Of late, there has been so much controversy regarding the Arabs of Israel – and so much that is of serious concern regarding their role within the country – that the information provided here is exceedingly important. The matter is not a simple one. Nor is the situation static: it has evolved over time.
A major question to be addressed is how the Arab citizens of Israel see themselves. Do they self-identify as Israeli Arabs, or Israeli Palestinians, or Palestinian Arabs who just happen to have citizenship in Israel?
It is necessary to begin by refuting the libelous charges made by Israel’s enemies that Israel is an apartheid nation. To accept this slanderous falsehood is to seriously distort the current reality.
Apartheid was an institutionalized system of radical racial segregation maintained in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, when a minority white government ruled the nation. Any attempt to compare the racially integrated system of Israel with what went on in South Africa is totally without basis in fact. “Apartheid” has become a political buzz word, used in attempts to damage and delegitimize Israel. It is likely that many who have accepted and repeated this slander do not even know what apartheid truly was.
See what Kenneth Meshoe, a black member of South Africa’s parliament, has to say about the charge of Israeli apartheid:
Under Israeli law Arab citizens can: go anywhere in the country; study in any university; be treated in any hospital; shop in any market or mall. They receive the same national benefits – health care, pension, etc. – as other citizens.
They vote and have representatives in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). Noted here as example: Ayoob Kara, a Druze, who has been in the Knesset for several terms and has held ministerial positions.
Israeli Arabs serve as diplomats and hold positions in the courts, including the Supreme Court. They are found in all professions – journalism, education, etc. Some 40% of all Israeli pharmacists are Arab.
Israeli Arabs – whether Muslim, as are some 85% or more, or Christian – have freedom of religion. Mosques, in total some 400, are found across Israel. (Pictured: the Mosque of Okasha in Jerusalem)
Arab citizens, like all Israeli citizens, have the right to petition the courts; they are guaranteed equal protection under the law, and full civil rights – civil rights such as freedom of speech that are not accorded Arabs in any of the surrounding Arab countries.
While a small percentage of Arabs serve in the IDF voluntarily, Arab citizens are exempt from the draft. This is with the exception of the Druze, who long ago agreed to their young men being drafted.
Arabs, who constitute roughly 20% of the Israeli population, live in Arab villages and larger Arab cities, found in many places in Israel but particularly in the Galilee in the north: There are a number of Arab villages in the hills of Hevron, and there is a large Bedouin population in the Negev. Mixed cities such as Haifa, Lod, Ramle, Nazareth and Acre have substantial Arab populations as does eastern Jerusalem.
Most of the Arabs living in Israel have citizenship. During Israel’s War of Independence, 1948-49, there were Arabs who had been living in Israel and left. The common myth is that they were driven out by the Jews, although this was the fact in only a small percentage of the cases. It is documented that Israeli authorities urged Arabs to remain and be part of the new nation.
This policy was set forth in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which declares:
“WE APPEAL – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
Nonetheless, there were Arabs who fled out of fear, and many who fled at the behest of their leaders. They were led to believe that the war would be over soon, the Jews would be defeated, and they would be able to return as victors. (See: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/myths-and-facts-the-refugees)
Those who remained were given citizenship and this status has carried over to their descendants. Some number of the Arabs who had fled did return and during the first years after Israeli independence also acquired citizenship.
There are also Arabs in Israel who have permanent residency papers but not citizenship. They have access to many of the same benefits as citizens, and may vote in municipal elections. When Israel liberated eastern Jerusalem during the Six Day War, the Arabs living in that part of the city were offered the opportunity to apply for citizenship, but the majority opted for residency.
