In the Firing Line: The Arabs – or the Palestinians – of Israel

Main Image Credit A Palestinian man looks over a school at the Jaramana Refugee Camp, Damascus, Syria, 1948. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While unrest in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza is not uncommon, the current outpouring of support among Palestinian citizens of Israel for Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as the venting of anger in Israeli cities with large Arab populations, poses a marked change in the effects of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict within the internationally recognised borders of Israel.

Dr H A Hellyer, RUSI Senior Associate Fellow, addresses some of the critical questions facing both Jews and Arabs in the aftermath of the current conflict.

Jonathan Eyal: The term ‘Arab Israelis’ has become commonplace in various reports, but it’s fair to say that it’s primarily used by Israel. Is it an accurate name? Wouldn’t a more accurate description be ‘Palestinians of Israel’?

H A Hellyer: The term ‘Arab Israeli’ is deeply problematic, primarily because it disaggregates the Palestinian population that holds Israeli citizenship from the wider Palestinian community in the Holy Land, in the region, and worldwide. It makes them unrooted, and subtly implies they are somehow nomadic and unconnected. These people are, in fact, Palestinians – they are the descendants of Palestinians who managed to stay in their homes during the ‘Nakba’, precisely 73 years ago this past weekend, when the State of Israel was established in Mandatory Palestine, with most Palestinians being forced to flee. Removing ‘Palestinian’ from their nomenclature subtly erases their connection to their identity.

Secondly, it ought to be noted that not all Palestinians are simply ‘Arabs’: there are Afro-Palestinians, Armenian-Palestinians, Assyrian-Palestinians and other ethnic minorities among them. In this regard, Palestinian is the correct term; it is, at the end of the day, how they refer to themselves.

Finally, it should be noted that the usage of the term ‘Arab Israeli’ (which is an Israeli invention) was less frequently challenged by Palestinian citizens until the past two decades, out of a concern that it might further problematise their community vis-à-vis the authorities. After all, Palestinian citizens were under military rule for almost 20 years after the establishment of the state of Israel. Following the Second Intifada, more and more Palestinian Israeli citizens began to problematise the term.

JE: The question of loyalties is then raised. How do you think the Palestinian Israelis see themselves as citizens in a country which is formally described as a ‘Jewish state’, and what is their relationship with the residents of the Palestinian occupied territories – who are not, of course, Israeli citizens, although they are under Israeli control?

HH: Palestinian Israeli citizens are a diverse population, making up more than a fifth of the Israeli citizenry, at around two million people. Their feelings of belonging to the state and its institutions are not uniform; but what is clear is that they suffer from widespread discriminatory practices, as various Israeli and international human rights organisations, such as B’TselemHuman Rights WatchAmnesty International and others will attest to. Jews are quite openly favoured over non-Jews in various spheres of Israeli law and institutions, which is justified in accordance with, as you mentioned, the establishment of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’, rather than as a state for all its citizens. This is particularly the case in terms of land laws and access to public funds, but in general is true more widely – it’s difficult to speak of a unified citizenship status. Indeed, Human Rights Watch and others have claimed that Israeli officials are guilty of the international legally defined crimes of apartheid and persecution, and that elements of these crimes are present not only in the occupied territories, but within Israel’s 1967 borders. As such, it’s quite understandable that there are widespread feelings of disempowerment and marginalisation, particularly as increasingly radical right-wing forces in Jewish Israeli politics are mainstreamed, pushing the political discourse further and further to the right.

Huge swathes of Palestinians within the ‘Green Line’ of Israel’s internationally recognised borders have family ties with Palestinians in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and what we’ve seen in recent days is the very open identification of Palestinians in Israeli cities and towns with the Palestinian cause. Of course, the relationship is mediated by the occupation: Palestinians with Israeli documentation can travel freely throughout most of the Holy Land, occupied territory or not, with the exception of Gaza. Without such documentation – which is the case for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank – they are subject to severe restrictions on freedom of movement via a network of Israeli barriers, checkpoints and settlements. In terms of barriers, there is now an actual ‘Separation Wall’ running through the West Bank, erected by the Israeli authorities.

JE: Both the Israeli president and prime minister have condemned the violence perpetrated by both sides. Do you think these gestures have reassured Israel’s Palestinian community? What does Israel need to do to provide some reassurance to Palestinian citizens?

