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2017 Annual Assessment

*A broader, more detailed paper on this subject is forthcoming as part of JPPI’s Pluralism Project

The outbreak of violence on the Temple Mount this past summer and the tensions around the “Lone Wolf Intifada” that preceded it, raised the need to examine relations between Jews and Arabs within Israel in this year’s Annual Assessment.

On one hand, the bloody civil war in Syria and the deepening of the Shia – Sunni conflict have intensified the signs that Israeli Arabs aspire to integrate into Israeli society and share the fabric of life with the Jewish majority. On the other hand, tensions between Jews and Muslims around the holy sites, and the identification of the Arab minority with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, threaten to increase the nationalist- religious elements of the conflict. These trends have led Arab politicians and religious leaders to engage in incitement and profit politically at the expense of coexistence, and were met with similar responses from right-wing Jewish groups and controversial legislative initiatives.

On July 14, 2017, three young Israeli Arab men, residents of Umm Al Fahm, entered the old city unarmed, followed by a collaborator carrying a bag containing two submachine guns and a handgun. They met at the Al Aqsa mosque, took the three weapons and opened fire on the Israeli border police officers at the site, leaving two officers dead and another injured. Additional police returned fire, killing all three attackers. This was considered an especially rare incident, as it was carried out by Israeli citizens.

The three attackers were connected to the Islamic Movement in Israel, which clearly identifies with Hamas. One served as a preacher at his local mosque. The attack was an obvious result of religious sentiments in the air created by Islamic fundamentalism, which the Islamic Movement cultivates, especially in its northern branch, even if it does not give operational orders. One should not underestimate the movement’s power or influence, despite that it is not the dominant force in Israeli-Arab society.

The Israeli public was surprised, even shocked to learn the attackers were Israeli citizens. This put the Knesset members from the “Joint List” (combined Arab Knesset parties) who see themselves as the leaders of the Arab-Israeli public in a dilemma. The Jewish public and authorities expected their clear condemnation of the attack, but they feared accusations of servility or even treason from their constituents. A number Joint List MKs posted weak, ambiguous responses that mostly blamed the “occupation.” The two Arab MK’s who did publish clear condemnations are not Joint List members (one is a member of the Zionist Union and the other of Meretz).

As for the “Arab street” in Israel – there were no public expressions of joy. In Umm Al Fahm itself, residents distanced themselves from the incident, some feared reprisals.

However, within a few days, things took a turn, following the police decision to install metal detectors at Temple Mount entrances. The Waqf, the Palestinian body responsible for the religious administration of the site, claimed the decision was a clear violation of the “status quo”. This position was adopted throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

After a few days of hesitation, the Israeli government decided to remove the metal detectors, but announced it would seek other methods to prevent weapons from entering the site.

It should be noted that, thus far, the July 14 attack seems to have been an isolated event. We have yet to witness any follow-up attacks or “side effects” in the positions or actions of the Arab “street.”

The Al Aqsa mosque is the third most important religious site in Islam. Its control by a non-Muslim authority (especially a Jewish one, an inferior religion according to Islam) is a constant source of bitterness and anger among devout Muslims. At the same time, it rests on the Temple Mount, which once housed both Jewish temples, and according to some, will one day hold the third temple. Due to these competing narratives, it is regarded as the most volatile place in the Middle East.

The “Lone Wolf Intifada” that began on the Jewish New Year two years ago (October 2015), erupted after a series of events on the Temple Mount that caused Palestinians to claim that Jews were inciting friction.

Radical Islamist actors, including clerics who preach during Friday prayers (the most important worship of devout Muslims), claimed these frictions reflected a hidden agenda of the Israeli authorities to undercut the “status quo” on the Temple Mount as part of an effort to “Judeify” the site. The Palestinians found Israeli government denials of this unconvincing.

Among the many friction points between the State of Israel and Jewish majority and the Arab minority, the Temple Mount (in Israel’s view) and Al Aqsa (in the Arabs’ view), is the most sensitive and loaded issue of all.

It is clear that Israeli Muslims are an integral and inseparable part of the Arab and Islamic world, whose spiritual connection to it will not be compromised (regardless of diplomatic agreements one way or the other). However, until now, even in instances of violent confrontation between Palestinians and Israeli security at Al Aqsa, including those with casualties, Israeli Arabs have not taken to the streets. Harsh verbal condemnations by their leadership have sufficed.

The term “Israeli Arab” refers to Arab minority citizens of Israel (Muslim or Christian) living within the 1949 Armistice Lines. Most have a strong Palestinian identity. The Arabs of East-Jerusalem are not considered Israeli-Arabs and define themselves solely as Palestinian. The Israeli Druze, although Arab in language, ethnicity, and culture, have a different religion, and are considered a separate group for political and historical reasons.

