Israel’s Arabs: Deprived or Radicalized? by Efraim Karsh
October 1, 2000, was a watershed in Arab-Jewish relations in the state of Israel. On that day, as most Israelis were celebrating the Jewish new year, their Arab compatriots unleashed a tidal wave of violence in support of the ‘al-Aqsa intifada’, an all out war of terror launched by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority a couple of days earlier.
For full ten days, Israeli Arabs blocked several main roads, cutting off Jewish localities and forcing some of them to defend against armed assaults by neighbours with whom they had maintained cordial relations for decades. Scores of Jewish families spending the holiday season in the Galilee found themselves attacked by frenzied Arab mobs wielding Molotov cocktails, ball bearings in slingshots, stones, even firearms. Stores, post offices, and other public places were ransacked as rioters clashed with police. Forests were set ablaze. In Nazareth, thousands of Arabs marched in the streets chanting, ‘With our souls and our blood we will redeem Palestine’. Jaffa and Haifa, the showcases of Arab-Jewish coexistence, were rocked by violence and vandalism.
Shaken to the core, the Israeli government headed by Ehud Barak, who only days earlier had hosted Arafat in his private residence for what he described as ‘a very good, warm, and open meeting’, apologized to the thirteen rioters killed in violent clashes with the police and appointed an official commission of inquiry headed by deputy chief justice Theodore Orr to investigate the events. Submitting its official report at the end of August 2003, long after Barak had been swept from power, the commission acknowledged the riots’ strong chauvinistic impetus, noting grimly that ‘Jews were attacked on the roads merely for being Jewish and their property was destroyed. In a number of incidences, they were just inches from death at the hands of an unrestrained mob’. And it rebuked Israeli Arab leaders not only for failing to direct their grievances into democratic, rather than violent, channels but also for having worked over the years to delegitimize the state and its institutions in the eyes of their constituents:
Yet even while denouncing such actions as ‘incompatible with the loyalty owed by citizens to their country’, the Orr commission refrained from proposing disciplinary measures against Israeli Arab leaders who had incited their constituents to violence. Instead, it attributed the volcanic eruption to something else entirely – namely, a longstanding callousness on the part of the Israeli establishment itself towards the state’s Arab minority:
Behind this self-incriminatory diagnosis lay the conviction that Arab resentment and distrust of the Jewish state were corollaries of socioeconomic deprivation and that with growing affluence, such feelings would be supplanted by their opposites. The fact that Arab enmity had not given way, but on the contrary had intensified, was thus seen as proof that the ‘Arab sector’ had been a victim of official discrimination and had yet to receive ‘its equal share of state resources’.
Unfortunately, this theory is false in general, and especially false in this particular case. In the modern world, it is not the poor and the oppressed who have led the great revolutions and/or carried out the worst deeds of violence; rather, it is militant vanguards from among the better educated and more moneyed circles of society. So it was with the Palestinian Arabs – in both mandatory Palestine and the state of Israel. The more prosperous, affluent, and better educated they became, the stronger and more vociferous their leaders’ incitement against their state of citizenship, to the point of open rejection of the fundamental principles underpinning its very existence. But to understand this requires a look back at the history of Arab-Jewish relations during the past century.
Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land
The inflow of Jewish immigrants and capital after World War I revived Palestine’s hitherto moribund condition. If prior to the war, some 2,500-3,000 Arabs, or one out of 200-250 inhabitants, emigrated from the country every year, this rate was slashed to about 800 per annum between 1920 and 1936 while Palestine’s Arab population rose from about 600,000 to some 950,000 owing to the substantial improvement in socioeconomic conditions attending the development of the Jewish National Home. The British authorities acknowledged as much in a 1937 report by a commission of enquiry headed by Lord Peel:
Raising the standard of living of the Palestinian Arabs well above that in the neighbouring Arab states, the general fructifying effect of the import of Jewish capital into the country was not limited to the upper classes, or the effendis, who ‘sold substantial pieces of land [to the Jews] at a figure far above the price it could have fetched before the War’, but extended to the country’s predominantly rural population, the fellaheen, who ‘are on the whole better off than they were in 1920’. The expansion of Arab industry and agriculture, especially in the field of citrus growing, Palestine’s foremost export product, was largely financed by the capital thus obtained, and Jewish know-how did much to improve Arab cultivation. In the two decades between the world wars, Arab-owned citrus plantations grew six-fold, as did vegetable-growing lands, while the number of olive groves quadrupled and that of vineyards increased threefold.
No less remarkable were the advances in Arab social welfare. Perhaps most significantly, mortality rates in the Muslim population dropped sharply and life expectancy rose from 37.5 years in 1926-27 to 50 in 1942-44 (compared with 33 in Egypt). Between 1927-29 and 1942-44, child mortality was reduced by 34% in the first year of age, by 31% in the second, by 57% in the third, by 64% in the fourth, and by 67% in the fifth. The rate of natural increase leapt upward by a third (from 23.3 per 1000 people in 1922-25 to 30.7 in 1941-44) – well ahead of the natural increase (or of the total increase) of other Arab/Muslim populations.
