OpinionColumn

The PA and Israeli Arabs

The effects of two fierce waves of Israeli Arab violence continue to the present.

A demonstration by Bedouin and Israeli Arabs to mark Land Day, at Sawe al-Atrash village, on March 26, 2022. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90,
A demonstration by Bedouin and Israeli Arabs to mark Land Day, at Sawe al-Atrash village, on March 26, 2022. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90,
Yoni Ben Menachem
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Since the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993, Israeli governments have pursued a policy of containment towards the Palestinian Authority, even though the P.A. has blatantly violated the Accords.

This policy, which the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs see as reflecting Israeli weakness and dependence on the P.A., affects the Israeli Arab sector’s commitment to the narrative of the Palestinian struggle and its attitude towards law and order.

It has also helped to impair governability and ignited two waves of violence in the Israeli Arab sector, each of which was, at the time, unprecedented since Israel’s establishment.

The formation of Israel’s new conservative government offers a golden opportunity for a change in policy towards the P.A. and Hamas and their influence over the Israeli Arab street, aiming to restore governability and impose law and order.

The effects of the two fierce waves of Israeli Arab violence continue to the present. The first wave occurred in October 2000, when 13 Israeli citizens (12 Arabs and one Jew) were killed. It corresponded with the Second Intifada.

The second riots, in May 2021, accompanied the IDF’s “Operation Guardian of the Walls.” In those disturbances, 13 Israeli citizens were killed. The common denominator of these two severe outbreaks of violence is that events in eastern Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount were the detonators.

An investigation of the rioting showed that the P.A. and Hamas have turned the Temple Mount issue and the mendacious “Al-Aqsa is in danger” canard into their main engines for inciting the Israeli Arabs against the state. The incitement is conducted in the Palestinian education system, mosques, official media and social media.

On the eve of Ramadan 2023, there was growing concern that the P.A. and Hamas would again use the Temple Mount issue to incite the Israeli Arabs. Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir announced the possibility of a “Guardian of the Walls II” outbreak in the Arab sector and the mixed Muslim-Jewish Israeli cities, and stated that the police were preparing accordingly. Eventually, despite growing tension and incitement and some escalation, there was no major outbreak of violence.

As the Israeli Arabs see it, what happened in May 2021 was a spontaneous eruption, aimed less at protesting against injustice and inequality in Israeli society and more at emphasizing that their national identity is Palestinian rather than Israeli, despite the Israelization phenomenon in Israeli Arab society.

As a direct result of the violent events of May 2021, Israel is now establishing a national guard to help restore governability in the Arab sector and deal with widespread disturbances, including in the mixed Jewish-Muslim cities.

Some members of the Israeli Arab leadership have helped encourage the violence through rabble-rousing statements in the media. Parliamentary whip and Knesset member Ofir Katz is now promoting a bill to disqualify Arab MKs who support terror. Statements favoring terror or individual terrorists would constitute sufficient cause to bar candidates from running for the Knesset, under the proposed legislation.

Meanwhile, the Bedouin residents of the Negev are marking a year since the “Negev uprising” (habat al-nakab in Arabic) against a tree-planting ceremony by the Jewish National Fund, and some are preparing for a further confrontation in light of the new government’s aim of imposing law and order.

Many members of the younger Israeli Arab generation continue to voice complaints over what they perceive as racism towards the Arab sector and the meager budgets devoted to tackling its crime and social problems. There is still intense anger over the Israeli establishment’s intention to fight illegal Arab-sector construction while neglecting the issues of violence, crime and illegal weapons.

The exclusion of the Arab Ra’am Party from the current coalition has exacerbated the fear that instead of addressing the fundamental problems of the Israeli Arab sector—a process that Ra’am spearheaded as a coalition member of the Bennett-Lapid government—the new government will neglect the issue, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promises.

According to media reports, Netanyahu aims to funnel a sum of 30 billion shekels ($7.8 billion) to the Arab sector—compared to the 53 billion shekels ($13.8 billion) allocated by the previous government.

Although quiet has prevailed in the Arab sector since the May 2021 events, it is an illusory quiet. Under the surface, resentments simmer and threaten to erupt anew, especially in cities where the friction between Jews and Arabs is considerable.

There is great apprehension in the Israeli Arab sector regarding Ben-Gvir’s appointment to the post of national security minister in light of his election campaign declarations to restore governability to the Negev and fight crime in the Arab sector. Those fears intensified with Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount on Jan. 3 and statements about changing the status quo on the Mount. There is concern that his policy will ignite a new spate of disturbances in the Arab sector.

On Jan. 9, the National Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities stated in a letter to Netanyahu: “It is hard for us to see how we can work effectively with the new national security minister, given his racist positions towards the Arab sector and the total and deep mistrust between the Arab sector and the minister and his office.”

The local authority heads warned that Ben-Gvir had been granted policy prerogatives and powers with great potential to harm the Arab sector. For example, the transferring of the Israel Lands Authority to his purview, the authority to possibly change IDF engagement orders, and allowing the Israel Security Agency to operate in Arab communities. Such powers could help the minister to implement his hardline agenda towards Israeli Arab society, they warned. The local authority heads clarified that “these measures could certainly lead to events involving loss of control in the Arab communities.”

Ben-Gvir, on the other hand, repeatedly states his commitment to fighting crime in Israeli Arab society—so far to no avail, as the number of murders among Israeli Arabs keeps rising.

As the new Israeli government took shape, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas formulated a new “roadmap” for the struggle against it. This plan calls for “popular resistance” and international diplomatic and media activity against Israel.

