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The terrible dilemma of Israeli Arabs

15 November 2023 Expertises   126179  

Malika Madi

Since 7 October and the bloody attack by Hamas on Israeli soil, little has been said about the situation of Israeli Arabs, also known as “Arab citizens of Israel”. According to the latest demographic data, they represent 21% of the Israeli population, descendants of the 160,000 Palestinians who remained (or were not expelled) in the territory granted to Israel in 1948. As for the right to nationality, it was not until the late 1960s that they gained access to it.
Today, although they enjoy the same rights as the Jewish population, including the right to vote, they are still victims of discrimination. Already fairly badly regarded, recent events have made Israeli Jews even more wary of them. The situation is particularly complex because most of them still share very strong links with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Friends or family members who chose to leave or were forced to do so during the exoduses of 1948 and 1967.

The Arabs who remained in the region after 1948 made this choice for many reasons, the most important of which is moral. They represent a lineage of several generations who were born and lived on these lands, and for many, leaving would have meant betraying their ancestors. Aware of the difficulties, but also driven by a creative and positive energy in a new country where everything had to be built. From the end of the 1940s and for several decades, they were joined by a Jewish population building new homes on the outskirts of the historic districts. Modern housing, mostly occupied by new arrivals, where the mix did not really live up to the true diversity that could have been a model for the rest of the world.

Rather than true cohabitation, it is a question of shared living in its simplest form. The population of some towns is more than 50% Arab. East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are on the list, even though the international community does not recognise them as belonging to Israel. Another eloquent example is the communitarianism in the city of Acre. The most recent version of the city is made up of around 25% Arabs, whereas the historic city is 95% Arab. Haifa is another major city, with 10% Arabs in the mixed neighbourhoods, compared with around 70% in the lower town built before 1948.

Most of this conglomerate was built along the “Green Line”, on the border between Israel and the West Bank. It is also in this famous “Triangle” (Israeli Arab towns and villages close to the Green Line, in the eastern plain of the Sharon region) that Tayibe is located, a settlement made up exclusively of Israeli Arabs. Nazareth is also known as the largest Arab town in the country.

The shock of 7 October 2023

Until now, people have managed to live side by side despite a few outbursts and incivilities, but the new conflict in Gaza, which has already claimed thousands of lives, threatens to erode the social fabric. This cohabitation, already fragile since the creation of Israel, is seriously undermined. A difficulty of balance which, as the specialists of the Hebrew State affirm, comes from the complexity to define: “What is a Jewish State today?

Israeli Arabs are citizens in their own right and have Israeli passports, but they cannot join the army, which remains closed to them. Concentrated in the south and north of the country, they are victims of an infrastructure deficit that considerably weakens their social status: statistically, they are poorer than the Jewish population.

Tensions were already being felt before the start of the conflict. Druze, Circassians (Muslims from the Caucasus), Bedouins, Christian Arabs and Muslims, now citizens of Israel, now find themselves at the heart of a war in which they cannot take part. It is the biggest conflict they have experienced in the last 50 years.

Demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza took place last summer, followed by clashes with the police and mass arrests of Israeli Arabs. The new generation, most of whom support the Palestinians, define themselves as “Palestinians of Israel” and refuse to be called “Israeli Arabs”. Nevertheless, the most serious studies reveal that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have no desire to live in Palestine, even with recognised borders and a recognised state!

While the gap between the Jewish and Arab populations is widening today, the rift dates back to the early 2000s, when Israeli Arabs carried out suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Since then, mistrust between the two populations has continued to grow. It has reached a climax since the attacks of 7 October.

Some of Israel’s most radical politicians, particularly on the far right, have played on the fear of the attacks, claiming that Israeli Arabs are traitors and should be distrusted or even driven out of the country. The breeding ground for radicalisation on both sides is invigorated by each new conflict, bringing with it its share of hatred and abjection.