That nothing remotely akin to this was taking place in the neighbouring British-ruled Arab countries, not to mention India, can be explained only by the decisive Jewish contribution to state revenues (in 1944-45, for example, the Jewish community paid 68% of Palestine’s income tax compared with 15% by the twice larger Arab community). In addition, the extensive Jewish public health provision greatly benefited the country’s Arab population. Jewish reclamation and anti-malaria work slashed the prevalence of this lethal disease (during the latter part of 1918, for example, 68 of 1000 people in the Beit Jibrin region died of malaria; in 1935 the number of malaria-related deaths in the whole of Palestine was 17), while health institutions, founded with Jewish funds primarily to serve the Jewish National Home, also served the Arab population. It is hardly surprising therefore that the greatest reductions in Arab mortality, as well as the rise in the quality and standard of living, occurred in localities in or near those in which Jewish enterprise had been most pronounced.
Had the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs been left to their own devices, they would most probably have been content to get on with their lives and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the growing Jewish presence in the country. Throughout the British Mandate era (1920-48), periods of peaceful coexistence were far longer than those violent eruptions and the latter were the work of a small fraction of Palestinian Arabs.
But then, rather than follow the wishes of its constituents, the corrupt and extremist Palestinian Arab leadership, headed since the early 1920s by the Jerusalem Mufi Hajj Amin Husseini, embarked on a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival, which culminated in the violent attempt, supported by the entire Arab world, to destroy the state of Israel at birth. In the mournful words of the Peel commission,
The Arab Minority in the Jewish State
The end of the 1948 war found the Palestinian-Arab community profoundly shattered. Of the 750,000 Arab residents of the territory that came to be Israel, only 158,000 had stayed put through the hostilities; at the state’s founding, they formed 13.6% of the total population. But these numbers did not stay low for long. Thanks to remarkable fertility rates, and despite successive waves of Jewish immigration into Israel, the proportion of Arabs grew steadily over the decades. By the end of 2009, Israel’s Arab minority had leapt eightfold in number to over 1.6 million, or 20.6% of the state’s total population.
The mass exodus of 1948-49 took Israel’s leadership by surprise, as the Zionist movement had always assumed the existence of a substantial Arab minority in the future Jewish state on an equal footing ‘throughout all sectors of the country’s public life’, to use the words of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of the branch of Zionism that was the forebear of today’s Likud party.
As early as 1905 Jabotinsky argued that ‘we must treat the Arabs correctly and affably, without any violence or injustice’, reiterating this position in his famous 1923 article ‘The Iron Wall’: ‘I am prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone. This seems to me a fairly peaceful credo’.
Eleven years later, Jabotinsky presided over the drafting of a constitution for Jewish Palestine. According to its provisions, Arabs and Jews were to share both the prerogatives and the duties of statehood, notably including military and civil service; Hebrew and Arabic were to enjoy the same legal standing; and ‘in every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab and vice versa’. Echoing this vision, David Ben-Gurion told the leadership of his own (Mapai) party in December 1947 that the non-Jews in the Jewish state ‘will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is, the state will be their state as well’.
Committees laying the groundwork for the nascent state discussed in detail the establishment of an Arabic-language press, the improvement of health, the incorporation of Arab officials into the government, the integration of Arabs within the police and the ministry of education, and Arab-Jewish cultural and intellectual interaction. Even military plans for rebuffing an anticipated pan-Arab invasion in the late 1940s were predicated, in the explicit instructions of the commander-in-chief of the foremost Jewish underground organization, the Hagana, on the ‘acknowledgement of the full rights, needs, and freedom of the Arabs in the Hebrew state without any discrimination, and a desire for coexistence on the basis of mutual freedom and dignity’.
The same principle was enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, issued on 14 May 1948. The new state undertook to ‘uphold absolute social and political equality of rights for all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex’. In particular, Arab citizens were urged ‘to take part in the building of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and on the basis of appropriate representation in all its institutions, provisional and permanent’. While the declaration lacked constitutional status, its principles were taken as guidelines for governmental behaviour; over the years, they would gain legal authority through supreme-court decisions and acts of the Knesset (parliament).
In its first meeting on 16 May 1948, the provisional Israeli government discussed a basic law regulating the nascent state’s ruling institutions and practices, which ensured inter alia the right of Arab citizens to be elected to parliament and to serve as cabinet ministers, as well as the continued functioning of the autonomous Muslim (and Christian) religious courts that had existed during the mandate. Four months later, the government decided that Arabic, alongside Hebrew, would serve as the official language in all public documents and certificates.
