Analysis |

The Six Factors Stoking the Upheaval in Arab Israeli Society

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Protesters demonstrating with Palestinian flags in Jaffa on Monday.
Protesters demonstrating with Palestinian flags in Jaffa on Monday.Credit: Moti Milrod

It’s a vital question: Why have Israel’s Arab citizens taken to the streets with such force? Clearly more than one motive sparked the explosion in dozens of places this week, notably in mixed cities.

1. The religious element. The harming of religious symbols or values is still perceived as an act that can easily spark a conflagration in Arab society.

This issue was prominent, for example, last year when the broad Joint List of Arab parties got itself into a mess over bills against “conversion therapy” and LGBTQ rights. The Islamic Movement and the United Arab List party realized they could use this issue in the Arab community. Mansour Abbas' party focused the debate on issues of society and community, not religion.

But once the religious genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to control, especially when the Al-Aqsa Mosque is in the picture.

2. The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah. In Israel this issue is being painted as a real estate quarrel between settlers and Palestinians, like many other such clashes in Jerusalem. But the Palestinian side hasn’t bought this at all. Terms like ethnic cleansing and uprooting Palestinian families from their homes, to be replaced by settlers with state backing, provide the guiding narrative in this debate.

In the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood a popular struggle developed, and many activists, both Muslims and Christians and even Jews, could find a way to identify with the Palestinian national struggle. The protest there has gone on for weeks, including violent incidents such as a policeman's battering of Joint List legislator Ofer Cassif. The protest hasn’t drawn thousands, but it has powerfully reverberated.

3. Ramadan. With the start of the month of Ramadan, the incidents on the steps of Damascus Gate helped stoke the protests in all Jerusalem; many people found a direct link between Sheikh Jarrah and Damascus Gate. Remember that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is perceived by the Palestinians as a symbol of sovereignty and the national presence in Jerusalem.

And so even secular Muslims and non-Muslims can easily identify with this issue and forge an axis connecting Sheikh Jarrah, Damascus Gate and Al-Aqsa. Many who protested in the morning in Sheikh Jarrah moved on to the Damascus Gate steps and ended in the evening with a prayer at Al-Aqsa.

4. The young generation. The prevalence of young people at the protests is clear – young men and women wearing the Palestinian kaffiyeh shouting slogans against the occupation and the Israeli government and for the Palestinian national struggle.

This is the generation of the Oslo Accords of the ‘90s, and some were born just before or after the protests by Arab Israelis in October 2000.

There are also younger people for whom those events are modern history, a generation unimpressed with the political leadership in Ramallah – forget about the one in Gaza. Local Arab leaders can’t stop these young ones from demonstrating.

The impression in Arab society in recent years has been that the young generation is self-absorbed and has ignored the national struggle, a feeling underscored in the political debate, encouraged by the parties. But the events of the past week show something different.

While the number of protesters taking to the streets isn’t in the many thousands, young people who accept no one’s authority are making their mark. No one can stop them, and an indictment for disturbing the peace won’t deter them. On the contrary, their presence conveys a message to everyone, both the local and national leaders.

5. Mixed cities in the center of the country. The daily interaction between Jews and Arabs can be a recipe for cooperation and reducing tensions, but in Israel’s mixed cities, especially in the center of the country, one sees discrimination against many of the Arab residents.

The protest against the incursion of right-wing Jews into neighborhoods in Jaffa, Ramle and Lod should come as no surprise. Arabs there are having a hard time socioeconomically, and they see the protest in Sheikh Jarrah as an example for their own struggle.

6. Social media. Events at Sheikh Jarrah, Al-Aqsa or any other protest are filmed and immediately posted on social media; calls to join the demonstrations aren’t long in coming. Some who answer the call are young people who don’t really understand the protest; they just want to vent their frustration and anger.

Protests like this hit Nazareth and Haifa, to be joined by Lod and Jaffa and then further afield.

All told, the discrimination, inequality, alienation and absence of a diplomatic horizon for the Palestinians provide a fool-proof recipe to encourage protest, especially for a generation that doesn’t give in to dictates and for whom equality and rights aren’t a dream for when the country is ready for change. This generation is ready to act immediately even at the price of violent protest.

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