Separated by Shared History: The Story of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians

A recent study shows how Palestinian Israeli citizens and their counterparts in the West Bank have developed separate narratives.

This column is dedicated in particular to the radical right-wingers who speak of transferring Israeli-Palestinian villages to the Palestinian side of the Green Line ("willing transfers") and to the despairing left-wingers who recommend the unification of the Israeli residents of Baka al-Garbiyeh with their neighbors in Baka al-Sharkiyeh (the binational state).

A new study informs both wings that the long separation forced on the Palestinians has resulted in the development of two very different societies. So, for example, 60 percent of Palestinian Israeli citizens ("1948 Arabs") are opposed to their children marrying West Bank spouses ("1967 Arabs"). The pioneering study, headed by Professor Shifra Sagy, director of the Conflict Management and Resolution Program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. Adi Mana, with the assistance of doctoral candidates Anan Srour and Serene Madjali, and funded by the German research foundation DFG, indicates that each of these communities has its own diverse narrative and separate strategies of identity.

An analysis of in-home interviews with 1,104 Palestinian Israeli respondents and 948 West Bank Palestinian respondents, aged 18 and above, about equally split between men and women, clearly shows that both groups would like to strengthen ties with one another and enhance their shared identity, but also maintain high levels of competition and separation. 1967 Arabs tended to desire more integration between the two than 1948 Arabs, but were also more competitive. They expressed a greater desire to maintain certain connections with Israeli Arabs. Both groups set marriage apart from other types of connections and tended to frown on marriages between their children and children from the other group, this tendency being stronger among 1948 Arabs.

The study was based on a theoretical model designed by Sagy and her coresearchers and on contents that arose in focus groups. The questionnaire looked at willingness to grant legitimacy to the collective narratives of 1948 Arabs and 1967 Arabs and their emotions (anger, empathy, etc. ) toward them.

Each respondent was asked to note the extent to which he or she empathized with or granted legitimacy to the narrative of his or her own group, and to the narrative of the other group. So, for example, respondents were asked about their reaction to the statement, "The Arabs of 1948 expressed devotion to the land by not abandoning it in the 1948 war" (a common narrative among 1948 Arabs ) versus the claim that "They stayed on their land because they surrendered and accepted the occupation without resistance" (a common narrative among 1967 Arabs ), and about their attitudes to the fairly common narrative according to which the relative prosperity of 1948 Arabs is "a right bestowed on them as Israeli citizens (a common narrative among 1948 Arabs ) versus "this prosperity ensures their loyalty to the State of Israel (a common narrative among 1967 Arabs ).

Among Israeli Arabs there was a stronger tendency to cling to the group's unique collective narratives than among 1967 Arabs, and a lesser tendency to accuse Israel of separating the two groups. Within both groups, relatively little legitimacy was granted to the other side; empathy was weak and anger was high. This tendency was great among the Arab minority living in Israel.

All of this may relate to the fact that 1948 Arabs have greater communal cohesion compared to 1967 Arabs, and feel separate from the latter. According to Sagy, the explanation may be found in the location of 1948 Arabs as a small minority group, which is sometimes rejected and threatened, both by Israeli society and the Arab world. This catch strengthens group cohesion and increases the need to preserve a unique collective narrative.

"Although 1948 Arabs view their connections and shared identity with 1967 Arabs as important and valuable," says Sagy, "the connection could come with a steep price tag from their perspective, in other words through undermining their belonging to Israeli society."

In her opinion, ending the conflict with Israel will shine a spotlight on the gaps between the different segments of the Palestinians, which Palestinian society would prefer to ignore. The researchers reported that more than a few of the respondents rhetorically asked, "Why are you even dealing with this?"

The "good news" revealed by the study is that the cultural-political tensions between the two Palestinian groups are smaller than the cultural-political tensions between Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians. Last December, this newspaper reported that an earlier study done by Sagy and her team among members of both religions on either side of the Green Line showed that the Christians are more likely to separate themselves from greater Palestinian society and show less tolerance for the Muslims, who actually show a greater willingness to accept the Christian narrative and are more likely to mix with Christians.

Sagy explains that 1948 Christian Arabs, who are doubly a minority - as Arabs in Israeli society and as Christians in Arab society - feel their social identity threatened both by Jewish society and Muslim Palestinian society.

Nonetheless, the earlier study also showed that inter-Arab problems shrink when compared to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The marginalization of Muslim Palestinians in the Arab world - and of Christian Palestinians by the Muslims in the area and the entire Christian West - increases the need for both Muslims and Christians to belong and enjoy internal cohesion.

This need grows greater the more the group feels threatened and separate from the other groups in the same area, not unlike the Jewish experience in the Diaspora in times of trouble.

"Is the Palestinian people, the one we define as the enemy, really a single entity as we tend to think?" asks Sagy. "As long as Israel is the main focus, the answer is yes. Then we can all unite against the Jewish occupier. The answer becomes more complex the moment you take Israel out of the picture and examine the clashing narratives within Palestinian society. Then we encounter divisive conflicts, first and foremost the religious one. Religious conflict is emerging as the most dominant problem in the Middle East."