An increasing number of Arab citizens of Israel are expressing support for the Islamic State, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warned on Monday evening. “I am not speaking about territories bordering the State of Israel, but within Israel itself,” Rivlin said, speaking at the international conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. “The Islamic State is already here and that is no longer a secret.”
The President is not the only Jewish Israeli concerned with such developments within the Arab Israeli community – which makes up some 20 percent of the country's population.
Mistrust between Arab and Jewish citizens is at a high, and relations seem to be heading to an all-time low: earlier this month an Arab citizen carried out a terror attack in the heart of Tel Aviv, and, in turn, members of the Israeli establishment, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself, responded by hinting the entire Arab population was potentially disloyal.
Now, a full 36 percent of Jewish Israeli respondents to an INSS poll said they saw their fellow Arab citizens as “enemies.”
A further 44 percent of respondents said they considered Arab Israelis “people who needed to be respected but also treated with suspicion.” Only 20 percent said they considered Israeli Arabs as their “equals.” Six hundred Israeli Jews and 200 Israeli Arabs took part in the poll, which was conducted through face-to-face interviews.
More than half of Jews polled by the INSS – 53 percent – went on to say that they believed Israel should stress, in its relations with its Arab population, that there would be consequences and “punishment” for “behavior not befitting” of Israeli citizens. Only 26 percent believed that solving the growing crisis required making the lives of those Arab citizens more “equal” to those of the country’s Jewish citizens. A further 20 percent thought nothing new needed to be done.
How the local Arab community sees itself, according to the same poll, stands in contrast to how it is seen by Jewish citizens: A full 70 percent of the Arab citizens polled by the INSS said they identify with being “Israeli” in some form or another, be that as an “Arab with Israeli citizenship,” an “Israeli Arab,” or even a “Palestinian Israeli.” Only 30 percent of those polled left out “Israel” when defining themselves, preferring to be identified as “Arabs,” “Muslims,” “Christians,” or - in five percent of the sample - just “Palestinian.”
Fifty three percent of Arab Israeli citizens polled said they had “good relations with Jews," while 19 percent said they either did not have, or were not interested in having contact with Jews. The Jewish respondents were not polled on this same question in parallel.
Finally, a full 70 percent of Arab Israelis in the poll said the most pressing problem for them was “equality of rights for Israeli Arabs.” Only 30 percent considered the issue of Palestinian rights more important. There was no question on the poll pertaining to the Islamic State.
But the fact that so many Israeli Arab citizens feel they are treated as unequal cuts to the very heart of the problem, stressed Rivlin: “If children are growing up without a dream, without hope or without aspirations, with the feeling that their blood and their lives are of a lesser value in the State of Israel, then we must think of how to offer them a dream, hope, and faith — the faith that every one of them has the ability to succeed and to advance here in the State of Israel.”
Shirin Natour Hafi, an Israeli Arab and the principle of the ORT high school in Lod, also speaking at the INSS conference, agreed. Stressing that “the Arab Israeli population is very diverse and it’s hard to make generalizations,” she went on to argue that an opportunity was being lost - within the education system - to provide the Arab Israeli community with a sense of pride and belonging.
“We need to invest in education and allow our Arab students to dream and to aspire so they don’t go online and see an Islamic State video and think that’s the most heroic thing they can do in life, and that, sadly, the most realistic thing to do is join in,” she said.
Natour Hafi also called for a broader view of the problem of radicalization here, and the need to consider the larger context specific to Israel: “What we have here is Arab youth growing up within the Israeli society and looking around, they see a very militaristic environment.” A child from Lod, for example, explained Natour Hafi, listens to the militaristic conversation ongoing in this country, and sees armed soldiers on the streets. That child also will see his neighbors and classmates preparing themselves to go into the army. “And he wants it too,” she said.
“I am saying something difficult and don’t misunderstand me — I am not comparing [between the Israeli army and a terror organization],” she stressed. “But there is something about this militarism that affects all of us.”
The solution, repeated Natour Hafi, begins within the education system – where Arabs should be encouraged to forge a “joint ethos,” with their Jewish fellow citizens. Such an ethos, she stressed, would have to allow Arabs “to speak freely and clearly about our narrative,” and would have to incorporate that voice into the larger national narrative.
Rivlin seemed to be on the same page: “The State of Israel must create an alternative that does not fear a positive and secure Israeli Palestinian identity and at the same time does not in any way accept the delegitimization of the State of Israel or affiliation with the worst of our enemies,” he stated in his speech. “The State of Israel certainly does not regard the whole Arab sector as an enemy nor as a group entirely tainted with extremism and Islamic fundamentalism.”
Rivlin did not, however, absolve the Arab leadership of responsibility for reining in its youth – saying that sympathy for ISIS has been displayed both in the religious sphere, and perhaps more worryingly, also in secular circles in Israel.
“We are today seeing the influence of extremist ideas even in areas and groups identifying as secular,” noted Rivlin. “We have seen the waving of the black flag of the Islamic State in various villages and at political rallies, some of which have included the participation of Knesset members.”
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