Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

The Other Conflict

An uprising’s anniversary shines a light on Israel’s Arab minority

David B. Green
October 02, 2009
Israeli policemen arrest Palestinian Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Arabic Israeli Islamic Movement, in March(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli policemen arrest Palestinian Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Arabic Israeli Islamic Movement, in March(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday marked a grim anniversary in Israel, nine years since the “events of October 2000,” as both Arab and Jewish Israelis refer to a week of demonstrations in a number of northern towns that resulted in the killing by police of 13 Arab men. While the main catalyst for the protests was the onslaught of the Second Intifada—many Israeli Arabs have close ethnic and, in some cases, familial ties to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—the riots were also very much an expression of growing frustration among the country’s Arab citizens, who constitute some 20 percent of Israel’s population and yet are largely relegated to an inferior status in the Jewish state.

Now, nearly a decade later, Israel has invested more effort in reconciling with its Palestinian neighbors than in coming to terms with its aggrieved Arab citizens, and Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, on both the left and the right, agree that another confrontation is likely around the corner. And while the clashes between these two publics are still less violent and less heralded than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they nonetheless call into question Israel’s very vision of itself as a democratic state.

To mark the anniversary of the October Events, the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, as the umbrella group of heads of Arab municipalities calls itself, organized a general strike in the Arab sector, as well as a march in Arrabeh, a village in the Wadi Ara section of the Lower Galilee where two of the victims of the 2000 police shootings lived and died. For the first time in its history, the march was attended by several European diplomats, indicating that the Israeli-Arab claims of discrimination are beginning to find a ready ear in the international community.

Which, of course, puts Israel in a tight spot. The Jewish state is rightly proud of its Declaration of Independence, which guarantees equality before the law for all its citizens, and yet is well-aware that some of those citizens—the Jewish ones—are more equal than others. With the Law of Return granting automatic citizenship to any Jew who seeks it, and with the nation’s symbols all drawing on Jewish history and theology, Israel’s Arab citizens have always had to struggle for a place of their own.

Two recent government decisions, however, are bound to make this precarious situation even more loaded. The first is an announcement by the new education minister, Gideon Saar, that schools in the Arab sector could not use the word “nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe” and the term used to describe the calamity that befell many Arab citizens as a consequence of Israel’s independence) in lessons referring to the creation of the state. A short while after Saar’s statement, Israel’s transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, issued a decision stating that the Arabic on road signs is now to give destination names in transliteration from the Hebrew, rather than using the Arabic place name, which has been the norm here since 1948. These two steps serve to remind the state’s Arabs that they are visitors here (not especially welcome ones).

Their economic condition further demonstrates the Israeli Arabs’ growing sense of inequality: as of last year, 53 percent of all impoverished families in Israel were Arab, as were 36 of the 40 Israeli towns hit hardest by unemployment. According to a New Israel Fund 2005 report, the Israeli government spends an average of $192 a year on an Arab student, compared with $1,100 on his or her Jewish counterpart. Recent years saw little improvement in any of these grim statistics.

Many of these inequalities were stipulated in the report of an official state commission of inquiry into the events of October 2000, led by then Supreme Court justice Theodor Or and completed in 2003. The Or Commission not only concluded that the police’s use of lethal force had been largely unjustified, and that action should be taken against a variety of officials both high and low in connection with the 13 deaths, but also looked at the national context in which the events had taken place, and called on the government to “erase the tarnish of discrimination” from which Arabs suffered. And yet, not a single official was ever charged in any of the shootings, and the Israeli government, busy fighting the Palestinian intifada, had no inclination to deal with the problems facing the Arab minority.

A large part of the problem, experts agree, may lie in a deep and inherent difficulty stemming from each side’s definition of its national identity. Even among liberal-minded Israeli Jews, any attempt to question the Law of Return or propose a change in the national anthem can bring the conversation to a dead halt. In fact, a two-year-long dialogue between 20 Israeli Jewish and Arab intellectuals, sponsored a decade ago by the Israel Democracy Institute and entrusted with the question of whether the two sides could reach an agreement about what the relationship should be between Israel’s majority and minority, ended with the conclusion that they couldn’t. The 2006 book summarizing their meetings, Whose Land Is It?: A Quest for an Arab-Jewish Compact in Israel, makes for painful reading.

Similarly, a number of more recent, unilateral efforts by Israeli Arab NGOs, some of which outlined their respective visions of Israel as a multiethnic “state of all its citizens,” have been rejected out of hand by Israeli Jews almost across the board. No counter-proposals flourished in their stead, and dialogue on this crucial question has largely ceased.

Unsurprisingly, then, the floor was left vacant for the demagogues. On the Arab side, Islamists like Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Northern Branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, are skilled at exploiting fears and hatred. On the Jewish side, officials like Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman rarely pass up an opportunity to stir up Jewish beliefs that the country’s Arabs constitute a fifth column. Lieberman has long talked about the need for “transfer” of Arab-Israeli towns near the Green Line to any future Palestinian state. In last February’s election, his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, grew from 11 Knesset seats to 15, passing the Labor Party in size, largely on the strength of Lieberman’s call for annulling the citizenship of Israelis (read: Arabs) who refuse to take an oath of loyalty to the state and its Jewish and Zionist values. With the election coming weeks after Operation Cast Lead, Lieberman’s rhetoric was received enthusiastically.

Israel can defend itself from another Palestinian intifada, although the price paid by both sides in human life will continue to rise. But it’s less obvious that Israel as we know it, a free and democratic state with a majority Jewish population and character, will be able to sustain an uprising by its Arab minority. And the even more ominous possibility of Israeli Arabs making common cause with the Palestinians to fight the Jewish state—a scenario already visible in several recent cases in which Israeli Arabs have been accused of aiding Palestinian suicide bombers to infiltrate Israeli towns—is a nightmare that only politicians like Avigdor Lieberman care to contemplate. This traumatic anniversary, then, is a good time to recall that the problem of Israel’s national minority is not going away.

David B. Green is an editor at Ha’aretz English Edition.

David B. Green is an editor at Haaretz English Edition, and writes its “This Day in Jewish History” column.