Israeli Arabs have indeed enjoyed full equality before the law, and are endowed with the full spectrum of democratic rights – including the right to vote for and serve in all state institutions. (From the first, Arabs have been members of the Knesset.) This is in itself a remarkable fact. From the designation of Arabic as an official language, to the recognition of non-Jewish religious holidays as legal resting days for their respective communities, to the granting of educational, cultural, judicial, and religious autonomy, Arabs in Israel may well enjoy more formal prerogatives than ethnic minorities anywhere in the democratic world, not to mention the Middle East and the Muslim world.
This hardly means that the state’s treatment of its Arab minority has been spotless. Civic equality, like any other principle, does not exist in a vacuum, or in isolation from other fundamental political values like stability and public security. In every modern nation-state, majority-minority relations have been a problem, and all the more so when an ethnic minority forms part of a larger nation or group that is hostile to the state in which it resides. Early on, the attempt of the Arab states and the Palestinian Arab leadership to destroy Israel at birth, the repeated talk of a ‘second round’, and the fact that many Israeli Arab enclaves were located in sensitive border areas fuelled fears within the Jewish state of a possible transformation of its Arab communities into hotbeds of subversive activity.
For security reasons, then, the main Arab population centres were placed under military administration, a policy that ended only in December 1966. Similar considerations precluded the conscription of most Arabs into military service. The exemption was also designed to ease the Arabs’ ‘dual loyalty’ dilemma, sparing them the need to confront their cousins on the battlefield; it corresponded, as well, with the wishes of the Arab population itself.
The policy of exempting Israeli Arabs from military service had real-life effects. In the short term, it conferred a certain practical benefit, giving young Arabs a three-year head start over most of their Jewish counterparts in entering the labour force or acquiring a higher education. Over the longer term, however, it worked to constrain Arab economic and social mobility, for the simple reason that, until the 1990s, military service was the main entry point into the corridors of adult Israeli life. But these constraints were not the result of ‘insufficient sensitivity’, let alone of discrimination on the basis of religion or nationality; the same disadvantages beset and continue to beset Jewish individuals and communities that have likewise been exempted from military service, notably the ultraorthodox Jews.
Deprived and Marginalized?
The issue of discrimination aside, it cannot be sufficiently stressed that, contrary to the dismal pronouncements of the Orr commission, the Arabs living in the Jewish state have made astounding social and economic progress. Far from lagging behind, their rate of development has often surpassed that of the Jewish sector, with the result that the gap between the two communities has steadily narrowed.
Health statistics are but one indicator. Perhaps most significantly, mortality rates among Israeli Arabs have fallen by over two-thirds since the establishment of the Jewish state, while life expectancy has increased 30 years, reaching 78.5 (women 80.7, men 76.3) in 2009. At the end of the 1940s, life expectancy of Israeli Arabs was fifteen years lower than that of their Jewish counterparts; by the 1970s, the gap had decreased to 2-3 years and has remained virtually unchanged since then (3.7 years in 2009). Not only does this compare favourably with the Arab and Muslim worlds, but the average Israeli Arab male can expect to live longer than his American (76 years in 2007) and many European counterparts.
Thanks to Israel’s medical and health-education programs, infant-mortality rates have similarly been slashed: from 56 per 1,000 live births in 1950 to 6.5 in 2008 – slightly above the US mortality rate and much lower than that of the neighbouring Middle Eastern states (in Algeria, for example, it is 24.9 deaths/1,000 live births, in Egypt 30, in Iraq 40, in Iran 41). Another indication of the improving socioeconomic position of the Israeli Arabs has been the steady decline in fertility rates since the 1970s: from 8.4 children per women in 1965 to 3.6 in 2008.
No less remarkable have been the advances in education. Since Israel’s founding, while the Arab population has grown tenfold, the number of Arab schoolchildren has multiplied by a factor of 40. If, in 1961, the average Israeli Arab spent one year in school, today the figure is over eleven years. The rise was particularly dramatic among Arab women who in 1961 received virtually no school education and today are equally, indeed better educated than their male counterparts (in 1970-2000, for example, the proportion of women with more than eight years of schooling rose nearly sevenfold – from 9% to 59%).
In 1961, less than half of Arab children attended school, with only 9% acquiring secondary or higher education. By 1999, 97% of Arab children attended schools, with 46% completing high school studies and 19% obtaining university/college degrees. In 2011, over a half of Arab twelfth-grade students (two thirds of Christian students) won the matriculation certificate, with dropout rates of Arab students similar to those in the Jewish sector: 1.8% and 1.5% respectively. Indeed, the dropout rate in the weaker parts of Jewish society were higher than their Arab equivalent: 3.1% among ultraorthodox Jews and 3.6% among foreign native Jews, compared to 2.6% in the Bedouin sector – the weakest part of Arab society.
Nor do Jewish schools enjoy better individual services than their Arab counterparts. In 2007/08, for example, Arab students were six times more likely to receive didactic assessment, and five times more likely to have a nurse based in their school, than their Jewish counterparts. Arab students had somewhat more frequent access to youth and/or social workers, as well as truancy officers, while Jewish students had somewhat better access to psychological and educational counselling.
