Torn Between State and People, One Arab Israeli Feels Strain of Gaza War

Raed Abu Raya is shocked by close friends' Facebook posts advocating killing all Gazans.

Moti Milrod

One morning during Operation Protective Edge, a worker wanted to leave his Tel Aviv office early to visit his soldier son at his base down south near the Gaza border. “He refused to tell me why he needed to leave his job at 10 in the morning,” recalls the employee’s boss. “He was afraid I would say no if I knew the truth,” says Raed Abu Raya, “because I’m Arab.”

For Abu Raya, a senior manager in the financial sector, that was just one incident among many that intensified his sense of being torn apart while his state was at war with his people.

Once the fighting ends — it resurged after a three-day cease-fire ended Friday — the damage to Abu Raya’s sense of belonging will take a long while to heal.

Aboraya guessed what his employee was up to when he overheard him talking on the phone with his wife. “’You want to visit your son at his base? Go ahead,’ I told him," says Abu Raya. "But I felt the irony of the situation very sharply. On the one hand, I wanted to show consideration toward a worker, but at the same time I was aware that his son may be contributing to the destruction of Gaza, where I have relatives.”

Affluent and educated, Abu Raya is a strong example of those among Israel’s 1.8-million-strong Arab minority who have integrated into society. The 48-year-old father of three holds a prestigious job with one of the country’s largest financial institutions, is a firm believer in coexistence, and is a practicing Muslim with a strong attachment to his faith. He lives in Jaljulya, an Arab village of 9,000 sandwiched between several Jewish communities. He works out regularly at a gym in Kfar Saba.

He and his wife take vacations abroad, often with close Jewish friends. But the latest conflict has torn him — and possibly some of those relationships — apart.

Not long after returning from a trip to Paris with a Jewish friend, he was alarmed to see that the friend had written on his Facebook page that “all Gazans deserve to die.”

Another close friend posted on Facebook that the Israel Defense Forces should flood the tunnels and drown everyone in Gaza. “This is a friend who calls me his brother," Abu Raya says. "What am I supposed to say to him next time we meet?"

Abu Raya has distant relatives in Gaza. “They don’t know where their children are," he says. "They say the house collapsed and they still don’t know who managed to escape before it was bombed.”

He himself is one of 10 children of a Bedouin farmer from the Negev and his Jaljulya-born wife. Neither of his parents knew how to read or write, but they encouraged their children to seek an education and all have at least one undergraduate degree. The parents also encouraged them to always have a job “because you never know when they can take everything away from you,” as was the case with his father’s land in the Negev, which Israel confiscated in 1948.

Abu Raya has lived through many conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, he says, running through a list, from the second intifada to the current clash in Gaza. But he says none have pulled his identity in so many directions as this latest one.

On one recent day during Operation Protective Edge, he turned on the TV — as he does every day as soon as he comes home from work — and frantically flipped among three stations that in many respects reflect the different facets of his identity. Palestine TV was showing dead and bloodied children being pulled out from the rubble of Gaza; Israel’s Channel 10 was airing a discussion on the role of the Israeli media during wartime, and CNN had its regular programming. “Between them I think I can get a balanced picture of what’s going on,” he said, clutching the remote and appearing dazed.

In his job, he helps Israeli Jews by aiding small businesses in the south, offering them relaxed conditions for loans — something he says he fought for. “I want this country to prosper," Abu Raya says. "It’s my state, too.”

He used to speak freely about his political views — he supports a two-state solution since “both peoples are here to stay” — but these days he keeps his opinions to himself. “There is such a climate of intolerance that if you say anything other than ‘let the IDF win,’ you are asking for trouble and possibly even endangering yourself,” he says.

In fact he constantly checks under his car to make sure no one has left a bomb there. A few months ago dozens of cars on his street were defaced in a price-tag attack, so-called because the extremist Jews who carry them out threaten that the Arabs will pay a price. The police have yet to arrest any suspects in connection with those attacks.

“Now there is even more hatred everywhere,” he notes. “I’m afraid of what this war has unleashed.”

Whenever he goes to the mall in Kfar Saba, he drops off his wife, who wears a hijab, and then drives around the block a few times before parking to ensure that no one associates the car with Muslims. “I don’t want to be marked,” he says.

Through it all, Abu Raya says he still believes passionately in coexistence. He’s just not sure many others do. He hopes that now that local-council heads, school principals and those in leadership positions will initiate desperately needed programs to bring Israeli Arabs and Jews together.

He himself was considering joining his colleagues in a work-sponsored visit to Auschwitz later this year, but now he is not so sure: “I am ready to confront the pain of the other, but I don’t think the other side is prepared to even see my own people’s pain."