Gaza conflict upsets fragile balance between Arab and Jewish Israelis

·4-min read

Inter-communal violence erupted for a fourth consecutive night in Israel on Thursday, with fresh clashes in the flashpoint town of Lod between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis as the conflict between Hamas and Israel revives decades-long resentments and upsets a fragile balance.

Arab Israelis constitute 20 percent of the country’s population. As full citizens of Israel, they enjoy benefits such as freedom of speech and participation in free and fair elections – unlike many people in the Middle East.

Their sense of identity is often multifaceted. “I’m an Israeli Arab but also a Palestinian, so my identity is twofold,” said Thabet Abu Rass, who lives near Lod and is the director of the Abraham Initiatives, an NGO that promotes full and equal citizenship for Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Like many Arab Israelis – who are descended from those who remained when the state of Israel was created in 1948 – Abu Rass sometimes feels caught between two identities as an Arab and Palestinian, on the one hand, and as an Israeli citizen on the other. The outbreak of the worst violence since the 2014 Gaza war has only exacerbated this feeling of unease.

>> The political calculations behind Hamas’s escalating conflict with Israel

“The term ‘Arab Israelis’ has become common and is primarily used by Israel,” said Agnès Levallois, vice president of the Research Institute for Mediterranean and Middle East Studies (Institut de recherche et d'études Méditerranée Moyen-Orient). She said she prefers the expression “Palestinians of Israel” to refer to Arabs with Israeli citizenship.

“They were living there before the creation of Israel and they’re the Palestinians who remained,” Levallois said. “Talking about Arab Israelis is a way of drowning their identity in membership of a supposed Arab nation, cutting them off from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank – even if some members of this community disassociate themselves from Palestinians, valuing [above all] the freedom and opportunities they enjoy in Israel.”

There are currently some 1.8 million Arabs with Israeli citizenship, descended from the 160,000 Palestinians who remained in 1948. The majority are Muslims, although there are small Christian and Druze minorities.

“They are full Israeli citizens with equal rights, at least in principle,” said Jean-Marc Liling, a Franco-Israeli lawyer and peace campaigner living in Tel Aviv. “But there is some degree of institutionalised discrimination linked to the definition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’. The country continues to wrestle with questions of identity and, under the guise of being a Jewish democratic state, preference is given to the majority Jewish population while some discrimination can be seen against Israeli Arabs.”

>> Bolstered by Iran, Hezbollah 'capable of destruction on a whole new scale'

The Supreme Court ruled in a landmark judgement in 2000 that the Arab minority suffered discrimination, especially in the jobs market.

Arab Israelis do play a role in domestic politics, with 12 sitting in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, of 120 MPs. However, no Arab Israeli party has ever been part of the coalition governments that have long governed the country.

And Arab Israelis are not required to serve the obligatory two-plus years of national military service, except for the Druze. “This is a sign that they are regarded with mistrust,” according to Levallois.

Discrimination in housing, public services

Housing discrimination is one area where the average Arab Israeli does not feel equal to Jewish citizens, Abu Rass said. “Many members of the Arab middle class hope to live in better-quality housing. But they don’t have access to the kibbutz community system, for example, because requests go through a special committee that decides whether or not it’s appropriate for you to live with Jews – and they systematically refuse,” Abu Rass said.

Some observers also say there is discrimination by public services. A large part of the Arab Israeli population who live on the outskirts of major municipalities doesn’t have access to public services of the same quality as the Jewish Israelis living in cities, Liling said.

>> Arab countries allied with Israel ‘hostages of the conflict and its upheavals’

Levallois agreed, citing unequal investment as a key factor. “State funding for the development of villages where Palestinian Israelis live doesn’t match up to the funding for cities where Jewish Israelis live,” she said.

Before the re-emergence of inter-communal violence over the past week, life was “pretty normal” in ethnically mixed parts of Israel, said Abu Rass. In Lod, previous months had seen “real co-operation” between Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli residents in the fight against Covid-19, he observed.

But tensions were already simmering in recent months. In this industrial city – which has an Arab Israeli population of 40 percent, most of whom are Muslims – the mayor “complained about the noise from the muezzin (the Muslim call to prayer) and went to the mosque to tell them to stop chanting in person – despite the local police warning that this would be a bad idea”, Abu Rass said.

The outside of a synagogue was set alight during Thursday night’s unrest in Lod while 63 people were arrested, according to Israeli police. The situation there has become “very dangerous”, Abu Rass said, warning that it could lead to a “civil war”.

This article was translated from the original in French.