There are considerable numbers of Arabs in Israel who have functioned over the years as peaceful and productive citizens: they have appeared content to make their lives in Israel and to contribute to the wellbeing of the nation. The fact that some have assumed professional roles as doctors, pharmacists, teachers, officers in financial institutions, and occasionally judges strengthened the perception that they have become a part of Israeli society. Many have made their contribution in other ways: whether in the retail world, as building contractors, taxi drivers or stonemasons. The first responder organization United Hatzalah takes pride in its Arab first responders: sometimes Arabs save Jewish lives, and other times Jews save Arab lives. The ethos of Israel (although realized imperfectly) has been one of integrating the Arabs.
Over 20 years ago, Raphael Israeli, at that time a professor of Islamic studies at Hebrew University, qualified the perception that the Arabs of Israel were actually “loyal” to Israel.
Most of the members of the Arab community in Israel, he said, embraced a “quietist” attitude toward Israel: they enjoyed the benefits derived from their Israeli citizenship, and refrained from overt acts of disloyalty. They had no desire to rock the boat. However, he maintained, it was a misconception to see them as “loyal” to their country: “One should recall the near-consensus among them that shuns Independence Day celebrations in Israel and terms that day the nakbah (catastrophe).”
Professor Israeli was identifying a sense of dislocation felt by many Muslim Arabs in Israel – the sense of not quite belonging in or identifying with Israeli society: For centuries the area that is today Israel was under the control of various Muslim caliphates and empires. The Arabs of Israel, he suggested, might feel a humiliation at being ruled by Jews – for when the land was under Islamic rule, the Jews were considered a dhimmi (inferior) people that was required to be submissive.
The professor had not discovered a new phenomenon. It was surely existent since Israel’s founding, and very likely the underpinning for changing – and increasingly militant — attitudes that evolved over time.
It was in the 1970s that the Islamic Movement in Israel was established, first as a grassroots movement. The movement established mosques and social networks, sent out speakers and distributed materials. Advancing a tripartite goal of “Islamization, Palestinization and Arabization,” it sought to address young peoples’ “predicament” as non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and to discourage “Israelization.”
The Islamic Movement is a spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood. For them Israel is sacred Muslim land, Wakf, which must be liberated.
The Movement broke into two: the more radical northern Movement refused to take part in the political processes of Israel. The southern Movement held that even as its activities continued, there would be no choice but to participate in the political processes of the country. The fact that they are prepared to participate in Israeli political processes in no way diminishes the Movement’s goal of taking over Israel. In fact, participation in the political processes is seen as an avenue for achieving its goal.
Ultimately, the more militant northern Movement – led by Sheikh Raed Salah, who was mayor of Umm al-Fahm – was shut down. Salah is serving a prison sentence for inciting to terror.
Today the southern Movement remains, although some from the north have joined its ranks. The Ra’am Party, headed by Mansour Abbas, is the political wing of the southern Islamic Movement.
When Jewish worshippers visited the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av July 19, 2021, Ra’am protested that the Temple Mount was the “sole property of Muslims.”
The Oslo Accords established in the mid-1990s, which created the Palestinian Authority and advanced the prospect of a Palestinian state in the future, undoubtedly also played a role in shaping the self-perception of at least some of Israel’s Arabs. Now a viable alternative to identity as Israeli Arab had emerged. Arafat, the unrepentant terrorist, was in the limelight in a positive way; he began to address the Arabs inside of Israel directly, calling them the “1948 Arabs.”
It was probably at this point that significant numbers of Arabs in Israel began to identify as Israeli Palestinians: Yes, they were Israeli citizens, but they saw themselves as part of the “Palestinian People.”
Israel’s Declaration of Independence – cited above regarding an appeal to Israel’s Arabs to participate as full citizens in the building of Israel – was unequivocal in declaring Israel to be a Jewish state: “by virtue of our national and historic right…[we] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz [the land of] Israel.” Seventy years later, a Basic Law – “Israel is the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” was passed: “It is in Israel that the Jewish People realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.”
The full rights Arabs receive under Israeli law are individual rights – right to vote, freedom of speech, etc. They are not accorded national rights as a separate people. The Land of Israel is recognized in the Law as the historical homeland of the Jewish People;
It is possible for non-Jews to be Zionists – to support the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their own land – and to live happily within the Jewish state, with all of the benefits that accrue.