Arabs (Muslims and Christians) constitute 15.5 percent of Israel’s population, the vast majority of whom are Muslim. Israel’s Muslim citizens (within the Green line, not including East Jerusalem Arabs who are not Israeli citizens) number 1,178,000 individuals, or 14 percent of Israel’s citizenry. Arab Christians make up less than 1.5 percent of the country’s population.

Since the 1967 Six-Day War, and especially, since the First Intifada, Israel’s Arabs are caught in an ongoing dilemma between “Palestinization” and “Israelization.” That is, between choosing a political path that focuses mostly on the Palestinian issue and the continued struggle over the national character of the State of Israel (a “Jewish state” versus a “state of all its citizens”) and a civil path – which includes striving for civil equality and integration in all aspects of life in the State of Israel.

In 2006, the High Follow-Up Committee and the National Committee of the Heads of Arab Localities published a joint manifesto, The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel. This document demands full socio-economic equality and calls for redefining Israel from a “Jewish state” to a “Consensual Democracy”1. While this increased fear and suspicion among some Israeli Jews, it never had practical expression within Arab-Israeli society.

The Influence of the “Arab Spring” – a series of revolutions, attempted revolutions, civil wars, and continued unrest that began in 2011 in a number of Arab states shaped positions and raised questions and dilemmas among Israeli Arabs. These mostly related to Arab society itself, with the State of Israel only playing a small role.

The Syrian Civil War – which started as part of the Arab Spring, deepened the divisions and polarization among Israeli Arabs. While Hadash/Maki (the Israeli communist party) expressed support for the Assad regime, Balad opposed it, as it disrupted Arab unity. The Islamist groups within Israel’s Arab community, chief among them the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, fiercely oppose Shia Islam, which they see as heretical, and therefore distance themselves from and have an aversion to Iran and Hezbollah.

The “Arab street” in Israel, as much as it is possible to identify trends within it, does not accept Assad’s repression of the Syrian people (particularly the Sunni sector), and certainly despises the massacres conducted by it in Aleppo and elsewhere in northern Syria. At the same time, it also rejects and despises the radical violence of ISIS and the radical ideology of the Salafists. The recruitment of a few dozens of Israeli Arabs into ISIS ranks seems anomalous, not something that indicates a widespread reality.

At this time, it can be said that the Arab Spring did not elicit direct demands by Israeli Arabs from the state. However, it is quite likely that in the future, this will have implications for the continued formation of an Israeli Arab civil society and public sphere.

The positions of Israeli-Arab politicians are not monolithic. Arab politicians in Israel serve primarily under one parliamentary list due to political constraints (a law passed raising the threshold to a minimum of four electoral votes per party). Between the four parties represented on the list, there are deep political, ideological, and personal divisions. There is almost no doubt that were the law to be changed and the threshold lowered, most of the Joint List members would prefer to run as smaller parties again.

Thus, it is difficult to speak of a clear Arab-Israeli leadership. In practice, since the establishment of the state there has not been a single Arab-Israel leader who all Arab-Israelis, or at least most, recognize. However, there is a group of Arab-Israeli politicians in positions of leadership, and there are issues around which they unite, albeit with nuances and varying levels of intensity.

Israel’s Arab citizens share a common identity with the Palestinian people, in a historical, cultural, and ethnic sense. At the same time, their Israeli citizenship – with its higher standard of living than most Palestinians enjoy, and its economic and political connectedness within Israel, has had an effect over the past 70 years. On the one hand, they feel discriminated against by Israeli Jews and oppose this double standard. On the other hand, they prefer seeking remedies within the framework of the State of Israel, and not outside of it. They express (sincere) support for the Palestinian cause, and wish for a two-state peace agreement that would “end the occupation.”

The more moderate Arab parties – Hadash and Ra’am – Ta’al – support a two-state solution. Conversely, the more radical Balad, supports the establishment of “a single, secular democratic state,” expresses support for the Palestinian struggle, and does not see the principle of “two states for two peoples” as a solution to the conflict. The Islamic Movement advocates for the establishment of an Islamic state that would include all of the territory west of the Jordan River, which is also part of the Hamas platform. A majority of Israeli Arabs reject this.

Opposite the aspirations of the Islamic Movement, Arab nationalist sentiments, and the rage over perceived discrimination, there stands a general outlook common to most of Israel’s Arab citizens. Its key elements include:

  • The state of Israel and its international standing are solid and stable.
  • The fear of a response from the “Jewish street”.
  • The economic aspect – the understanding that “there is much to lose”.
  • The realization that even if actual discrimination exists, Israel’s Arabs enjoy life under a democratic regime with a fair legal system – conditions that do not exist in any Arab country.
  • The understanding that no Arab country will lift a finger for Israel’s Arabs, and that they must prosecute their own battles, while taking advantage of the democratic regime and legal system Israel offers them.

