Analysis |

What's Driving the Israeli Arab Public's Struggle

The low-key Israeli Arab role in current unrest shows a weakening of the former bastions of anti-occupation protest.

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From Wadi Ara to Nazareth and Sakhnin, from Umm al-Fahm and Taibeh to Jaffa and Ramle – Arab citizens of Israel are taking to the streets en masse to demonstrate in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. It looks like October 2000, when similar events sparked the second intifada, but is this really the same situation?

Israeli Jews are not the only ones wondering about the Arab communitys part in the current wave of protests. Deep down within that population itself, some are also wondering why these incidents, while widespread, are not of the same scope as what happened in locales in northern Israel 15 years ago. There are dozens if not hundreds of protesters these days, and a catalyst for their anger – the fear of a change in the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem – but most of the Arabs involved in the demonstrations are actually secular. And the organizations behind them are, in the main, not the usual, traditional political movements.

A prominent example of this was on Saturday in Nazareth, at the so-called demonstration of rage against the occupation. The conditions were there for a huge, all-encompassing protest. Just the previous day police shot a woman from that city at the Afula bus station, claiming she had a knife and intended to carry out a terror attack. The video of the incident went viral, sending waves throughout Arab society. Moreover, the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee backed the Nazareth event, initiated by the Hadash party, calling on the masses to attend.

A few hundred people participated but there were only a handful of representatives from the committee and the Arab political parties, most of them from Hadash. The party pointed fingers at other parties that did not collaborate; a wave of arrests by the police in the days leading up to the protest apparently deterred many. But there is no doubt that what is seen as the loss of control of the Nazareth municipality, a bastion of the protest movement for four decades, influenced the general mood.

This was not the only failure of the Arab communitys political leadership. Earlier this month, a mere few hundred demonstrators turned up in Sakhnin to mark 15 years since the October riots in which 13 protesters were killed. Most of those who attended, by the way, were local residents.

An Arab Israeli boy rides his bicycle holding a Palestinian flag, Sakhnin, October 13, 2015.Credit: AFP

The problem goes even deeper. For years, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, headed by Sheikh Raad Salah, was one of the greatest and most influential powers driving popular protest within this community. For its part, the government is still worried about the group's involvement in Israeli Arab society. However, changes in the Arab world and its position vis-a-vis the Islamic Movement have had far-reaching consequences.

When the Syrian civil war broke out, the Northern Branch openly supported Islamist rebels fighting against Bashar Assad. While Israel and the media perceive the president as a murderous tyrant, Israeli Arabs see things completely differently. Many of them begrudge Salah for opposing Assad. Indeed, they have three reasons for supporting the regime in Damascus.

First, Assad is seen as the last defense against the increasingly powerful Jihadist organizations, particularly the Islamic State and Al-Nusra, which spare nothing when confronting minority groups. Second, he still maintains a confrontational line against Israel and the United States. Third, many in Israeli Arab society support Assad against Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Americas allies, which support the rebels. In fact, these people dont look too kindly on anyone who opposes Syria, Iran or even Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And if that werent enough, everyone at a recent meeting of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee agreed that the October 2000 events accomplished nothing for Arab citizens. Thus, there appears to be no convincing argument for renewing widespread violence. Moreover, the Arab public does not seem to expect such events to recur.

Still, it is too early to conclusively state that the protest of the country's Arab community wont spread, or that this trend has not already begun. Despite all that's been said, some members of the community are taking to the streets – as could be seen on Sunday night when an Israeli Arab committed an act of terror near Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, and dozens of masked civilians attempted to throw stones and rolled burning tires along Route 70.

There seems to be a one common denominator among Israeli Arabs participating in violent demonstrations – their age. Just as in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, most of the participants taking to the streets within the Green Line are minors.

Some of them indeed identify with a political movement, but they lack a guiding hand or unified leadership telling them what to do, and when and how to do it. Their acts are internally driven by anger and the desire for a confrontation. For them, a violent incident with the police and even an arrest are legitimate tools to express protest.

This is not the first time that protests have arisen without traditional institutional support. When Israeli Arabs protested against Israel's Prawer Plan regarding unrecognized Bedouin villages, the youth movement Hirak Shababi surfaced, initiating ad hoc gatherings. It arose without support from parties or leaders, relying instead on communicating messages through social networks.

Now those same networks have become the means through which messages are sent from Ramallah to Nazareth or from Nablus to Umm al-Fahm. No checkpoint, security fence or security apparatus can stop these communications.

All these developments will be put to the test on Tuesday, when Israel's Arab community is planning a general strike and a central march in Sakhnin. Will the veteran leadership manage to enlist the participation of adults? Will the youth fall in line? How will it all end, and what will be the significance of the day's events in terms of continuing the current struggle?

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