Opinion |

In Every Terror Attack in Israel, Every Arab Is Guilty

After three terror attacks, two claimed by ISIS, a familiar, grisly ritual began: Israel's Arab leaders denounce the attacks, right-wingers accuse all Arabs of collective responsibility. Is there any way to break out of this dismal, racist cycle?

Anwar Mhajne
Anwar Mhajne
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A right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem: After an act of terror committed by an Arab, there is always a collective blame of Arab citizens of Israel in general, and Muslims in particular
A right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem: After an act of terror committed by an Arab, there is always a collective blame of Arab citizens of Israel in general, and Muslims in particularCredit: Ilan Assayag
Anwar Mhajne
Anwar Mhajne

Israel has witnessed a wave of terrorist attacks over the last few weeks. In two of the attacks, the assailants were Arab citizens of Israel. As soon as the perpetrators’ identities were known, a familiar, grisly ritual began: Arab leaders denounce the attacks, and Israeli right-wingers accuse all Arabs in Israel of collective responsibility for the deaths, inciting racism and calling for revenge.

Is there any way to break out of this dismal cycle?

The two shooters in Hadera were from Umm al-Fahm; they made a video of themselves pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Six years ago, one of them had been sentenced to 18 months in jail for attempting to join ISIS. Similarly, the attacker in Beersheba is from the Bedouin Negev village of Hura; he was sentenced to four years in prison, also in 2016, for attending a gatherings of Islamic State supporters.

Immediately after the attacks, key political leaders and activists from the Arab community, such as the mayor of Umm al-Fahm, the Hura local council, the Joint List (a political alliance of four of the Arab-majority political parties in Israel), the Ra’am party (part of Israel’s governing coalition) and even the Higher Monitoring Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, with affirmation from Sheikh Raed Salah, chair of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement (officially banned in Israel since 2015 for close ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood), condemned them.

Despite these wall-to-wall condemnations, racist chants against Arabs and verbal as well as physical attacks against the community, especially the Muslim Arab community, have intensified.

The scene of the terror attack in Hadera.Credit: Rami Shllush

The condemnation of the Arab collective was complicated by the fact that two of the victims were Arab citizens. That triggered a slightly different differentiation strategy: The two victims were the "good Arabs."

One of the victims, border policeman Yazan Falah, was from the Druze community; Amir Khoury, the police officer who killed the attacker in Bnei Brak, but died of shotgun wounds, was a Christian Arab. In contrast, the "bad Arabs" were/are Muslim.

Those running to incite tend to treat Muslim Arabs in Israel as a monolith which deserves to be discriminated against based on their religion: 21 percent of Israel’s 9.3 million citizens are Arab, with the majority identifying as Sunni Muslims. After an act of terror committed by an Arab, there is always a collective blame of Arabs in general, and Muslims in particular, an imagined hierarchy to justify racist and Islamophobic comments.

Various right-wing extremists have used the few incidents to incite against and attack Arabs. They were cases of individuals chanting "Death to Arabs" and calling for other Jews not to employ Arabs. In one Jewish Negev town, teachers were fired from their teaching positions due to security concerns.

Far right Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir at the scene of the Beersheva terror attackCredit: Itai Ron

Far right provocateurs, like Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, know exactly how to exploit the moment, to rile up their base and grab a platform for their hate. Despite the violence, the police greenlighted Ben-Gvir visiting the volatile Al-Aqsa compound; he had warned that preventing his visit would "send a message of capitulation to terrorism and only further stoke the flames."

Incitement against Arabs in Israel is not new. We can trace this discrimination back to the ordeal of the Nakba (1948), the martial law that followed (1948-1968) and the two Intifadas, especially the Second Intifada in 2000. Palestinian citizens of Israel held demonstrations to challenge Israel’s response to the protests in the territories. The Israeli government responded to the domestic protest aggressively, leading to the death of 12 citizens in October 2000.

During his premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu consistently incited against Israel’s Arab citizens, the Palestinians who remained under Israeli rule after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. He and his supporters constantly accused their leaders of supporting terrorism, portrayed them as a fifth column, and even accused them of wanting to "annihilate" their Jewish co-citizens.

Netanyahu framed terrorism as a uniquely Arab problem, a strategy that deflects attention from the existence of violent Jewish extremism while explicitly demonizing Arab citizens as a threat.

Two Israeli Arab women wait for transportation in front of a wall mural and a sign in Arabic reading 'Sana's bridal shop' in the northern Israeli Arab town of Umm Al-Fahm. April 23, 2009Credit: Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Moreover, Netanyahu and his supporters lobbied to disqualify Arab candidates for the Knesset and demonized opposition members who would cooperate with them. In 2018, Israel passed the Nation-State Law, which enshrined discriminatory practices against Arabs in law and downgraded Arabic. In 2019, Arab voters accused Netanyahu’s party of attempting to suppress Arab votes by installing cameras in polling stations.

Despite there now being the first Arab party to be part of a governing coalition, Mansour Abbas has failed to prevent the passing of the racist Citizenship Law barring family reunification for citizens marrying Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza. In response to the law passing, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked tweeted, jubilantly, "A Jewish and democratic State - 1; A state of all of its citizens - 0."

Generations of Arabs in Israel have grown up under the shadow of fear, surveillance and discrimination, constantly reminded of the fragility and conditionality of their (second-class) Israeli citizenship, and the illegitimacy of any expression of Palestinian identity. The backlash after these recent attacks, together with the intercommunal riots of last summer signal to Arabs that regardless of how much progress they make, how much education and social capital they acquire, they will always be vulnerable to categorization as a "fifth columnist" or terrorist.

Protesters wave Druze and Israeli flags during a demonstration against Israel's Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv, August 4, 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

However, it is worth noting some promising signs of change, no matter how minor or symbolic they are. One such sign was Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s statements in the aftermath of the attacks, which emphasized unity and attributing the attacks to violent extremism, rather than to any specific religion or nationality.

Israel's unusual government coalition, despite its problems, does seem to at least for now to be putting some checks on the language the government uses, avoiding or backpedaling potentially racist or inciteful rhetoric. Although Prime Minister Naftali Bennett initially described the recent attacks as a "wave of murderous Arab terror," he later corrected his language, describing it as a "wave of murderous terror."

It is too often the actions of the very rare extremist few, representing only themselves and their place on the margins of society, who end up defining the present and future of a community of millions. These actions will always serve as a tool to justify the repression and racism sought by extremist right-wing groups and their leadership.

For too many decades this dynamic has impeded the full integration of the Arab community on an equal footing with Jews in Israeli society. It remains to be seen if Israel’s Jewish majority will soon, or ever, be ready to reject collective blame and regard the Arab minority as equal citizens.

Dr. Anwar Mhajne, a native of Umm Al Fahm, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Stonehill College, MA. Twitter: @mhajneam

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