More important, during the past twelve years, relative investment in Arab education has far exceeded that in the Jewish sector resulting in a significantly larger expansion across the board: Teaching posts in pre-primary Arab education trebled, compared to a twofold increase in the Jewish sector; Arab primary education posts grew three times faster than their Jewish counterparts while the relative increase in Arab secondary education posts was six times higher than in the Jewish sector.
Still more dramatic has been the story in higher education where the numbers of Arab graduates multiplied fifteen times between 1961 and 2001. Fifty years ago, a mere 4% of Arab teachers held academic degrees; by 1999, the figure had vaulted to 47%. In 1999, the proportion of Arab students studying for advanced degrees was 19%; a decade later 34% of Arab high school graduates passed the university entry exams. And while this figure is still lower than in the Jewish sector (48%), it is compensated by the much larger Arab presence in education colleges where Arab students occupy 33% of all places – way above their relative population share.
Last but not least, during Israel’s first fifty years of existence, adult illiteracy rates among Israeli Arabs dropped from 57.2% (79% among women) to 7.7% (11.7% among women). This not only places Israeli Arabs miles ahead of their brothers in the Arab world – in Morocco illiteracy is at 44%, in Egypt at 38%, in Iraq at 22% – but reflects a pace of improvement nearly double that of the Jewish sector.
Standard of living? In the late 1940s, following the flight of its more affluent classes and the breakdown of economic relations with neighbouring Arab states, the Arab minority in Israel was left largely impoverished. As they became increasingly incorporated into local economic life, Arabs experienced a steep rise in earnings and a visible improvement in their material circumstances. More Arabs than Jews have come to own the dwelling they live in – 82.2% vs. 68.8% in 1997, 91.5% vs. 68.6% in 2000, 82.3% vs. 70.4% in 2008. By 2002, 86% of Arab households – more Arab households than Jewish ones – occupied dwellings of three or more rooms; and by 2006, Arab households surpassed their Jewish counterparts in ownership of key durable goods, such as refrigerators (99.8% vs. 99.4%), deep-freezers (23.8 % vs. 18.3%), washing machines (97.7% vs. 94.5%), televisions (97.7% vs. 89.9%), and one cellular phone at least (88.8% vs. 86.7).
Contrary to the standard image of cramped neighbourhoods and acute land shortages, population density in Arab localities is substantially lower on average than in equivalent Jewish locales. While Jewish neighbourhoods in central Israel, where most of the country’s population lives, are hopelessly congested – 21,031 persons per square kilometre in Bene Brak, 16,329 in Giv’atayim, 15,913 in Bat Yam, and 9,759 in Holon, 7,947 in Tel Aviv, among other places – the urban Arab population in the same area enjoys a much more spacious existence: 1,958 persons per sq. km. in Taibe, 1,894 in Tire, 1,756 in Umm al-Fahm, and so on and so forth. Even the Galilean city of Nazareth, Israel’s largest and most congested Arab locality has a population density of 5,113 – less than a quarter its Jewish equivalent.
As for income statistics, it is undeniable that, on average, Israeli Arabs still earn less than Jews. But to what is this attributable? For one thing, the average Muslim in Israel is ten years younger than his Jewish counterpart; all over the world, younger people earn less. Then, too, far fewer Arab women enter the labour market than do Jewish women: in 2008, for example, only 21% of Arab women, compared to 57% of Jewish women, worked outside their homes.
The salience of these and other factors – family size, level of schooling, cultural tradition, and so forth – may be judged by looking at segments of Israeli Jewish society like the ultraorthodox or residents of development towns (localities established during the 1950s and 1960s to absorb the fresh waves of Jewish immigration, especially from Arab countries), whose income levels more closely resemble those in the Arab sector. Thus, for example, while the 2008 average monthly salary in Arab Nazareth was lower than in the mostly Jewish Upper Nazareth (4,749 vs. 5,437 shekels), the average self employed monthly earning there was higher than in Upper Nazareth: 7,498 vs. 7,351 shekels. No less important, income inequality was lower in Arab Nazareth than in Jewish Upper Nazareth: 0.36 vs. 0.37 on the Income Gini coefficient (a value of 0 represents absolute equality, a value of 100 – absolute inequality).
Since the late 1990s, the unemployment rate in Israel’s Arab sector was consistently lower than in Jewish development towns. In 2009, for instance, the unemployment rate in the Arab sector was 8.5% compared to 10.8% in development towns, with 76.5% of Arab men having a fulltime job compared to 69.7% of their Jewish counterparts. Unemployment rate among Arab women was similarly lower (9.4% vs. 11.2%), though their share in the civilian labour force was only half that of their Jewish counterparts – underscoring the persistent Arab social constraints on women’s integration in Israeli society, with the attendant lower family income.