HH: I am not sure that the Palestinian community in Israel is much reassured by the Israeli president, but especially not by the Israeli prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu has been harshly criticised for mainstreaming a lot of radical, far-right extremist groups and their discourse, and is frequently the source of a lot of anti-Arab rhetoric himself. Trucking in anti-Arab sentiment is, unfortunately, a common feature in Israeli politics, used for cynical political ends. It is difficult to see how the population would take seriously what he might say by way of condemnation, when frankly he is the source of much of the tension in the first place.

There are also recent specific historical events within Israel that many Palestinian Israelis do not feel they have ever obtained justice for. In October 2000, there was a mass killing of Palestinian citizens of Israel by Israeli police using live fire against a protest. No police officer was ever indicted, even though the then-Israeli prime minister officially apologised for the massacre.

JE: Following the recent flare-up of violence, can the Israeli authorities ensure that a genuinely credible independent inquiry takes place that will address what happened to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and ensure open and transparent accountability? Or not?

HH: Of course, there should be such a credible inquiry, but at this juncture, I’m not sure there’s much likelihood of the Israeli political elite providing convincing reassurances to Palestinian citizens. For the first time in my lifetime, Israeli human rights activists are raising the alarm about lynching of Palestinians, with extremist Jewish Israeli mobs in Israeli cities looking for Palestinians; and reports are not very encouraging about how strong the security response has been. Indeed, many activists and media sources are suggesting that Israeli police forces are actually guarding these extremist mobs – which are often made up of the most radical of Jewish settlers from the occupied territories – rather than protecting Palestinian citizens of Israel. There is little reason to expect that the Israelis would prioritise accountability for any of this.

JE: One of the features of the past two general elections in Israel has been not only the rise of a more solid Arab political presence, but also the newly gained status of Arab parties as potential kingmakers in future Israeli coalition governments. Do you think this will change after what has happened over the past few weeks?

HH: Israeli politics can be rather unpredictable when it comes to Palestinian citizens. On the one hand, it could be that younger Palestinian Israelis decide that the way for them to defend their rights is more, not less, political involvement and participation in formal Israeli party politics. If so, then more Palestinians will vote, and their voices will be heard more strongly through the ballot box. On the other hand, it may be that they decide that these institutions are structurally set up to disempower, not empower, Palestinians, and they may distance themselves from Israeli political structures until more progressive Jewish Israeli forces are able to acquire a greater presence therein.

It should also be noted that there is an upper ceiling for Palestinian Israelis’ political representation in any case, given the nature of the Israeli voting system and their being a demographic minority. The Arab parties have been significant over the past few months not only due to their own political manoeuvring, but also because of massive rifts within the Jewish Israeli right wing; without those rifts, there would have been a new coalition government weeks ago.

JE: It is perhaps a bit early to draw any conclusions from the current flare-up of violence. Still, is it possible to speculate about radicalisation of Israel’s Palestinian community?

HH: If by radicalisation we are referring to political radicalisation, I think that’s likely, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a frightening proposition. It is a ‘radical’ idea in the context of Israel’s current legal and political framework to argue for a state for all its citizens, but I think it would be difficult for those of us in the West who argue for such provisions at home to claim that Israel should have an exception in this regard.

If by radicalisation we’re talking about extremism, whether it be violent or non-violent, radical Islamist or otherwise, I doubt that very much. Palestinian Israelis over the past 73 years have never shown any particularly great affinity for that kind of approach or direction. On the contrary, mainstream political Islamism among Palestinian Israelis produced Ra’am, an Israeli political party that could indeed be a kingmaker in future Israeli coalitions.

The radicalisation that should be most concerning for observers is that of the mainstream, in terms of Jewish Israeli politics. The proportion of far-right Jewish extremist parties in the Knesset is larger than it has ever been, and much of the racist rhetoric that typifies their discourse is already mainstream, a fact that is indelibly connected to the attacks on Palestinian Israelis over the last week.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are also probably quite aware of the balance between protesting and agitating for their rights within the Israeli system – as discriminatory as they might find it – and avoiding a situation where those parties in Israel who wish to expel them from the country altogether are able to make good on that desire. Having said that, there’s a lot of creative ways to navigate that space, and I think we’re likely to see a lot of that in the coming years.

One thing is clear – a new phase in the Palestinian civil rights struggle has begun.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr H A Hellyer

Senior Associate Fellow

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