A large majority of Israeli Arabs set for themselves a goal to seek civil equality within the State of Israel. Advancing toward this goal has met with difficulties, some expected and familiar. The tension and gaps between the Jewish and Arab populations, which exist in any case, intensify following incidents involving Israeli Arabs, such as the confrontation during the demolition of the Bedouin village Um Al Hiram, in which a resident being evacuated was killed as well as a police officer, and, of course, the Temple Mount terrorist attack. To this, we add the stances and silence of a majority of Arab politicians. This led to a situation in which each groups fears that the other threatens its personal security. Among the Arabs, there is also a fear of punishment or revenge by the Jewish majority.

Experience shows that the disconnect between the Jewish and Arab sectors of society tends to be temporary (due to the aforementioned moderating elements). At times tensions intensify in a specific place or area, while at other times it cuts across the entire sector (such as after the events of October 2000). However, each disconnect increases the foreclosure of the Arab participation in Jewish society, expressed, for example, in the refusal to employ Arab workers, especially those with academic education, in sensitive and security related industries.

Most experts who study Israel’s Arab population agree that although the “street” is generally interested in integration into Israeli society, the politicians (except the minority of whom are members of Jewish-Zionist parties) take confrontational and aggressive positions against the Israeli authorities, and at times Jewish society as a whole. The reasons for this seeming disconnect between the leadership and the “street” have yet to be fully analyzed. It is safe to assume that the politicians are motivated mostly by the fear that expressing moderate positions and a desire to integrate would brand them as collaborators.

Of great concern to most Israeli Arabs are the land swaps of populated areas proposed by leading Israeli public figures and politicians in the event of a peace agreement, including transferring Umm Al Fahm and the surrounding villages to the Palestinian Authority. Some Israeli politicians assert that these swaps should be a condition for any agreement, whereby the Israeli territory transferred to the Palestinian Authority is matched by Israeli annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria. The Israeli-Arab elites understand that such a move would be difficult, even impossible to implement, but wonder if raising it is meant to potentiate the existing trend (in their view) of maginalizing them them and their membership in the state. Even the Basic Law currently proposed: “Israel – a Nation State for the Jewish People,” has caused anxiety and fear among Israeli Arabs, who interpret this as legislation meant to enshrine and perpetuate their second-rate status.

Summary

A clear majority of Israel’s Arab citizens support a two-state solution, while emphasizing that they see their place in the State of Israel, in which they will continue to strive to achieve civil equality and equal opportunities.

Despite the voting patterns that express a strong identification with the Palestinian struggle to achieve independence, there is no widespread recruitment among Israeli Arabs against the Jewish state – not in terror activities or public protests. This issue exists and is palpable on the political, public, and parliamentary level, but does not represent a central component of everyday life for Israel’s Arabs. However, the issue of holy sites (Temple Mount/ Al Aqsa/ Haram A Sharif) that stands apart from all others and arouses especially strong emotions, and could lead to violent confrontations in the future.

What Next?

  1. Most Israeli Arabs will continue to vote for the Arab parties, which are regarded as the proper framework for their representation, despite the fact that these parties do not place improving the lives of Arab-Israelis and their day-to-day interests at the top of their agenda.
  2. Israeli-Arab politicians will continue to take an aggressive line on national political issues, and focus less on civil issues such as achieving civil rights and equality.
  3. There will continue to be a disparity between the Arab-Israeli society (the Arab street) and the stances of Arab politicians, as the “street” will continue to be more moderate and balanced.
  4. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to top the political agenda of Arab politicians, but will not be the leading issue on the “Arab street,” unless there are dramatic upheavals, such as violent confrontations that result in significant Palestinian civilian casualties or what is perceived as jeopardizing Muslim holy sites, especially Al Aqsa (and perhaps also the Cave of the Patriarchs).
  5. Developments in Syria – the stabilization of the Assad regime and/or the defeat of ISIS will only marginally affect Israel’s Arabs (although individuals may join ISIS or its heirs again in the future).
  6. Israeli Arabs are very concerned by a number of legislative initiatives that directly affect them. They see these as a continued attempt to exclude them from the Israeli system, from society and from the job market (especially from desirable jobs). Arab politicians, in large part, will do almost anything to exploit these sentiments to advance their own interests, even if it means further distancing the Arab “street” from integration in Israeli society.

Endnotes

1 The National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel, The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, 2006, p. 10. https://www.adalah.org/uploads/oldfiles/newsletter/eng/dec06/tasawor-mostaqbali.pdf

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