Has the government given short shrift to the economic needs of the Arab sector, as the Orr commission asserts? Quite the reverse. Allocations to Arab municipalities have grown steadily over the past decades and are now on a par with, if not higher than, subsidies to the Jewish sector. By the mid-1990s, Arab municipalities were receiving about a quarter of all such allocations, well above the ‘share’ of Arabs in Israel’s overall population, and their relative growth has continued to date. In numerous cases, contributions to Arab municipal budgets substantially exceed contributions to equivalently situated and sized Jewish locales, let alone the larger and more established Jewish cities where government allocations amount to a fraction of municipal budget. In 2008, for instance, relative disbursements to the Arab town of Kafr Qassem were five times higher than to the Jewish town of Zichron Yaacov; nearly four times higher to (Arab) Tamra and Umm Fahm than to (Jewish) Yahud and Ra’anana respectively; five times higher to (Arab) Abu Snan than to (Jewish) Even Yehuda; six times higher to (Arab) Iksal than to (Jewish) Azur. And so on and so forth.
The preceding analysis proves the attribution of the October 2000 riots to social and economic deprivation to be totally misconceived. If indeed the culprits were poverty and second-class status, why had there never been any disturbances remotely like the October 2000 riots among similarly situated segments of Jewish society in Israel, or, for that matter, among Israeli Arabs in the much worse-off 1950s and 1960s? Why, indeed, did Arab dissidence increase dramatically with improvements in the standard of living, and why did it escalate into an open uprising after a decade that saw government allocations to Arab municipalities grow by 550 per cent, and the number of Arab civil servants nearly treble?
The truth is that the growing defiance of the state, its policies, and its values was not rooted in socioeconomic deprivation but rather in the steady radicalization of the Israeli Arab community by its ever more militant leadership, not unlike their mandatory predecessors.
The process began with the Six-Day war of June 1967. In the relatively relaxed aftermath of that conflict, Israeli Arabs came into renewed direct contact with their cousins in the West Bank and Gaza as well as with the wider Arab world. Family and social contacts broken in 1948 were restored, and a diverse network of social, economic, cultural, and political relations was formed. For the first time since 1948, Israeli Muslims were allowed by Arab states to participate in the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, thus breaking an unofficial ostracism and restoring a sense of self-esteem and pan-Arab belonging – and encouraging a correlative degree of estrangement from Israel.
Six years later came the Yom Kippur war, shattering Israel’s image as an invincible military power and tarnishing its international reputation. One result was quickly felt on the local political scene. During the 1950s and 1960s, most Arab voters had given their support to Israel’s ruling Labour party and/or a string of associated Arab lists. This had already begun to change by 1969, when Raqah, a predominantly Arab communist party and a champion of radical anti-Israelism, made its successful electoral debut. By 1973, in elections held three months after the Yom Kippur war, Raqah (or Hadash, as it was later renamed) had become the dominant party in the Arab sector, winning 37% of the vote; four years later, it totally eclipsed its rivals with 51% of Arab ballots cast. By the late 1990s, things had moved so far in an anti-Israel direction that many Arabs, apparently finding Raqah/Hadash too tame, were shifting their allegiance to newer and still more militant parties.
Nor did the PLO fail to capitalize on these internal developments. Founded in 1964, it had at first ignored the Israeli Arabs but soon embarked on a sustained effort to incorporate them into its struggle for Israel’s destruction and, by the late 1960s, had recruited scores of young Israeli Arabs. In January 1973, the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s quasi-parliament, decided ‘to strengthen the links of national unity and unity in struggle between the masses of our countrymen in the territory occupied in 1948’ – i.e., Israel – ‘and those in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and outside the occupied territory’. Things came to a head on 30 March 1976 in the form of mass riots – harbingers of worse to come. The occasion was the government’s announced intention to appropriate some 5,000 acres of the Galilee for development. Though most of the land was owned either by the state or by private Jewish individuals, the announcement triggered a wave of violence that ended in the deaths of six Arab rioters and the wounding of dozens more. ‘Land Day’, as the disturbances came to be known, was thenceforth commemorated annually in renewed and increasingly violent demonstrations, often in collaboration with the PLO and its political affiliates in the West Bank.
Meanwhile the ‘Palestinization’ of Israeli Arabs continued apace. In February 1978, scores of Palestinian intellectuals signed a public statement urging the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a year later, Israeli Arab students openly endorsed the PLO as ‘the sole representative of the Palestinian people, including the Israeli Arabs’, voicing support for the organization’s pursuit of the ‘armed struggle’ (the standard euphemism for terror attacks), indeed for its commitment to Israel’s destruction. By 1976, less than half of Israeli Arabs defined themselves as Palestinians; by 1985 more than two thirds did.