It is possible to be a non-Jew and a proud Israeli. Some Arab Israelis embrace this situation. There are those eager to defend Israel against those who are anti-Zionists. Sarah Zoabi, who describes herself as Muslim, Israeli, Zionist, has gone on record saying “I believe in the right of the Jewish people to have their own country, which is Israel. I want to say to all of the Arabs of Israel to wake up. We live in Paradise. Compared to other countries, to Arab countries – we live in Paradise.” (@GabRosenberg)
But Sarah is hardly the norm. Many Israeli Arabs chafe under the concept of a Jewish State, rejecting the very premise upon which Israel was established. Drawing on their alternate narrative and their alleged grievances, they seek to restructure Israel as a state of all its citizens, rather than as a Jewish state.
Any move in this direction is a disaster. It is a way to dismantle Israel from within, and must be resisted.
Israel treats its Arab citizens and residents respectfully. But those Arab citizens and residents must recognize that they live in the Jewish State.
In May 2021, as Israel was battling Hamas in Gaza, there was a crisis of major proportions with regard to the Arabs in Israel. An Arab uprising against the Jews, with the mixed city of Lod enduring the worst damage, it was exceedingly bad:
See this video, in which you hear the voice of deputy mayor Yosi Harush as he examines the destruction by Arabs of his son’s classroom. “How can I explain this to my son?” he asks through tears.
A synagogue was torched in Lod as well. Here you see Torah scrolls being carried out.
It was also bad in the mixed city of Ramle – where a yeshiva high school was closed and the students sent home because it wasn’t safe for them to remain in the city – and elsewhere. In Acre, and in Jaffe.
These are the words of Ruby Rivlin, who was still president at the time this happened and had been a major promoter of inter-ethnic co-existence:
“The sight of the pogrom in Lod and the disturbances across the country by an incited and bloodthirsty Arab mob, injuring people, damaging property and even attacking sacred Jewish spaces is unforgiveable.
“The silence of the Arab leadership about these disturbances is shameful, giving support to terrorism and rioting and encouraging the rupture of the society in which we live…”
Border Police Commissioner Maj. Gen. Amir Cohen, who was on the scene, provided a graphic description of events that was more alarming still (emphasis added):
The clashes in the mixed towns were worse than the public realized, he said, and “bordered on anarchy…the stuff of nightmares…That [first] day, tens of thousands of rioters flooded the streets of Lod, Acre, Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Bat Yam, and Umm al-Fahm…
“I’m concerned by the physical violence that was directed at us. The pursuit of friction with us – it was never this intense before. Things need to be put on the table: there’s a nationalist element here that is very troubling.
“…we’re police officers facing with our fellow Israelis. I never expected an Israeli citizen, even an Israeli Arab, to point a gun at law enforcement.”
Many media sources misrepresented the situation, presenting it as violence sparked equally by Arab and Jew. This very clearly was not the case.
There were riots on the Temple Mount, which the Muslim Arabs insist belongs to them alone and which they must defend, and in the neighborhood of Shimon HaTzadik (Sheikh Jarrah), where a simple court case involving Arabs who were going to be evicted for long-term non-payment of rent to their Jewish landlords was blown into a major issue.
What we were seeing with those riots was a fifth column called into action during the conflict between Israel and Hamas: A fifth column of Arabs living in Israel who identify with Hamas, and, most importantly, were incited by Hamas. It is Hamas that speaks to them today, and not the PLO.
Middle East scholar Lt. Col (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar called the violence a religious war “founded in Islam’s absolute rejection of the Jewish right to statehood…” A jihad within Israel. Dr. Kedar pointed out that some of the rioters called out, “Khyber, Khyber, Oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return,” evoking the slaughter of all the men of that ancient Jewish community.
The Hamas charter states, “The day the enemies usurp part of Moslem land, Jihad becomes the individual duty of every Moslem.”
