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OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Jewish-Arab relations in Israel: Between conflict and containment

The recent clashes in Israel attest to the depth of national conflict between the country’s Arab and Jewish citizens. Alongside a police response, a complementary civil response is required.

Israeli police officers secure a Jewish school in Lod following recent clashes between Jewish and Arab residents of the city, May 23, 2021. Photo by Flash90.
Israeli police officers secure a Jewish school in Lod following recent clashes between Jewish and Arab residents of the city, May 23, 2021. Photo by Flash90.
David Koren
David Koren

One of the most delicate terms in Israeli identity discourse is “Arab citizens of Israel.” Jews citing this term use it to make a distinction between “Israeli” Arabs and “Palestinian” Arabs, and to imply differences in their attitudes toward the State of Israel and its institutions. There are substantive differences between the legal status of Arab citizens in Israel, Jerusalem’s Arabs (who are non-citizen residents) and the Arabs of the territories (most of whom are residents of the Palestinian Authority). But in the world of identities, the spoken word is mightier than the written law.

Anyone versed in the finer points of the discourse prevalent in the Arab world is aware that the term “Israeli Arab” is almost never used. Arab citizens of Israel most often are called by the Arab world “the Arabs of 1948.” This appellation distinguishes Arab citizens of Israel from the Palestinian collective in Judea and Samaria, Gaza, eastern Jerusalem and the Palestinian diaspora abroad. It implicitly criticizes the Israeli ID card that they bear and their ties to Israeli society.

Both the Jewish-Israeli discourse and the Arab discourse disregard the self-identification of many of Israel’s Arab citizens as part of the Palestinian national collective. Prominent Arab-Israeli spokespeople, such as Knesset member Ayman Odeh, emphasize their Palestinian identity. In fact, they insist that the fact that they did not become exiles from Palestine in 1948 or 1967 only deepens their Palestinian identity.

Public opinion polls conducted in recent years indicate that about one-fifth of Israel’s Arab citizens define themselves as Israeli. But the same polls indicate that this Israeli identity is secondary to the Islamic and Arab identity of those sampled. Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensifies, particularly the Islamic contexts pertaining to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the desire of Israel’s Arab citizens to support the Palestinian side is brought into sharp focus.

It seems that the serious violence of the past month in Lod, Akko, Jaffa, Tamra, Qalansawe, Tayibe, Haifa the Negev and elsewhere in Israel greatly undermined whatever divides do exists between factions of the Palestinian community, and instead bolstered the affinity between Israeli and West Bank or Gaza Arabs.

Many groups in the Arab sector have strongly condemned the violence of an Arab minority, and it should be noted that many Arab criminal elements led the riots. Nevertheless, the nationalist narrative of the riots cannot be downplayed. The rioters sought to proclaim that the artificial divide between “Israeli” and “Palestinian” Arabs has expired and to emphasize that preoccupation with the 1967 borders is artificial. Like the Palestinians, the Palestinian citizens of Israel view the conflict with Israel as stemming from 1948. Young people in Lod and Acre interviewed by the Israeli media even explicitly stated that “Acre is Arab like Jerusalem, like Haifa, Jaffa, Ramla and Lod—and all of Palestine. It is time we take back what is ours.”

The PLO’s Phased Plan, adopted by that organization in June 1974, also made clear that a return to the borders of the 1967 war (referred to by Palestinians as the naksa, meaning the “downfall/defeat”) is merely the first step toward a return to the reality which preceded the nakba (“catastrophe” or “disaster”) of 1948. A similar trend also is evident in the Arab-Israeli community’s “Vision Document” of 2006, written by MKs from the Joint Arab List Party, and others.

The document seeks to unravel Israel’s political system, in place since 1948, regarding the existence of a majoritarian democracy (where the country’s Jewish majority holds preference in the determination of the country’s character). Instead, the authors of the Vision Document seek to establish a consociational democracy where minority groups have the power to veto decisions not consistent with their views.

