Text size

After each act of terror committed by an Israeli Arab, or the disclosure that an Israeli Arab has been involved in activity hostile to the state of Israel, our attention turns momentarily to Israel's Arab citizens - more than one and a quarter million citizens of Israel who seem to be living a life apart from the rest of us. In the minds of most of Israel's Jewish citizens they are becoming identified with subversive organizations, like the Islamic Movement, and with the anti-Israel outbursts of some of the Arab Knesset members.

This is far from the truth. The majority, a mostly silent majority, are law-abiding citizens, even though they have suffered from neglect and discrimination in the allocation of government budgets. The policy of Israeli governments throughout the years has, with few exceptions, essentially been a non-policy - Israel's Arab citizens have been ignored, except at election time. What should have been a major challenge for Israel's policy makers - integrating this large minority into Israeli society - has been pushed to the very bottom of national priorities by successive governments.

Most of Israel's Arab citizens continue to be in an anomalous position. While formally they have equal rights with their Jewish fellow citizens, they do not share with them the foremost obligation of citizenship - defense of the country; nor do they enjoy equal opportunities. Since Israel was established the Arab community has made great progress in education, health care, standard of living and the recognition of women's rights. They are the only Arabs in the Middle East enjoying the benefits of democracy, living proof that there is no inherent conflict between Arab culture, the Muslim religion and democracy.

But it is just this progress that has made them more acutely aware of the gap that exists between them and Israel's Jewish citizens. It is not surprising that those that have benefited from Israel's educational system, those that have studied at Israel's universities, are most vocal in demanding the redress of a long list of grievances. In some cases these long-standing grievances lead to hostility to the state. It is high time to normalize their status in Israel.

Among the three religious affiliations of Israeli Arabs - Muslim, Christian and Druze - the Druze have been most successful in their integration in Israeli society. They still have a way to go to achieve a full sense of equality with Israel's Jewish citizens, but they have certainly come a long way in the past 54 years. A Druze major-general today serves in the IDF and is a member of the General Staff. Many Druze fill senior positions in the IDF. A Druze has recently graduated from the air force flight training course. Druze serve as diplomats in the Israeli foreign service. Among Druze there is a strong sense of identification and loyalty to the state of Israel.

What explains this successful integration of the Israeli Druze population? Without a doubt, it is inherently connected with the fact that Druze serve in the IDF just like Jews do. This engenders a feeling of comradeship, as well as a strong feeling of obligation on the part of the government, as well as on the part of individual Israelis in all walks of life, toward the Druze community. One can only wonder how the integration of the entire Israeli Arab community would have progressed had all their young people been called up for military service.

About a quarter of Israel's Muslim Arab citizens are Bedouin - 130,000 in the Negev and 70,000 in the Galilee. This is, no doubt, a case of "might have been." With a tradition of volunteer military service in the IDF, had obligatory military service been extended to Bedouin youngsters, they could have followed the example of the Druze, and a significant part of Israel's Arab minority would have found its place in Israeli society.

This would have been of particular importance since the Bedouin, especially in the Negev, are the most disadvantaged sector of Israel's population, and service in the IDF would have accelerated a process of Israelization and Westernization among them, assisting them in the traumatic passage from a nomadic lifestyle to urban life, which is one of the harsh realities of Bedouin life in Israel. In the absence of this process, the problems besetting the Bedouin, which are not being addressed by the government, are beginning to drive many of them into the arms of the Islamic Movement.

As for the Christian Arabs, they have simply been ignored. Hostility of Muslim Arabs toward them and Israeli neglect is driving them toward emigration from the country.

It is pretty late, but not too late, for the government to give the integration of the Israeli Arab population in Israeli society the priority it deserves - for their sake and for Israel's sake.