And there it is: Muslim Arabs who are citizens of Israel but fail to identify with Israel – who resent the reality of a Jewish state on the land – were called upon to act on their religious resentment and do their individual duty of Jihad.
Matters quieted down after the violence played out. But it would be a grievous mistake to assume – as some do – that the violence of May was a one-time incident.
Residents of the mixed neighborhoods, especially in Lod, have expressed with grief their sense that they were naïve and that their efforts at fostering good Jewish-Arab relations had failed. Since the riots, 400 Jewish families have left Lod. Lod mayor Yair Revivo said he had directed significant funds to the Arab sector in his city, but “they turned their backs on us and the Palestinian Identity prevailed, and the nationalistic demon came out.”
Those Arabs who are loyal Israel citizens will continue to be treated with respect. There are Arabs— albeit very small in number—who are not only loyal but prepared to act with extraordinary morality. Fadi Kasem, a nurse at the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, is such a person. He went to the scene of a riot in Acre during the height of the uprising, bringing with him a sheikh whom he hoped would help quiet the violence. There Kasem found Mor Janashvili, a Jew, being lynched by the mob that had come at him with rocks and knives. “I was scared he was going to die,” related Kasem, who administered first aid and stayed with him until he was brought to the hospital.
Kasem later went to visit a recovering Janashvili, who told him “You saved my life.” He remembered Kasem comforting him.
“I did what had to be done,” replied Kasem, who cried during the encounter.
Yet the fifth column remains, and the over-riding question for many is how to know whom to trust. This is not said lightly, but in the face of some bitter realities.
That there will be more violence at points of friction – such as the Temple Mount — is inevitable. But what looms far larger than this is concern about what will happen if Israel is at war – with Hamas or Hezbollah – and that fifth column is again activated.
Efraim Karsh, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, expressed concern in June about the growing radicalization of Israel’s Arabs (emphasis added):
Says Karsh, the “main danger to Israel’s continued success, or even existence over the long run, is posed…by Arab citizens of Israel…”
…over the past quarter century Israeli Arabs have increasingly come to adopt a Palestinian identity, “reject Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state,” and employ “both violent and … sophisticated means to achieve this goal.”
The escalating demands of Israeli Arabs have gone hand-in-hand with “growing violence” by Israeli Arabs “every time” Israel has come to blows with its adversaries.
…Israeli Arabs are growing “more nationalized, more radicalized, [and] more Islamized.”
Dr. Doron Matza, writing for BESA, concludes that (emphasis added):
“As Israel now stands at yet another historical moment, it needs to eschew the policy of inclusion that served it well in recent years…and instead reset the boundaries of what is permitted—and particularly of what is forbidden—in its relationship with its Arab citizens…”
It is a tough assessment that pushes against many accepted “truths” with regard to the need for acceptance of the Arabs if Israel is to be a “just” society. But tough or not, this assessment addresses painful existential issues for Israel.
As this is written – July 2021 – the Ra’am party is a faction within the government of Israel. The party was enfolded into the government during a tumultuous political time because of a desire on the part of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett to achieve the minimum number of mandates required for a governing coalition.
But an anti-Zionist party does not belong in the government of Israel!
Anyone who believes that Mansour Abbas has moderated his position, rejecting former Islamic goals in order to participate in the government, is severely deluded. No good will come from this situation, which has set a deeply regrettable precedent: An anti-Zionist party that doesn’t believe Israel should exist has been made part of the government.
The current government is ill-equipped to deal with the critical problems addressed here, and there will be scant support from Europe or the US. At a bare minimum, anyone inside of Israel found to be supporting terrorism should lose citizenship or residency rights forthwith. But even this is too much for the current government. Attempts to placate by making concessions – a common practice on the left – will do further damage.
Perhaps Yosi Harush, speaking in the video about Lod, puts it best:
“Our destiny depends only on us. No one is guarding us.”