, borders, defence and foreign relations has not yet been explained.

Unsurprisingly, few Jewish Israelis are willing to sacrifice their hard-won national self-determination for a vague promise of equality in an undefined state. At the same time the old links between Israel's Arabs and the left-Zionist parties have been greatly weakened. This is partly because of the growth of the nationalist narrative, but mostly because of a profound feeling of betrayal. In 1999, Ehud Barak was elected prime minister with 95 per cent of the Arab vote, but he failed to appoint a single Arab minister or to reach out to the Arab minority. In March 2006, just 12 per cent of Arabs voted Labour.

Arab radicals regard politicians such as Majadele as collaborators. Arabs vote increasingly for their own non-Zionist or anti-Zionist parties, or do not vote at all. With an election scheduled for 10th February, the Arab vote could play a crucial role. If the two Arab parties remain banned, a mass boycott is more likely than a swing to Labour. If they contest the election and retain their seven seats, they will not join a coalition. But the Arab parties may, as they did with the Oslo peace process, support policies that benefit their constituency. These do not include the idea, popular on the Israeli right, of a territory and population transfer, for example, exchanging the area known as "the triangle" in northern Israel, where many Arabs live, for the settlement blocs around Jerusalem.

Yet still somebody needs to square the circle, for Arab anger has repeatedly exploded into violence. In October 2000 riots erupted in Arab towns and villages after Ariel Sharon, then Israeli prime minister, went for a walk at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Thirteen Israeli Arab citizens were shot dead by police, who used live rounds against unarmed protestors. A commission of enquiry found that the police officers acted in self-defence. None has been prosecuted. For many Arabs, the verdict was the ultimate confirmation of their second-class status; they are citizens of a state which may kill them with impunity.


Perhaps fiction can best deal with the paradoxes of life as an Arab citizen of Israel. Sayed Kashua is an Israeli Arab columnist for the leftist daily Ha'aretz and a prize-winning novelist, writing in Hebrew. His novel Let it be Morning is set in an Arab Israeli village which is suddenly surrounded by Israeli tanks. Phones are cut off, the roads blocked. Nobody knows why. The village turns on its Palestinian guest workers. They are stripped to their underwear and forced towards the Israeli lines. Several are shot. Food and water supplies start to run out. Then the reason for the blockade is revealed: Israel and the Palestinians have signed a peace deal, and the village is to be ceded to Palestine in a territory swap. Yet the news brings not joy but horror; the villagers accuse the Jews of betraying them. And this is no exaggeration—as a poll conducted in 2008 showed, 77 per cent of Arab Israelis would rather live in the Jewish state than anywhere else.

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