Opinion

The Forgotten Arab 'Victors' of 1967 – and How We've Survived Since

For many Israeli Jews, we, the Arabs of Israel, are a fifth column. For West Bank Palestinians, we're sellout traitors, lucky survivors, but never true Palestinians

Police stationed in Jerusalem's Old City on the 20th anniversary of the Six-Day War.
Maggi Ayalon, GPO

From the crushing Arab defeat in June 1967, one Arab party emerged victorious: the Arabs of Israel, survivors and descendants of the 160,000 Arab Palestinians who had managed to remain within the border of the nascent State of Israel in 1948. Their unspoken and nearly forgotten victory remains one of the war's bitter ironies.

From 1948 through 1966, Israel imposed a military government on the majority of its remaining Arab Palestinian population. Its policies towards its Arab minority included ethnic and economic segregation, land appropriation, and restrictions on movement, political, and cultural activities. Arabic books and newspapers were scant and available only to a handful of educated Palestinians.   

For nearly two decades, Arabs in Israel were completely cut off from the Arab world, the rest of the Palestinian people, and each other. Trapped in the iron cage fashioned by the military regime, first and second generations of Israeli Arabs, like my parents and grandparents, were born in national limbo and cultural alienation. Overnight, they became strangers in their own homeland.

The absurdity of this period culminated in the odd formation of an Arab citizenship consciousness within the oppressive apparatus of the military administration. For almost a quarter of Israel's seven decades of existence, its Arab citizens, to quote my father, could not resist the feeling that, in effect, they were held hostages by the Jewish State of Israel.

In 1967, hope had its irony: Israel defeated three Arab armies in a six-day war and conquered more Arab lands: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights.

In the beginning, we thought that an Arab victory was in sight and would liberate us once and forever. Nasser became the Arab messiah. People in my village would gather en masse, travel on foot, and walk for hours to the nearest Arab town to listen to his speeches. There was one radio station available — the transnational Voice of the Arabs — which, quite anachronistically and wishfully, broadcast victory news. My father told me of a famous Egyptian broadcaster named Ahmad Said, who, in a moment of sheer euphoria and vicious enthusiasm, promised the Mediterranean fish a lifetime carnivorous meal by the end of the war.

But we were wrong. First, it was the Arabs, not the Jews, who were fed to the fish. Second, their loss was our gain. Ironically, we were the only Arab party that emerged victorious from the defeat. For the first time since 1948, we had a chance to see Palestine, Jerusalem, a bit of Syria, a bit of Egypt, and a bit of Jordan.

Israelis guarding the newly conquered Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. June 16, 1967
AP

What's more, while the military administration had been officially abolished in December 1966, it is only after that war that it was effectively lifted, as Israel sought to transfer its military forces to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to administrate its newly occupied territories.

It was an awkward movement of liberation. People flocked like pilgrims across the Green Line, some for Arab goods, others for pure Arab air. Local newspapers featured images of old men and women weeping at the spectacle of Arabic books displayed in the streets of Jerusalem's Old City. Some hurtled up to the Golan Heights to catch a close glimpse of Syria. Others camped on Egyptian soil across the Sinai Peninsula. Many, like my father, headed eastward, to the West Bank, to reunite with Palestinian relatives over the border.

In bittersweet twist of irony, Palestinians on both sides of the border were united by defeat.

And yet we, the Arabs within, remain largely forgotten. Arabs outside Israel hardly know we even exist. Despite Israel's subsequent peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the Arab World remains a mystery to us. Arab countries like Morocco and Iraq are exotic lands. Neighboring Arab countries like Syria and Lebanon are forbidden to us. My grandfather often lamented that before Israel, he would have his breakfast in Damascus, lunch in Beirut, and dinner Jaffa. In the 1980s, at the peak of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a popular joke had it that the only way Arabs in Israel could cross the border to Lebanon was by joining the Israeli army.  

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, cast his ballot with his wife children at a polling station in Haifa. March 17, 2015
REUTERS/Ammar Awad

I was quite young when I decided to escape my Israeli cell and 'reconnect' with the Arab World. It was in Egypt, ten years after the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978. I spared no time, and before the two leaders change their minds, I packed my luggage, boarded a bus packed with fellow Arabs, and headed to Egypt. Naturally, I was advised to keep 'Israel' under my hat. "Until you come back, Israel does not exist", was my father's advice, thanks to which I would survive my first encounter with that mysterious land— the Arab World.

Or so I thought. I had barely landed my feet on Egyptian soil when I found myself surrounded by an angry crowd in the middle of Cairo. A local taxi driver happened upon my Israeli passport and took me for a Jewish spy. I was interrogated in public for two hours, during which I struggled to explain that there were Arabs living in Israel, too. The crowd burst into sudden collective laughter, and when an old Egyptian man wondered loudly why we were not fighting the Jews, I knew I was in trouble.

Indeed, for millions of Arabs outside Israel, the idea of an Arab living in Israel, and not against it, seemed absurd on both counts: How could the "bastards" manage to survive within the Jewish State when a coalition of five Arab armies was crushed by it? And why in hell would the Jews let the bears in their backyard in the first place?

The Arab people had never been as united as when they pondered our fate. The bears, they would agree, must have been tamed, Judaized, Israelized.

Hardly so. Every time Israel fights a war with an Arab neighbor, or neighbors, we are eyed up closelyand put through a loyalty test. We make sure to pass as loyal citizens, or "good Arabs," in local Israeli parlance. Meanwhile, we have to remind our fellow Arabs that we do not serve in the Israeli army. Every five years or so, we survive by hypocrisy.

And yet, it seems that nobody wants us: For Arabs outside Israel, we remain a mystery. For Palestinians across the border, we are either sellout traitors or lucky survivors, but never true Palestinians. For many Israeli Jews, we are a "fifth column" population, "the enemy from within," and a "ticking demographic time bomb." Israeli officials continue to debate plans to trade us for Jewish settlers over the border. Palestinian officials debate how to fend us off.

By and large, we are the sum of our denials. Sandwiched in the middle, and absent from the negotiation table, our fate is left elusive. Who knows, perhaps we need to wait for our next 1967 moment.

Seraj Assi is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, Washington DC