More than 40 percent of Israeli Arabs claim the Holocaust never happened, according to an annual University of Haifa survey of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

Prof. Sammy Smooha, who conducted the survey, said he believes the 40.5 percent denial rate reflects a protest more than actual disbelief in the Holocaust.

The survey, taken in 2008, found that 41 percent of Israeli Arabs deny Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Another 53.7 percent accept Israel's right to exist.

The figures show Arab attitudes are hardening compared to previous years. In 2003, for instance, 65.6 percent of Israeli Arabs recognized Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, and in 2006, only 28 percent denied the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, Smooha insisted that overall, "there is no clear, consistent trend of radicalization" over the last 30 years, contrary to the prevailing view among the public and policy-makers. He argued that this lack of substantive long-term change shows that Arabs are adapting to Israel's existence.

Explaining why he thought the sharp increase in Holocaust denial reflects a protest rather than actual disbelief, Smooha said: "To the Arabs, the Holocaust is a legitimization of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state" - which, as the survey found, 41 percent reject.

"If you say there was no Holocaust, you're protesting this [Israel's existence]. This is a way of saying that the Jews use the Holocaust to portray themselves as the victims, when in truth, we [the Arabs] are the victims," he said.

The survey also found that Holocaust denial was not much affected by education: 37 percent of respondents with a post-secondary education said the Holocaust never happened, only slightly below the overall average.

Among the survey's other findings were that 12.6 percent of respondents believe any means, including taking up arms, would be justified to improve their situation, up from 5.4 percent in 2003; 41.4 percent engaged in a protest activity over the last year, up from 28.7 percent in 2003; and 47.3 percent would not want a Jewish neighbor, up from 27.2 percent in 2003.

"This hardening of Arab positions stems from a list of factors, including the Second Lebanon War, the freeze in [progress toward] an arrangement with the Palestinians, failure to implement the Or Commission's report [on ending discrimination against Israeli Arabs], the closure of the cases of the policemen who shot and killed Arab demonstrators in October 2000, and publication of the Arab vision documents that call for turning Israel into a binational state," Smooha said.

The survey, which will be published in full today, queried a representative sample of 700 Israeli Arabs.