Central to the plan are the diplomatic and media efforts against the Netanyahu government, which is portrayed as a racist entity pursuing a policy of apartheid. The project was presented to the 10th conference of the Fatah Central Committee at the start of December 2022.

P.A. officials say that the P.A. will use the new conservative government’s attitude towards the Israeli Arabs to vilify it internationally.

The P.A. maintains close ties with Israeli Arabs. Senior P.A. officials confer with Arab-sector leaders, who make pilgrimages to P.A. headquarters in Ramallah for meetings with Abbas and participate in events held by the Palestinian leadership, such as the convening of the PLO Executive Committee.

The Israeli Arabs’ Higher Monitoring Committee maintains a very close relationship with the P.A., primarily via the head of the committee, Mohammed Barakeh, who often visits Ramallah and participates in official P.A. and Fatah events.

The Cities of Israel organization, which was set up after “Operation Guardian of the Walls” by Jewish residents of cities with large Arab populations, claims that the violent events of May 2021 were not spontaneous and that it was the Higher Monitoring Committee, in whose framework the Arab parties and local authorities operate, that organized the actions on the ground, encouraged the rioters and promised them legal assistance.

In addition, there is a free flow of Israeli Arabs to P.A.-controlled areas and to the Temple Mount. They go to the former for academic studies (thousands of Israeli Arab students attend P.A. universities), family visits and shopping. The city of Jenin, in particular, with its low prices, has become a weekend shopping center for Israeli Arabs.

Thousands of Israeli Arabs come to Jenin each week, and they are affected by the prevailing sentiment in the city, which has become the “terror capital” of Judea and Samaria.

To avoid harm to the city’s economy, the defense establishment does not restrict Israeli Arabs’ entry to Jenin; they are one of the residents’ primary sources of income.

The P.A.’s glorification of terrorists also extends to Israeli Arabs involved in terror. Alongside its policy of paying salaries to terrorists serving prison sentences in Israel and stipends to families of those killed or wounded attempting to carry out terrorist attacks, the P.A. also pays salaries to Israeli Arabs who engage in terror. Indeed, they and eastern Jerusalem Arabs get slightly higher wages than those from Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The rewards incentivize Israeli Arabs to commit terror attacks.

In addition, the P.A. operates a radio station for Israeli Arabs whose messages fit the narrative of the “Palestinian struggle.”

The Israeli Arab leadership sees itself as representing an essential part of the Palestinian people, known as “the inside” or the “Arabs of ’48” in Arabic, and as a primary side of the triangle that includes the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

A senior Israeli Arab source told me that the task of the sector’s leadership is to return the Arabs of the “inside” to the fold of the Palestinian people and, after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 lines, to declare the Israeli Arabs’ autonomy, and perhaps even to merge with the Palestinian state and augment Israel’s isolation.

Most of the Israeli Arab leadership opposes normalization between Israel and Arab countries before reaching an Israeli-Palestinian political settlement. It opposes the idea of a land swap or a population exchange, as Yisrael Beiteinu Party head Avigdor Lieberman proposed some years ago. Many believe that the Oslo Accords are dead and that they only diverted the Palestinian struggle from its course. They support “armed resistance” against “the Israeli occupation” and claim it is anchored in international law.

Ostensibly, many Israeli Arab leaders promote a strategy according to which their role is to contribute “nonviolent resistance” to the P.A.’s and the Gaza terror organizations’ “military struggle” against Israel. But in practice, such “protest” may well take the form of widespread riots in Israeli Arab communities, as well as the blocking of main roads to disrupt life in the Jewish sector and prevent military and police forces from reaching riots in the mixed cities such as Ramle, Lod, Haifa, Acre and others. Most Israeli Arabs view these as Arab towns whose Jewish residents are “invaders.”

In my assessment, Israel’s weak policy towards the P.A. is seen as Israeli irresolution and was evident in the lack of preparation and timidity towards the riots during “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” which encouraged the Israeli Arabs’ audacity and could lead to problematic scenarios in future clashes. The Israeli leadership, therefore, needs to demonstrate a tough line towards the P.A. and Hamas.

For example, in August 2021, then–Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved a set of confidence-building measures for the P.A. that included a loan of half a billion shekels, the adjustment of the status of 3,000 Palestinians who lacked a Palestinian identity card and approval of Palestinian building plans in Area C.

These mitigations, which were offered against the backdrop of the P.A.’s incitement during events that preceded “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” seemed to the P.A. and Israeli Arabs to indicate Israel’s dependence on the P.A. and hence its weakness, emboldening them to continue on their course.

Israel needs to continue its “separation policy” between Gaza on the one hand and Judea and Samaria on the other, thereby obstructing the tripartite relationship that the Israeli Arab leadership wants to create with the P.A. and Palestinian factions in Gaza.

In light of the events in the Arab sector in October 2000 and May 2021, Israel must adopt a deterrent security policy that lays down red lines. This includes legislating harsher punishments for disturbing the peace, blocking roads, throwing stones and firebombs, and incitement.

Legislation is also needed to strip Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorist offenses of their citizenship and to enable their expulsion abroad or to Gaza. A law recently passed by the Knesset addresses this issue but is conditional on these terrorists requesting a salary from the P.A.

In this context, an important measure was the outlawing in 2015 of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement headed by Raed Salah after it engaged in incitement and repeatedly voiced the deceitful slogan “Al-Aqsa is in danger.” But that measure is insufficient; the Northern Branch continues to engage in well-honed incitement, aided by legal counsel, that fans the flames of the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” narrative. It also incited the May 2021 riots in the mixed cities and must be dealt with more firmly.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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