The deep-seated national component of the recent clashes indicates that even after calm is restored on the streets, Israel’s political leadership will still face fundamental questions. Given that both national communities must continue to coexist within the State of Israel, how can a cooperative civil framework be formed despite the harsh national disputes? The key to answering this question lies mainly in working with civil society organizations and the local authority leaderships in both publics, who can fashion a framework of consensual “ground rules” for leading a shared life alongside bitter national conflict.

This must include strict condemnation of violence on anyone’s part and a commitment to maintaining law and order, while creating mechanisms for close dialogue between the parties both in times of routine and in emergencies. Mechanisms of dialogue—which have broken down because of recent rioting—are a fundamental tool in restoring order, alongside firm policing and the imposition of heavy penalties on lawbreakers.

One must also consider additional causes for the bloody incidents of recent weeks, including the power of violent armed gangs and Arab criminal elements in mixed cities and Arab local authorities. These groups terrorize local authorities, public leaders, Arab educators and community activists. This internal fauda (“chaos”) in the Arab sector was bound to spill over into Jewish Israeli society too. The police and security forces have no choice but to confront such vigilantes to secure the safety of Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens.

Blaming the situation on the police alone is narrow-sighted. Beyond the police, the Israeli government must own up to the challenge of governance and sovereignty in Arab communities. Dealing with the challenge will entail a combination of educational, community, employment, identity and infrastructure initiatives. It will require the provision of proper municipal services in Arab cities, alongside real empowerment of pragmatic local leaderships, with an emphasis on Arab municipalities.

Arab municipal authorities in the country’s north, center and south of the country face severe deficiencies in transportation infrastructure, education and employment—all of which grew worse during the COVID-19 crisis. Manpower in Arab authorities is weak too, leading to inefficient financial and organizational conduct, which makes it harder to implement budget reforms prescribed by Government Decision No. 922 (which mandated the investment of NIS 15 billion ($4.6 billion) over five years in Arab cities and towns) and Decision No. 2397 (adds additional NIS 3 billion over five years). Therefore, in addition to the allocation of the budgets, there is a need for extensive professional training of municipal officials.

To deal with all the weighty challenges mentioned above, four key endeavors must be undertaken:

1. Deep and constructive community discourse between Israeli authorities and local and national Arab community leadership.

2. Improvement of police enforcement and the imposition of law and order.

3. Advancement of quality of life, with an emphasis on planning and construction, development of commercial complexes, recreation and leisure, street cleaning and road infrastructure.

4. Development of human capital in the fields of education, higher education and employment.

National authorities have invested heavily in the Arab sector in recent years, but it seems that there is no integrative approach or government coordinator who has a view of the complete picture and who channels resources appropriately and effectively. Additionally, the government has failed to broadcast the diverse work it has undertaken to benefit the Arab community, something that might slightly restore the current low level of trust between Arab citizens and government authorities.

In the past, Israeli governments included a Ministry of Minorities (dismantled in 2011), but it lacked any real power. Last February, the prime minister appointed Israel Police Maj. Gen. (ret.) Aharon Franco as point man on combating crime in Arab communities. But still missing is an integrative government office with powers to coordinate all government policies and security matters relating to the Arab sector. Such a coordinated government effort is needed to work with pragmatic Arab leadership in creating a better future for Israeli Arabs and the Negev Bedouin.

Dr. David Koren directs the eastern Jerusalem strategic planning department in the Israeli Education Ministry. For seven years, he was adviser to the mayor of Jerusalem for Arab and eastern Jerusalem affairs, and led a team of ten experts and officials responsible for community relations and strategic development of the Muslim and Christian sectors of the city. Previously, he headed the Middle East branch in the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and served for many years in IDF Military Intelligence. He lectures in Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, Hebrew University and Kiryat Ono College, and has taught at Ariel University and Shalem College.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

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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