By then, too, extremist politics and violence had become institutionalized, with the PLO funnelling funds to Arab bodies and institutions in Israel, and Israeli Arabs increasingly implicated in the sale of weapons and explosives to terrorist organizations in the territories. December 1987 saw the outbreak of the first widespread Palestinian uprising (intifada) in the West Bank and Gaza. Showing their support for their brethren in the territories, Israeli Arabs committed acts of vandalism (burning forests, stoning private cars, destroying agricultural crops and equipment) and launched armed attacks on Jews within Israel proper. In the course of two years, the number of such individual attacks rose sharply from 69 (in 1987) to 187 (in 1989), and acts of sedition from 101 to 353.
The Road to October 2000
If the intifada strained Arab-Jewish relations within Israel to their limits (till then), other factors contributed to the worsening of the situation as well. One was the rising power and influence of the Islamist movement in Israel and the disputed territories, which injected into the conflict a religious element that had largely lain dormant ever since 1948. Another was the growing ‘post-Zionist’ trend among educated Israelis, which, by creating the impression of a fatigued society ready to pay any price for respite, emboldened the most radical elements on the Arab side to dream of delivering a final blow.
Yet it was the delusional the embrace of the Oslo accords, signed in 1993 between Israel and the PLO, despite the latter’s brazen and continual flouting of its contractual obligations, that did the greatest damage. In recognizing the PLO as ‘the representative of the Palestinian people’, the Rabin government effectively endorsed that organization’s claim of authority over a substantial number of Israeli citizens and gave it carte blanche to interfere in Israel’s domestic affairs. Such a concession would be a sure recipe for trouble even under the most amicable of arrangements; made to an irredentist party still officially committed to the destruction of its ‘peace partner’, it proved nothing short of catastrophic.
From the moment of his arrival in Gaza in July 1994, Arafat set out to make the most of what Israel had handed him, indoctrinating not only the residents of the territories but also Israeli Arabs with an ineradicable hatred of Israel, of Jews, and of Judaism. His intention was made clear as early as his welcoming speech, which smeared his new peace partner with extensive references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and ended with a pledge to ‘liberate’ Israel’s Arab citizens from their alleged subjugation. ‘I am saying it clearly and loudly to all our brothers, from the Negev to the Galilee’, Arafat proclaimed, ‘and let me quote Allah’s words: “We desired to be gracious to those that were abased in the land, and to make them leaders, and to make them the inheritors, and to establish them in the land.”‘
Within a month of his arrival in Gaza, Arafat had secretly ordered the extension of Palestinian Authority’s activities to Israeli Arabs, allocating $10 million in initial funding and appointing Ahmad Tibi, his political adviser and an Israeli citizen, to head the subversive operation. In subsequent years, PLO and PA interference in Israel’s domestic affairs would range from mediation of internal Arab disputes, to outright attempts to influence the outcome of Israeli elections, to the spread of vile propaganda calling for Israel’s destruction. ‘Zionist – your death is in my hands’, proclaimed a videocassette produced by Force 17, Arafat’s praetorian guard, and distributed in Nazareth in the mid-1990s. ‘The one who has forcefully robbed my land will only give it back by force. [Force] 17 in Gaza and Jaffa, 17 in Jerusalem and Haifa, 17 in Jenin and Ramleh, 17 in Lod and Acre’. And the PA’s daily, al-Hayat al-Jadida put it in similarly blunt terms: ‘Our people have hope for the future, that the occupation state [Israel] will cease to exist’.
The incitement struck an eager chord. As the 1990s wore on, open identification with Israel’s sworn enemies and even euphemistic calls for its destruction became regular themes of Israeli Arab leaders. If in the mid-1970s, one in two Israeli Arabs repudiated Israel’s right to exist, by 1999, four out of five were doing so. When, in February 1994, a Jewish fanatic murdered 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron, large-scale riots erupted in numerous Arab localities throughout Israel with mobs battling police for four full days. The scenario repeated itself in April 1996 when dozens of Palestinians were mistakenly killed in an Israeli bombing of terrorist targets in south Lebanon, and yet again in September 1996 when Arafat, capitalizing on the opening of a new exit to an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem, stirred a fresh wave of mass violence in which fifteen Israelis and fifty-eight Palestinians died. In this respect, at least, the riots of October 2000 were an event foretold although one could not have predicted their scope and duration.
The first signs occurred as early as July. As the Camp David summit was about to convene amid widespread talk of a breakthrough for peace, Abdel Malik Dahamshe, the Islamist movement’s most senior Knesset representative, threatened that any Arab concessions over Jerusalem would trigger a violent eruption of cosmic proportions. ‘Our souls yearn for martyrs’ death for the defence of al-Aqsa and blessed Jerusalem, and millions of Muslims and Arabs will respond to the call to martyr themselves’, he declared. ‘I am willing and praying to be the first shahid [martyr] to sacrifice his body in defence of Islam’s holiest sites in Jerusalem’. Not to be outdone was his Islamist colleague, Sheikh Raid Salah. In public appearances, newspaper articles, and poems, he urged his followers to make the ultimate sacrifice for the liberation of the ‘stolen homeland’. Azmi Bishara, a member of the Knesset and founding head of the Arab nationalist Balad party, applauded Hezbollah’s armed struggle, which in May 2000 culminated in Israel’s swift unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon.
