Examining More Conflict: The Question Of Israeli Arabs

Throughout this section until now, we have talked about Israel, the Jewish state, as if it were a country made up of Jews alone. We have also discussed it as a democracy, without referring to the fact that it is not just a democracy for Jews. Now is the time to rectify that picture and to broaden our perspective, in order to include within our state framework the 1.25 million Israeli Arabs who make up some nineteen percent of the current national population.

The position of the Arab minority within the Jewish state has always been difficult. The Arabs of present-day Israel are basically the remnants and descendants of the pre-War of Independence community of Mandatory Palestine that remained within the borders of the State of Israel after its declaration. The area has changed somewhat due to border adjustments following the wars of 1948 and 1967, but this fact remains substantially correct.

The presence of a large non-Jewish population has forced the State of Israel to examine carefully its democratic principles. The situation has proved very complex since the country has been surrounded for all of its modern history by an Arab world which has been consistently hostile. Israeli Arabs are in the difficult situation of being both a minority in a Jewish state and a group which is seen to have potential and actual links with nations and groups that - for decades - have rejected the existence of that state. Israel has been forced to examine the issue of whether and how to apply democratic principles to a minority whose loyalty to the state is questioned by many. How is this complicated situation expressed in reality?

Let us begin by stressing ten crucial facts that, together, give a basic picture of the situation of Israel’s Arab population:

  1. Israel is a democratic state. As such, from the beginning of its existence, Israeli Arabs have had democratic rights within the country in the sense of having the right to vote for and to be voted into the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
  2. For the first eighteen years of its existence, Israel placed almost the whole of its Arab population under close military surveillance. The military carefully watched those who lived in the areas of densest Arab population, and these people had to obtain the military authorities’ permission on an entire range of basic issues. This military rule was removed in 1966.
  3. Despite their full democratic rights in theory, the truth is that the state resources given to Israeli Arabs are far less than those given to Jews. As a result, Arab towns and villages within Israel have consistently had a lower level of municipal services to offer their residents: this is the case with regard to health, education, welfare and the infrastructure of towns and the villages ( streets, drainage, etc.).
  4. The vast majority of Israeli Arabs do not serve in the Israeli military. The two exceptions to the rule tend to be the Druze Arabs (a separate religious group - neither Moslem or Christian) who constitute about 8% of the Arab population, and the Bedouin (a defined group within Moslem Arab society constituting about 5% of the total Arab population). The arrangement whereby the majority of Israeli Arabs do not have to serve within the army suits both sides. Most Israeli Arabs would have a serious problem serving in an Israeli army whose immediate raison d’être is to defend the country against other Arabs. From the army’s viewpoint, the non-service of Israeli Arabs precludes the need for questioning the loyalty of part of the army in times of extreme need. It should be mentioned, however, that non-service in the army results in the denial to most Israeli Arabs of substantial social benefits that are linked to army service. Whereas a group like the Haredim have also been denied these benefits - since most of them do not serve - the political strength of the Haredim has allowed them compensation in many ways. On the other hand, Israeli Arabs - who lack such political clout (see point ten) - have been denied such compensation.
  5. Before 1948, the majority of the Arab population of Mandatory Palestine were farmers. However, much of their land was legally appropriated by the new State of Israel; many left agriculture and looked for work either within the Jewish sector, or as workers within the Arab sector itself. Within the Jewish sector, the result has been the creation of an urban working class, specializing in spheres such as construction and infrastructure or working within the interstices of Jewish society in menial manual work. Within the Arab sector (and to a lesser extent within Jewish society), recent decades have seen the development of a professional middle class of teachers, doctors, engineers, social workers and so on. At times of recession and high unemployment in the Israeli economy, the Israeli Arab sector is consistently the hardest hit, with its towns and villages at the top of the list of Israeli localities suffering from widespread unemployment.
  6. The vast majority of Israeli Arabs have proved themselves loyal throughout Israel’s history. However, over the years and particularly since the Al Aksa intifada, which broke out towards the end of 2000, the number of incidents in which Israeli Arabs have been involved in anti-Israeli activities, either directly or indirectly, has increased. Nevertheless, despite their family ties and feelings of identity with the Palestinians, and whatever their political sympathies, the majority have consistently refused to be involved in violent attacks on Israelis.
  7. There are presently three political parties which Israeli Arabs identify as ‘theirs.’ These include the Israeli communist party (??? ) - Hadash - which is formally a mixed Arab-Jewish framework, but which is supported primarily by Arab voters. In the early years many Israeli Arabs tended to vote for Zionist parties, believing that this would bring them benefits. Some still vote that way but, with time, the trend has moved towards voting for parties specifically seen as representing Arab interests. In recent years, many of the Arab members of Knesset have moved towards a more radical rhetoric that has received intense criticism within and has brought a number of legal probes regarding the legality of some of the statements made.
  8. The self-identity of Israeli Arabs has undergone considerable development. Over the years there has been increasing overt identification with the Palestinians. Parallel to the open struggle of Palestinian society since the first intifada of the late 1980s, there has been an open ‘Palestinianization’ of Israeli Arab society. Today, the majority of Arabs in Israel would choose to describe themselves as Palestinians or Israeli Palestinians.
  9. There have been a number of violent clashes between Israeli Arabs and Israeli police and military authorities over what may be defined as issues of civil rights; although - undeniably - they have taken on a strong nationalist aspect. There have been two main outbreaks of violence. The first was in March 1976, when a demonstration by Galilee Arabs against land expropriation turned violent and claimed six Arab lives. The second was in September 2000, when violent riots broke out in the Arab sector in a number of different places. In the course of putting down the riots, Israeli police shot dead twelve Israeli Arabs. The riots ceased, but led to accusations of police brutality. This ultimately led to the establishment of the Or Commission of Inquiry, which investigated both the actions of the policy and the government’s responsibility.
  10. Arabs have tended to use the democratic system consciously to try to improve their position within society. However, this has not yet translated into proper political benefits. Their parties have consistently been seen as outside the bounds of legitimacy that would qualify them to be part of a government coalition. Therefore they have been unable to play the type of coalition politics that would enable them to translate their political strength into real economic and social gains for their sector. One Israeli Arab has been appointed a government minister (a Druze leader representing the Labor Party), and one has been chosen as an Israeli ambassador. In addition, they have attained a number of positions as judges, including one position on the High Court.

