Plenty of right-wing leaders and spokespeople, including Knesset members and ministers, enjoy lashing out at the Arab community and its representatives every time there’s a diplomatic crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. Such tensions can erupt if there’s a terror attack by Israeli Arabs, if violent protests in the West Bank and East Jerusalem slide over the Green Line, or if an Israeli military operation in Gaza provokes responses from the Arab community.
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People on the right – especially in the media and on social media – launch wild attacks in which every Arab citizen becomes a suspect and his loyalty to the state is in doubt. The town from which an assailant emerges, or a town where there are clashes or where Arabs block roads, becomes a marked town, and calls to boycott it are not far behind.
On Sunday we heard from two members of the security cabinet, right-wing leaders who aspire to become prime minister sometime over the next few years. Education Minister Naftali Bennett recommended that the Arab community not test the state’s tolerance, while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman repeated his already known position that the Arab towns in the Wadi Ara need not be part of the State of Israel.
Ostensibly, in a normal country the criticism of the Arab community would sound legitimate, and even Bennett’s threats and Lieberman’s plan might convince a foreigner who gets caught in a violent demonstration and isn’t aware of the complexity of an Arab citizen’s life in Israel.
First, Israeli Jews must realize that most Arabs in Israel see themselves as an integral part of the Palestinian people. They view the term “Israeli Arab” as an Israeli invention aimed at concealing any national and historical connection to the Palestinian people.
In Israel the Arab community is also divided into subgroups – Muslims, Christians and Druze. The Christians are further divided into subgroups, and among the Muslims there are the Bedouin. So to a typical Israeli, the Arabs are merely a collection of non-Jewish religious and ethnic communities; the concept of a Palestinian national minority is repressed and hidden.
It is on this basis that the community’s loyalty is measured; the expectation is that Israel’s Arab citizens must adopt the ideology of the right-winger lecturing them. Any deviation from that puts their loyalty in doubt and makes them viewed as a fifth column and traitors.
In reality, the situation is more complex. Whether Israelis like it or not, most Arabs in Israel don’t deny their national identity, but also most don’t deny their Israeli citizenship. All quality opinion polls in recent years have shown that Arab citizens of Israel seek to further integrate into Israeli society and its institutions but aren’t willing to forever be a minority that’s discriminated against.
The strong desire to integrate and develop is also consistent with the desire to achieve a diplomatic agreement that will assure the Palestinians self-determination and an end to the occupation. The expectation that Arab citizens of Israel will be completely indifferent to the suffering of their Palestinian brethren in Gaza or the West Bank is inhumane; no one would think to demand that Israeli Jews or the government not identify with the Jewish victims of anti-Semitism anywhere around the world.
The Arab leaders at all levels, including the High Follow-Up Committee, strongly oppose violent protests and have taken a clear position on the armed struggle against Israel. Any protest is meant to be legitimate and lawful.
This position was solidified after the deep fissure that developed between the Arab community and the state after the riots of October 2000. Since then one can clearly see that extra caution is taken regarding marches and demonstrations, both by the leaders and the police. Protests that get out of hand are both isolated and brief.
People on the right and in the Israeli government in general must understand that Arabs in Israel are comfortable with their Israeli citizenship, but this doesn’t mean cutting them off from any national or religious connection to the Palestinians. It doesn’t mean thinking about expelling them, or trying to convince them to leave. Arabs in Israel also know which is the strong side of the equation.
That’s why the ball is in the state’s court. It must decide how ready it is to make a strategic decision to end the occupation and thus remove all its consequences, including those that affect Israel’s Arab citizens.