Arab-Israelis trapped between two worlds
Taybeh, Israel - Al-Araqib, one of 35 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert, on June 29th was demolished by the Israeli government for the 100th time in six years.
The residents, like others in small towns without municipal services dotting Israel, are Palestinian citizens of Israel, known as Arab-Israelis.
Upon Israel’s creation in 1948, 750,000-900,000 Palestinians were forced out of or fled their homes in British-mandate Palestine. Approximately 170,000 Palestinians remained behind.
Now, the Arab minority numbers 1.7 million, making up one-fifth of Israel’s population.
Having two national identities places Palestinian citizens of Israel in a touchy situation. Often referred to as Israeli Arabs, they have acquired a label that is not related to their national, cultural, linguistic or religious identity.
Even to the rest of the Arab world, they are seen as aliens and liberals who may not share Arab conservative values. They are separated from Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip not only by thinking but also by physical barriers, such as checkpoints and the separation barrier. Their nationality remains a sticking point in much of the Arab world, which refuses to deal with them.
Although Israel does not have a written constitution, its Declaration of Independence states that it is the state of the Jewish people and that the Palestinians are to be treated equally and enjoy the same rights as the Jewish citizens.
In many cases, including in Bedouin villages, that guarantee has been breached.
According to Adalah, the Palestinian-run legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, the country has enacted more than 50 discriminatory laws that “seek to dispossess and exclude Arab citizens from the land; turn their citizenship from a right into a conditional privilege; undermine the ability of Arab citizens of Israel and their parliamentary representatives to participate in the political life of the country; criminalise political expression or acts that question the Jewish or Zionist nature of the state; and privilege Jewish citizens in the allocation of state resources”.
Discriminatory policies have resulted in Palestinians being socio-economically deprived. According to a December 2015 report by Myers-JDC-Brookdale, 53% of Palestinians in Israel live below the poverty line.
Still, obedience to Israeli laws has not stopped them from expressing loyalty, sympathy and solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
This sentiment increased during the second Palestinian uprising beginning in 2000, when Israeli police killed 13 unarmed activists in northern Arab-Israeli cities while protesting the killing of Palestinians in the West Bank. An investigation found police used “excessive and unjustifiable” force.
Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund, a non-profit organisation promoting coexistence between Arabs and Israelis, explained: “This incident set a precedent for Palestinianisation. Since 2000, there has been a deep crisis that has recently moved from crisis period to the need for increased integration and equality.”
True to their heritage, Palestinians gather in large numbers at demolished villages to commemorate the Nakba — the Palestinian “disaster” — while Israelis celebrate their independence. Land Day, when six Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli police in 1976, is commemorated by general strikes throughout the Arab sector.
“Arabs in Israel have split loyalty regarding Israel,” said an Israeli Arab who gave his name as Saleh.
Palestinian and Israeli citizens work and study together and, in the case of the mixed Arab-Jewish cities such as Ramla, Lod, Haifa, Acca and Jaffa, they live together.
“We bake together, share meals, family occasions and even religious holidays,” said Nahla el-Helou, 57, from Jaffa. “My best friend is Rose, a French-Israeli Jew who migrated to Israel in the 1950s. “We grew up together. Our children did, too.”
“We talk about everything, except politics,” she said.
According to Saleh, Israeli Arabs had been affected by living in close proximity to Israeli Jews.
“Arabs in Israel have acquired many ways of life of the Israeli Jews but even so, we’re still very divided,” he said, “We observe our religious holidays and try to preserve our traditions and pass them on to our children so they will never forget their heritage.”
Recent violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank has spilled over into Israel as Arab citizens have felt a backlash. “We are often viewed with suspicion, making for an increasingly uncomfortable situation for Arabs, especially for religious Muslim women who are identified by their headscarves,” said Saleh.
“My hope for continued coexistence,” he said “is almost zero because of recent Israeli policies of expansion and new settlements in the West Bank which ultimately have a negative effect on Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
Abu Rass said there is a contradiction between government policy and the words of some senior politicians.
“While on one hand the government is making more efforts to invest in Arab communities, on the other hand, many top politicians have made comments which promote racism against Arabs,” he said.
The Pew Research Center said in a May 18th report that 68% of Muslims in Israel said religious expression was important. A local survey released March 8th said 79% of Arabs said they felt there was discrimination against Muslims in Israel and 21% of Jews shared the same view.
While some Palestinian citizens have assimilated, others say they feel they are second-class citizens and remain part of two different worlds.