When the Israeli Right Was the One Fighting for Arabs' Freedom

Fifty years after Israel revoked the martial law imposed on Arab citizens, Menachem Begin loyalists say right-wing's roots lie in equality.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Menachem Begin visits a Bedouin tent in the 1950s.
Menachem Begin visits a Bedouin tent in the 1950s.Credit: Menachem Begin Heritage Center Archives
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Fifty years after Israel revoked the martial law it had imposed on the country’s Arab citizens, right-wingers recall their part in fighting for the Arabs’ rights and speak with nostalgia of the time their leader could say something like “a government’s wisdom is in how not to use the power at its disposal.”

In November 1966, when the state revoked martial law on Arabs, both ends of the political spectrum celebrated the victory. These were Maki – Israel’s communist party – on the left, and Herut (which grew into the Likud), led by Menachem Begin, on the right.

“The Israeli right’s founding fathers believed in personal freedoms and basic human rights, and understood that democracy isn’t only a formality but also a means for protecting minorities and the poor,” says Dr. Tehila Schwartz Altshuler of the Israeli Democracy Institute.

Begin’s struggle for Israeli Arabs’ rights belies the “dichotomous division that only the left is committed to human rights,” she says.

Israel’s military government over the areas populated predominantly by Arabs was set up in October 1948, during the War of Independence, for fear the local Arabs would help the invading Arab armies. This regime, which amounted to martial law, forbade Arabs to leave their villages without a special permit, confiscated lands, detained people indefinitely without trial, imposed curfews and evicted residents from one place to another.

Israel’s victory in the war didn’t end martial law. At the beginning it was justified with the attacks on the fledgling state’s borders and the fear of infiltrators. Later it became a political tool of the ruling party, Mapai.

“The military administration provided the Arab residents with civilian services, making them dependent on the administration, which was identified with Mapai and appointed by it,” says Dror Bar Yosef, a senior fellow at the Begin Heritage Center.

Israeli soldiers and Arab citizens stand outside the office of the military administration, Be'er Sheva, Israel, 1950.Credit: Government Press Office

Historian Yechiam Weitz says Begin saw the struggle against the military administration as part of his campaign against Ben-Gurion’s “tyranny.”

Begin knew the military administration all too well. Ironically, it was based on the same emergency regulations promulgated by the British authority in mandatory Palestine in 1945 against the Jewish resistance movements, such as the Irgun, which Begin headed.

Begin objected in principle to martial law from the beginning, as documented in a brochure recently published by the Begin Heritage Center entitled “The Herut Movement’s Struggle to Revoke the Martial Law.”

The brochure includes an opinion piece published in “Herut,” the movement’s newspaper, in March 1949. The essay, dealing with Jaffa, argued that martial law may have been vital to begin with but had lost its legitimacy.

“In those days it was justified. The war continued fiercely, and there was an interest in keeping the town under military rule,” the essay reads. “But since then many months have passed the war has ended, a cease-fire agreement has even been signed with the biggest Arab country Martial law has lost all inner content, has become a harmful anachronism.”

One of the reasons for repealing the military administration was that it denied “tens of thousands of people the possibility to lead a normal, public life,” according to the article. The writers say that instead of making them feel “they’re citizens with equal rights and duties in their state, they are living with a sense of being dominated.”

Yossi Ahimeir, director of the Jabotinsky Institute, is acting vigorously to erase the “stigma,” as he calls it, that the Israeli right is basically indifferent or opposed to upholding Israeli Arabs’ rights. “[Ze'ev] Jabotinsky and Begin’s real heritage has been concealed and Herut was portrayed in a distorted way,” he tells Haaretz. “Until the 1977 upheaval research ignored the revisionist movement.”

He cites Jabotinsky’s mythological song “Left Bank of the Jordan River,” which is known for one line – “Two banks has the River Jordan, this one’s ours, so is the other.” Ahimeir stresses these forgotten lines: “There shall prosper from the wealth of the land / The Arab, the Christian and the Jew / Because my flag is of purity and honesty.”

This song, in addition to the demand for the Greater Land of Israel, reflects the motto that Jabotinsky repeats “in countless essays about equality to Arabs,” he says.

Israeli army jeeps near Kafr Qasem, 1949.Credit: Government Press Office

Ahimeir, a former Likud MK and son of Abba Ahimeir, one of the Israeli right’s spiritual mentors, proudly cites his father’s essay titled “The foreigner who lives among us.”

“He writes that we, who were once foreigners in a foreign land, must ensure the equality of the minorities living among us,” he says. “True, the movement advocated the entire homeland, but also equality – there’s no contradiction between these two matters. And that’s exactly what led to Begin’s struggle against the martial law.”

MK Benny Begin, Menachem Begin’s son, says his father’s support for Israeli Arabs’ rights is documented from before Israel’s establishment. “That was his way from the outset, because his starting point was equal rights,” he says. “The fact that the Jewish people are a majority in Israel does not negate the rights of other nationalities living in it.”

Begin said that at the end of the 1950s, when he was in high school and asked to write a composition about democracy in Israel, he got an F. “Instead of writing, I submitted a drawing of a figure whose arm or leg was amputated, under the headline ‘Israeli democracy,’” he recalls. “On the stump I wrote – ‘the military administration.’”

This line of thought, which Menachem Begin bequeathed to his son, can be traced back to the father’s pre-state actions. In 1944, as Irgun commander, Begin distributed a leaflet in Arabic among Israeli Arabs, notifying them that “[Irgun] and its thousands of soldiers, armed with advanced weapons, is fighting the treacherous government, which aspires to end the eternal vision of the great Jewish nation.”

It went on to seek to calm the Arabs down: “This war isn’t directed against you, we don’t see you as enemies. We want to see you as good neighbors. We haven’t come to destroy you or evict you from the land you dwell on. In Israel there’s a place for you too, also for your sons and grandchildren and for millions of Jews that have no lives but in this country.”

The leaflet promised the Arabs equal rights under Jewish rule and that Hebrew and Arabic would be the country’s languages. “There will be no discrimination between Arab and Jew in getting appointments in the public service or government. The Muslim holy places will be under your representatives’ supervision,” it said.

The struggle to repeal the martial law gained momentum in 1956, after the Kafr Qasem massacre in which 49 of the villagers, Israeli Arabs, were shot to death by Border Policemen when they returned home from work, unaware the curfew had been moved an hour earlier.

The military administration was finally abolished on November 8, 1966, when the Knesset supported Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levi Eshkol’s proposal to end it.

“The future will prove it,” Eshkol said, referring to the state’s ability to maintain its internal security even without martial law.

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