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Palestinian Jailbreak Puts Israel's Arab Community in a Bind

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Arab Israelis demonstrating in support of Palestinian prisoners escaping an Israeli Jail, Nazareth, yesterday.
Arab Israelis demonstrating in support of Palestinian prisoners escaping an Israeli Jail, Nazareth, yesterday.Credit: Rami Shllush

The Israeli Arab community experienced the phrase “between a rock and a hard place” in a very concrete way over the weekend. The police briefings on the substantive help from Arab citizens of Israel, including reliable information on the location of four out of the six escaped prisoners, such as Zakaria Zubeidi, flooded social media and sparked a heated debate.

Did the fact that four of them were found near Arab towns mean that Israeli Arab citizens were supposed to provide them with protection and shelter? Or was it that by reporting suspicious figures to the police these very same citizens had displayed courage and acted as is to be expected from every citizen in a civilized country?

There is no unequivocal answer. In a society where almost every topic is in dispute, opinions and interpretations are wide-ranging and wait not for answers or final decisions. This weekend's events once again forced the Arab community to confront dilemmas that have trailed it for decades – citizenship or nationalism, loyalty or separatism – as well as the question of how best to navigate them.

On a practical level, the jailbreak aroused widespread sympathy and support among the Arab public. This stood out on social media in particular. The signs of identification were clear, and the escape was perceived as an act of heroism that broke and defeated the Israeli security ethos.

The political parties and movements in Arab society initially refrained from making any statement on the matter. Statements and declarations calling on the government to stop the repression of the prisoners began to be made only after riots in the prisons began. Rallies in support of the prisoners were held at a number of locations with dozens, mostly political activists, attending.

The parties understand that the events are considered to be extremely sensitive, so they preferred to wait for developments. Most of the effort focused on minimizing the damage as a result of the continuous condemnations and accusations that began coming out of Jenin and the rest of the West Bank, following reports that the four escapees had been apprehended.

Senior members of the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee issued statements emphasizing the need for unity among all segments of the Palestinian populace. They called for the avoidance of any attempt to deepen rifts or play into the hands of the Israeli hasbarah machine, which, as they defined it, operates as a well-oiled  propagande machine.

Palestinians rally in support of the six escaped prisoners, in Jenin, this week. Credit: Jaafar Ashtiyeh - AFP

The sides recalled the events of May: Protests in East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip interlaced with those in Israel's mixed Arab-Jewish cities and the Arab towns in the Galilee, the center and the Negev. The Green Line – they said at the time – had disappeared, and the Palestinian public shared a united fate.

The feelings over the weekend were different. The Green Line seems thicker now. Some say that this is not a coincidence, that political behavior in Arab society in recent months has led to this unsurprising result.

At the same time, some people are reading the map with cautious optimism. Even though the capture of the escaped prisoners raised a problematic issue, they say it's preferable to what could have been: A violent confrontation with security forces inside an Arab town and ending with the killing of the prisoners would have been worse, and had Arab citizens directly aided the prisoners it could have set off a wave of violence and racism against Arabs that would have made May seem tame.

The current situation requires the reduction of tensions, including in the prisons. The actions of Zubeidi and his five friends, even if they stung the Prison Service, do not threaten the future of the State of Israel. Exerting too much pressure on the prisoners will only add fuel to the fire and lead to another unnecessary conflict. For its part, Israel must internalize that although the Arabs in Israel are citizens, they have not given up their nationality.

Bolstering citizenship also depends, to a great extent, on the government’s actions – not in driving a wedge between it and the Palestinians, but in strengthening the status of Arabs in Israel as equal citizens, and as hackneyed as it sounds, in striving to end the occupation and conflict.

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