October 2000 was one of the hardest months Israel has known. The bloody riots of the second intifada broke out, during which more Israeli civilians were killed than in all of Israel’s prior wars (with the exception of the 1948 War of Independence), and reduced Israel’s economy to the worst crisis it had known.
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The simmering pressure cooker of Israel’s Arabs erupted into violence and roadblocks. The Israel Police, facing this alone, panicked. They envisioned the nightmare scenario: that Israel’s Arabs would turn into a fifth column that would ally with the Palestinians and attack Israel from within. That panic fed their reaction, with police opening fire on the demonstrators. From here, the situation quickly deteriorated into nationwide demonstrations that resulted in 14 deaths (13 of them Arabs killed by police bullets and one Jew killed when a rock was thrown at his car).
In retrospect, everybody demonstrated flawed thinking at the time. The Israeli Arabs were ill-advised to start civil demonstrations during a military crisis, when Israel’s sensitivity and fears were spiking. The police was wrong to interpret the demonstrations as rebellion and treason.
If the police had treated the demonstrations for what they were – a mass of frustrated people giving voice to long-felt feelings of deprivation – they would never have opened fire. The policemen thought they were dealing with war, not just a violent demonstration that spiraled out of control, and panicked.
The events exposed the depth of the rift between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and the depth of their prejudices. Beneath it all, the Jews suspect Israeli Arabs of being potential traitors; the Arabs, meanwhile, know that is how they’re viewed and therefore often identify with their Arab side more than their Israeli side.
“Relations between the majority and minority are difficult everywhere, let alone in a country that defines itself according to the nationality of the majority,” wrote the Or Commission, a state inquiry into the events of October 2000. “The dilemmas in a country like this have no perfect answers, and some claim there is an inherent conflict between the principles of a sovereign nation-stage and the principles of a liberal democracy. The feelings of the Arabs in Israel, whose affiliation with the Palestinians beyond the Green Line aren’t just national but social and familial too, were expressed in that famous saying of Abed al-Aziz Zoabi, ‘My country is at war with my people.’ That doesn’t mean the Arab sector as a whole supports all the Palestinians’ methods of fighting: the great majority consistently supports the peace process. But at the same time, it utterly identifies with the aspiration to found a Palestinian state, and sees Israeli policy as an obstacle to it.”
Those words, written in 2003, fell on deaf ears. In the 11 years since, relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel have progressed, but the rift between the sides remains as great as ever.
Who’s an Israeli Arab?
First of all, Israel’s Jews never did understand the Israeli Arabs’ mixed feelings about the state. According to opinion polls by Prof. Sammy Smooha of Haifa University, 22% of Israeli Arabs call themselves Arab-Palestinians, with no Israeli association at all. Another 45% call themselves Palestinian-Israelis. And only 32% define themselves as what the Jewish majority likes to call them – Israeli Arabs.
This data means that 67% of Israeli Arabs define themselves as Palestinian. Or, alternately, that 77% of Israeli Arabs define themselves as Israeli. It depends if your cup is half full or half empty.
Moreover, 63% of Israeli Arabs think the state is racist; 53% think it has no right to exist as a democratic Jewish state; 63% support Iran developing nuclear weapons; and 23% say they’d consider moving to the state of Palestine, and that in any conflict between Israel and its neighbors, they’d always support the neighbors.
But Smooha’s surveys also found extreme positions among the Jewish majority, even more than among the Israeli Arabs. Some 66% don’t believe Israel is a shared homeland for Jews and Arabs; 53% think Israel should prioritize its Jewish citizens over the Arab ones.
Moreover, the Jewish majority denies the impossible situation into which it has placed the Arabs, the one that pushes them into extreme positions. The Arabs, who lost the War of Independence, are required to be loyal to the state that vanquished them. Not only that. They are required to believe they have equal rights while their state defines itself as Jewish, has a Jewish flag and a Jewish national anthem.
An impossibly conflicted position
We could add that their state calls them citizens with equal rights, but in practice treats them as potential traitors. The Shin Bet security service has an Arab division that monitors the sector. Arabs aren’t drafted into the army, and at the airport they’re subject to humiliating security checks before every flight. Add to that: their state fights their people and places them in an unbearably conflicted position.
These conflicts, which have remained unresolved since October 2000, are now erupting anew. The fighting in Gaza has awakened the cries of resistance in the Arab street to the violence against their state – and the hate of the Jewish majority, which views that position as treacherous. The extremism on both sides seems to be reaching boiling point, if it isn’t steaming already.
Remember that moments before Operation Protective Edge began, Jewish citizens murdered an Arab citizen just because he was Arab. In recent months, Israeli Arabs have been exposed to a wave of violent hate crimes (the so-called “price tag” attacks), to boycotts of their businesses.
It’s the Arabs who are afraid to walk down the street because of the verbal and physical attacks against them. The fact is that, these days, the hatred of the Jewish street is more dangerous than the radical positions of some Israeli Arabs.
Are we nearing loss of control like in October 2000? Smooha doesn’t think so. He thinks the sides have learned from their mistakes – the police are more careful when breaking up demonstrations, and Arabs have learned not to push the envelope at sensitive times.
“In all Israel’s campaigns, the Arabs never acted against the state,” says Smooha, who has observed Arab opinion since 1976. “October 2000 was an exception and it originated with the police’s mistake.” The difference this time is the radicalism of the Israeli-Jewish right, and the state’s feebleness in eradicating right-wing violence against Arabs – not the positions of Israeli Arabs, who have felt the same in all of Israel’s wars.
If anything, the last survey from 2013 found that the positions among Israeli Arab toward their state had softened, possibly because of improvements to their social and economic status, Smooha speculates. “Maybe it’s a counterreaction to Avigdor Lieberman’s proposition to move Wadi Ara to Palestinian control [a part of a land swap]. That sharpened, among some of them, how important it is to remain a part of Israel.”
But the question is whether it’s important to Israel for the Arabs to remain part of it, and whether it is prepared to make an effort to make them feel wanted. “Establishing a reasonable harmony in relations between a majority and minority is a difficult task that is the responsibility of all society,” the Or Commission wrote. “It requires special effort by state institutions, which reflect the hegemony of the majority, in order to balance the vulnerability of the minority. Abstaining from effort, or doing it badly, causes feelings of deprivation among the minority, and a reality of deprivation, which may get worse over time.”