The Camp David talks ended on 25 July with Arafat’s blanket repudiation of Barak’s proposal for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in virtually the entire territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital. In the following months, the PA made comprehensive preparations for a full-fledged confrontation with Israel, and on 29 September, the day after a mutually agreed visit by Ariel Sharon to the Muslim-administered areas of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, launched the ‘al-Aqsa intifada’ with open clashes between Palestinian rioters and the security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
The next day, as low scale violence spilled over from the territories to Israel itself, the ‘follow-up committee’ – the effective leadership of the Israeli Arabs – issued an official statement deriding the deaths of seven Palestinian rioters as a ‘premeditated, horrendous massacre’ by the Barak government and proclaiming 1 October a day of national mourning, strikes, and demonstrations. ‘The blood of our wounded has mixed with the blood of our people in defending the blessed al-Aqsa and crossed the green line [i.e., the pre-1967 line]’, ran the statement. ‘It does not stand to reason that we will remain aloof in the face of the… barbaric actions in Jerusalem and the attempt to desecrate al-Haram al-Sharif and to subject it to Israeli sovereignty’.
The following day the Israeli Arab sector exploded.
The October 2000 riots were not an act of social protest, and they did not mark a stage in ‘a legitimate struggle for civil rights’. They were a violent internal uprising in support of an external attack. It was as if tens of thousands of Japanese Americans had responded to Pearl Harbour by engaging in wholesale violence against their fellow Americans. Of course, that particular uprising never happened – which did not prevent the American government from interning thousands of American citizens of Japanese origin for much of the war as suspected members of a ‘fifth column’.
In Israel, the violence did happen – on a massive scale. But the Barak government, declining to acknowledge it for what it was and what it portended, sought to appease the aggressors by announcing increased economic support for the Arab sector to the tune of four billion shekels and appointing the Orr commission to investigate not the rioters but the state’s response to them. Small wonder, then, that this commission ended up lifting the lion’s share of the blame from the shoulders of the aggressors, or satisfied itself with uttering the naive wish that its own demonstration of good faith would ‘contribute, in the final analysis, to a meeting of hearts among Arabs and Jews in Israel’.
No such meeting of hearts has remotely occurred. On the contrary, just as Hajj Amin Husseini dragged his reluctant constituents into a disastrous conflict that culminated in their collective undoing, and Arafat used the Oslo accords to implicate his equally grudging subjects in the worst military confrontation with Israel since the 1948 war, rather than create the independent Palestinian envisaged by these accords, so Israel’s Arab leaders have shown no remorse over the dire consequences of their reckless behaviour, instead intensifying their efforts to widen the breach with the country’s Jewish majority.
Thus we have Bishara asking the Knesset (in May 2001) to explore the ‘dispensation of poisoned candies from IDF aircraft overflying the Gaza Strip’ before departing for Syria to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Hafez Assad, one of Israel’s most implacable enemies. Flanked by other avowed enemies of the Jewish state, he then implored the Arab states to enable anti-Israel resistance activities, reiterated his admiration for Hezbollah, and urged the Israeli Arabs to celebrate the terrorist organization’s achievements and internalize its operational lessons. His subsequent prosecution for visiting an enemy state and supporting a terrorist organization only served to boost his international profile and intensify his recklessness. So much so that in 2006 he fled Israel to avoid arrest and prosecution for treason, having allegedly assisted Hezbollah during its war with Israel in the summer of that year.
Bishara’s Arab peers remained unimpressed. Ignoring 2002 legislation forbidding unauthorized visits by Israelis to enemy countries, they embarked on a string of trips to the neighbouring Arab states where they conferred with various heads of the anti-Israel ‘resistance’. Ahmad Tibi, whose years in Arafat’s service would have made him a persona non grata in Hafez Assad’s Syria given the latter’s loathing of the Palestinian leader, was beside himself with joy on meeting the deceased tyrant’s son. ‘Heads of state are begging to shake [Bashar] Assad’s hand, crawling to shake his hand’, he gloated at an Israeli Arab election gathering (in January 2009). ‘Yet what they fail to obtain despite their crawling, others get’.
The following year Tibi travelled to Libya with a delegation of Israeli Arab parliamentarians to meet Muammar Qaddafi, whom he lauded as ‘king of the Arabs’ and his peer praised as ‘a man of peace who treats his people in the best possible way’. Confronted with scathing Knesset criticism upon their return, Knesset member Taleb Sana was unrepentant. ‘Israel’s enemy is Israel itself’, he said. ‘As Qaddafi said during the visit, they have no problem with Jews but only with Zionism. Perhaps you’ll learn and understand some time – that is: Abolish the Jewish state of Israel’.