This, in a nutshell, is the position of the Israel’s Arab population. It gives an indication of the community’s uneasy position, caught between two identities. However, it does not properly indicate the problems and challenges that a minority like the Israeli Arabs (Moslems - about 80% of the Arab population, Christians - a little over 10% - and Druze - about 8%) encounter within the Jewish Zionist state.

To understand this issue, let us quote part of an article published in 1997 by one of Israel’s leading academic experts on the situation of Israel’s Arabs, Professor Sammy Smooha. He made the following points in the journal Israel Studies:

Israel is a special case of an ethnic state. It defines itself as a state of and for Jews, that is, the homeland of the Jews only. Its dominant language is Hebrew, while Arabic has an inferior status. Its institutions, official holidays, symbols and national heroes are exclusively Jewish. The central immigration legislation, the Law of Return, allows Jews to enter freely, excludes Palestinian Arabs, and allows immigration and naturalization of non-Jews only under certain limited conditions. Israel confers a special legal status on the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, which, by their own charters, cater for Jews only. Land and settlement policies are geared to furthering the interests of Jews only. The welfare of world Jewry is a major consideration of Israeli foreign policy. In many other ways as well, the state extends preferential treatment to Jews who wish to preserve the embedded Jewishness and Zionism of the state. The Jewish-Zionist nature of the state is indeed explicitly anchored in several laws…

One finds a wide range of views regarding Israel’s dual character. According to official ideology, Zionism and democracy are perfectly compatible, and Israel is equally committed to both. The Declaration of Independence unequivocally states the validity of both principles, promising full civil and political rights to all citizens in the Jewish state…

During the 1990s, there were many cries by Arab intellectuals and radicals to terminate the Jewish nature of the State of Israel and to alter it into a state of all its citizens…

Prof. Sammy Smooha

Jewish intellectuals and radicals, known as ‘post-Zionists,’ express great sympathy for this demand, but it is met with sharp and uncompromising criticism among the general public.

It is clear that the situation of a large, non-Jewish minority within the Jewish State raises a lot of difficult questions. Jews are not used to being in the majority: for thousands of years, they always lived as minorities under other majorities. In all situations, in all places they have always received certain rights - sometimes considerable and sometimes severely limited. Sometimes these rights have existed more in theory than in practice.

How should Jews relate to minorities if and when they became a sovereign majority? The issue of a large, non-Jewish minority in a future Jewish state was never properly discussed within the Zionist movement. However, when the state became a fact in 1948, Israeli society had to do some hard thinking about the implications. A lot of lessons had to be learned; in fact, it could be suggested that they are still being learned.


Relating To Minorities: Israel And Her Arabs.

The aim of this activity is to examine the theoretical issue of Jewish behavior towards minorities in Israel, and the practical issue of Israel’s Arab minority.

Deepening The Picture.



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05 Dec 2006 / 14 Kislev 5767 0