Analysis |

Israel Shouldn't Mistake Arab Community's Restraint Over Jerusalem March for Apathy

The flare-up in mixed Jewish-Arab cities during last year's Gaza war has raised fears of a repeat, but groups representing Israel's Arab community have opted for a restrained response

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
Damascus Gate, on Saturday.
Damascus Gate, on Saturday.Credit: Emil Salman
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The right-wing Flag March to be held on Sunday in Jerusalem doesn't only pose a challenge to security and diplomatic relations, but also to the delicate relations between the State of Israel and its Arab citizens.

The intensity of the clashes in mixed Jewish-Arab cities during Israel's 11-day war with Gaza militants last year was a frightening awakening for many Arabs in the country, and heightened their concerns about a tenable future.

Last year, many were taken by surprise when the threat to evict four Palestinian families could not be contained within the Palestinian neighborhood. The tensions moved to the steps outside Damascus Gate, and then spread to other flash points in Arab communities, to the Galilee, to Wadi Ara, and mainly to mixed cities such as Acre, Lod and Haifa.

Flag March in the Damascus Gate area, Old City of Jerusalem, 2021.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The shock was heightened by the relatively conciliatory atmosphere that had prevailed between Arab communities and the state on the eve of these incidents.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had come closer to the Arab public on the backdrop of his negotiations over cooperating with the United Arab List, with the campaign led by Netanyahu under his new moniker, Abu Yair. The campaign against COVID-19 had also, at least ostensibly, brought together all parts of the country.

The number of Arabs who were killed in direct clashes with the police or with armed Jews within the Green Line during last year’s military operation was smaller than the number of victims in the riots of October 2000, but the potential for a flare-up was more dangerous.

The odds of the situation spiraling out of control seem to be stacking up, especially with the bellicose rhetoric used in recent days and the government's decision not to change the route of the Flag March, in order to prove Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem and also out of concerns over a right-wing backlash.

The right has exploited the momentum and the public interest in order to recruit participants in the march, with some of them already appearing in the alleys of the Old City on Saturday night, carrying Israeli flags.

In tandem, militant factions in the Gaza Strip, mainly Hamas, have intensified their threats to Israel over the last week. On Saturday, Hamas reiterated that hurting Palestinians or harming the Al-Aqsa Mosque during the march will elicit a response.

To add to the dangerous mix, Israel's killing of a 15-year-old on Friday night in al-Khader, near Bethlehem, threatens to raise tensions in the West Bank as well. If that weren’t enough, Israel has provided no further clarification on the circumstances leading to the death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, with the unrest around her death intensifying after the Palestinian Attorney General determining that Abu Akleh was deliberately shot by an Israeli soldier.

Despite this, there is no wish in Arab society to stoke the flames. No party or political organization has called on Arab citizens to head to Jerusalem.

An expression of this was to be seen in the United Arab List and the Islamic Movement’s choice not to activate their transportation infrastructure on Sunday, which uses buses and other organized transportation for bringing people to al-Aqsa, a project they maintain every year. Party sources say that these trips will continue as usual, every Tuesday and Friday.

The United Arab List could have used the occasion for making political gains. With the coalition under pressure, this would've been a golden opportunity to leverage their political weight to secure a change to the route of march, but they opted not to get involved.

Another factor affecting the situation is the timing. If last year the clashes occurred during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when young people had a sense that they were on vacation, this year Ramadan is already behind us. On Sunday morning, large numbers showed up for work or school as they would on any other weekday.

But mayors and other leaders in the Arab community do not deny that deterrence is also one of the factors under consideration. Dozens of young people who took part in the clashes last year are now behind bars or facing indictment on security-related or other criminal charges. The pressure from families not to repeat last year’s scenes has also seeped into the consciousness of young people in Arab communities.

In addition, the police in Umm al-Fahm and the Wadi Ara region of the north have recently summoned dozens of young people and activists for questioning – warning them not to go to Jerusalem on Sunday. If they do so, they have been told, they could face arrest or legal proceedings.

On the whole, the Arab community seems reluctant to risk an escalation, but the Bennett-Lapid government should understand that this does not mean they are apathetic about developments on the ground.

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