Arab-Israelis trapped between two worlds

Sunday 24/07/2016
Arab Israeli Knesset member Ahmad Tibi (C) takes part in a protest outside the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem last January against the demolition of Arab homes in the Arab-Israeli town of Taybeh.

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.