Despite Tensions, Israeli Arabs Narrowing the Economic Gap With Jews

Unrest among the country's Arab minority has been restrained compared to the outbreak of the second intifada when 13 were killed in protests.

Gil Eliahu

An Israeli Arab resident of Haifa told the story this week of her fears walking in a local park with her children. She recalled the looks she got from other strollers when they heard her speaking Arabic to her children and how she decided not to take out a knife she had brought along to cut apples.

Israeli Arabs have had to contend with similar fears in recent weeks. There have been several instances of near-lynchings, as well as the October 9 attack on four Arab men by a Jewish assailant in the Negev town of Dimona, not to mention the man who stabbed a fellow Jew in Kiryat Ata mistaking him for an Arab.

There was also the female terrorist in the Afula bus station who was shot even after she was surrounded by police officers. Israeli Arabs are wont to mention Yishai Schlissel, the ultra-Orthodox Jew who was arrested without being harmed after killing a girl in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade.

Such incidents provoke anger and fear among Israeli Arabs, who account for about a fifth of the population. It leaves them wondering whether pulling out a knife to cut an apple will leave them surrounded by angry people fixing for a lynching.

Even in the dark conditions in which Israeli Jews and Arabs are living, there’s no question that Israeli democracy has come a long way since October 2000, when at the outbreak of the second intifada, violent demonstrations by Israeli Arabs ended in 13 deaths at the hands of the police and the death of an Israeli Jew by stone-throwers.

Relations between the Jewish majority and Arab minority are much better than they were 15 years ago. The spate of knife and screwdriver attacks have pointed up the differences between Israeli Arabs and their compatriots in East Jerusalem, most of whom have opted not to take Israeli citizenship. While many of the attacks have been by East Jerusalem residents, most Israeli Arabs condemn assaults on innocent bystanders.

Only two of the attacks in recent weeks have been by Israeli Arabs – the Afula knifing and an assault near Hadera by a driver running over soldiers. They are the exception that proves the rule: While Israeli Arabs show a certain understanding for East Jerusalem residents, they want nothing to do with violence.

Meanwhile, the 2000 protests drew attention to the gulfs that separated the country’s Jewish and Arab communities. The protest led to the creation of a government investigative committee, the Or Commission, to study the gaps and offer solutions for narrowing them.

On one level it appears little has changed in the 15 years that followed. Again Israel is gripped by violence, inflamed by controversy over the Temple Mount and demands by rightist Israeli politicians to let Jews pray there.

But there's a big difference. Israeli Arabs have staged protests and blocked highways, and masked stone-throwers have reappeared, but their actions have been restrained and fall into the category of normal social protest. The police have shown self-discipline, too, and haven’t responded with live fire.

“Israeli democracy is functioning,” says Prof. Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa, who follows the mood of the Israeli Arab community. “Despite the tension, the welfare system and government services in Arab towns haven’t collapsed. The police are making a clear distinction between Arab citizens and Arab Palestinians,” he says.

“Yes, the Islamic Movement is inciting people over the Temple Mount. But Prime Minister Netanyahu engaged in incitement in the Knesset when he said Israeli Arabs supported the Islamic State. The exact opposite is true: Israeli Arabs oppose the Islamic State and see it as no less a threat than Jews do.”

Not just the job market

Ron Gerlitz, co-director of the Sikkuy Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, has a similar view.

“The big change since the events of October 2000 is that Israeli Arabs are integrated into the Israeli job market. They walk the city streets. On the one hand, that’s a big improvement that contributes to rapprochement – when you work together it’s hard to hate,” he says.

“On the other hand, it exposes Israeli Arabs to attacks and incitement by Jewish citizens. If once the point of friction was with the police – and that can be changed by a government decision – today the point is between Israel’s citizens, and that’s much harder to restrain.”

Still, there’s not just progress in the job market. The government has begun to take a great interest in the welfare of Arab citizens. In recent years, the government has invested more in Arab education and public transportation serving Arab cities and towns. And more recently there have even been efforts to address the discrimination Arab municipalities suffer in allocating state-owned land for construction.

Nevertheless, gaps between Jews and Arabs and the towns they live in remain wide. They are a source of frustration and social discontent that easily melds into national discontent.

The poverty rate among Israeli Arabs in 2015 is 59.2%, versus 25.9% for Jews. Spending on schooling in Arab municipalities in 2011 was 4,124 shekels ($1,080 at current exchange rates), two-thirds the level of Jewish ones.

Among Israeli Jews today, there is more understanding and recognition of the social discontent Israeli Arabs feel. That understanding, however, doesn’t extend to national discontent – Israeli Arabs’ frustrated identify as Palestinians.

“In all the wars we’ve fought, Israeli Arabs have identified with the Palestinian side,” Smooha says. “That is their nation, even their families, and they identify with the Palestinian struggle to end the occupation.”

Smooha found that Israeli Arabs’ identification with the Palestinians causes them to justify terror against police, soldiers and settlers.

“From the perspective of Israeli Arabs, it’s legitimate to fight anyone who’s a soldier of the occupation, and settlers are seen as soldiers of the occupation,” he says, stressing that they don’t justify terror attacks against Israeli citizens inside Israel.

Israeli Arabs aspire to a state for all its citizens. “More than anything they’d like Israel to be a federation of two nations, like Belgium, which is divided between Walloons and Flemish, or New Zealand, which guarantees representation in parliament for the Maori minority, or Switzerland, a federation that ensures the rights of its Italian-speaking minority,” he says.

In any case, Smooha says Israeli Arabs acknowledge that this kind of federative democracy isn’t going to happen anytime soon in Israel. “So what concerns them today is civil-economic equality,” he says.