By this time, open calls for Israel’s destruction had substituted for the 1990s’ euphemistic advocacy of this goal. Bishara, whose Balad party was predicated on making Israel ‘a state of all its citizens’ – the standard euphemism for its transformation into an Arab state in which Jews would be reduced to a permanent minority – became increasingly outspoken after his flight from the country, predicting the Jewish state’s fate to be identical to that of the crusading states. His successor as Balad leader, Jamal Zahalka, preferred a more contemporary metaphor claiming that just as South Africa’s apartheid had been emasculated, so its Zionist counterpart had to be destroyed. And Sheikh Ra’id Salah, who never tired of crying wolf over Israel’s supposed designs on al-Aqsa, ‘while our blood is on their clothes, on their doorsteps, in their food and water’, prophesied the Jewish state’s demise within two decades should it not change its attitude to the Arab minority.
Meanwhile the ‘follow up committee’ escalated the ‘Nakba Day’ events – observed alongside Israel’s Independence Day to bemoan the ‘catastrophe’ wrought on the Palestinians by the establishment of the Jewish state – by instituting (in May 2001) a national minute of silence. Seven years later, as Israel celebrated its sixtieth year of existence, the committee dedicated these events to the ‘right of return’ – the standard Arab euphemism for Israel’s destruction through demographic subversion. Even in Haifa, the epitome of Arab-Jewish coexistence since the early 1920s, local politicians attempted to replace the name of The Zionism Avenue with its pre-Israel precursor.
This incitement had its predictable effect. Commemoration of the October 2000 events was often accompanied by violence, at times coordinated with the PA, as have Israel’s defensive measures against Palestinian terrorism. When on 29 March 2002, two days after the murder of 29 Israelis as they celebrated the Passover meal in a Netanya hotel, the IDF launched a large scale offensive against the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, violent demonstrations broke out in Arab localities throughout Israel, and the Islamist movement initiated widespread activities in support of the Palestinians in the disputed territories; similar outbursts of violence occurred in December 2008-January 2009 when Israel moved to end years of rocket and missile attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza on its towns and villages. No less alarming was the steady increase in Israeli Arabs involved in terrorist activities. In 2001, for example, the number of arrested suspected terrorists increased tenfold compared to 1999: from 2 to 25, with 19 further terror suspects arrested in 2002’s first five months.
And so it goes. With Israeli Arab leaders bent on blaming the Jewish state for every conceivable ill, including most recently the September 2012 anti-Islamic video that allegedly sparked the deadly riots across the Muslim world; with 40 per cent of Israeli Arabs denying the existence of the Holocaust, and one in two refusing to send their children to Jewish schools or have Jewish neighbours, is there any way to encourage them to normalize their minority status within the Jewish state, intensify their identification with its destiny, and thereby help convince their Palestinian cousins to reconcile themselves as well to its permanent existence?
One good place to start would be with conscription of Israeli Arabs into military service, or equivalent national duties. This would not require any special legislation; the 1986 Defence Service law obligates all Israeli citizens to serve in the army upon reaching the age of eighteen. But it would certainly be a revolutionary move, one that would force Muslim and Christian Arabs to decide where their deepest loyalties lie and act accordingly. (The Druze community, whose sons already serve in the armed forces, made its choice as early as 1948.)
Defending one’s state against external aggression is indeed the ultimate test of citizenship. Just as French Jews fought German Jews during World War I, Italian Americans and German Americans fought Italians and Germans during World War II, and Arabs have incessantly fought other Arabs, why should Israel’s Arab citizens not undertake to defend their country against external enemies? Failure to share the burden, the anxieties, and the suffering of their Jewish compatriots runs counter to the very principle of equality that Israeli Arabs have been trumpeting for so long as their watchword. Why not test it?
Of course, to raise this possibility may seem utopian in the extreme. Or is it? A 2007 survey, for example, revealed a surprisingly high level of support for the idea of voluntary civil service among Israeli Arabs: 75% among young Arabs (aged 16-22), 71.9% among Arab men, and 89% among Arab women. Another silver lining may be found in the fact that whenever an Israeli politician proposes the inclusion of some frontier Israeli-Arab settlements in the future Palestinian state, as part of a land exchange within the framework of a peace agreement, the residents of these localities immediately voice their indignation. Indeed, even most East Jerusalem Palestinians, who are entitled to Israeli social benefits and are free to travel across Israel’s pre-1967 borders, would rather become citizens of the Jewish state than citizens of a new Palestinian one. They all seem to be keenly aware that life in a civil, democratic, and pluralistic society, albeit a Jewish one, is preferable to what is on offer in the Palestinian Authority and the neighbouring Arab states.
One can only hope that, unlike their destructive predecessors, Israel’s Arab leaders would pay greater heed to the wishes of their constituents and halt their steady drive towards an all out collision. Given their conduct over the past decades, this may prove one hope too many.
 Efraim Karsh, Arafat’s War (New York: Grove, 2003): 186.
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