Israeli Arabs: ‘Who are we and what do we want?’

An Israeli police officer stands guard as Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside the Damascus Gate of the Old City in Jerusalem, 9 February 2007. Israeli police forces entered the area around al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and fired stun grenades at stone-throwing Palestinian worshippers in clashes at the end of Friday prayers. Clashes erupted following demonstrations against Israeli excavations near the Al-Aqsa Mosque. (MaanImages/Magnus Johansson)

While Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza are scrambling to come up with a new national Palestinian vision, Israeli Arabs are looking for ways to wrest equal citizenship rights for themselves as non-Jews in a state whose reason for existence is to nurture Jewish identity and culture.

According to a recent New York Times news item, “A group of prominent Israeli Arabs [in a report issued in December 2006] has called on Israel to stop defining itself as a Jewish State and become a ‘consensual democracy for both Arabs and Jews,’ prompting consternation and debate across the country.” The report is called “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” and the strategies in the report will be implemented by The National Committee of the Local Arab Authorities in Israel.

The term “Israeli Arabs”, as used above by the New York Times, is widespread inside and outside Israel, both in the media and in scholarly articles. The emphasis is on the second word — “Arabs” rather than on the qualifier “Israeli”. The alternative term “Palestinian Israelis” would come as a rude shock to many Israelis, even secular nationalists, conditioned as they are to think of the Palestinians amongst them (20 percent of the population) as a people who had no hand in the agrarian or industrial building of the Zionist State. These people are tolerated at best, so long as they submit themselves to the Zionist ideal. Arab Israelis, for example, must acknowledge “the existence of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people” before they can even participate in the political process (1992 Basic Law).

In one way, the subtext for this usage emphasizes the Zionist narrative: Jews (the majority of whom come from outside Israel) have a God given right to live in historic Palestine, but the indigenous Palestinian is a generic Arab with only a tenuous sense of belonging to a specific geographic area. The term “Israeli Arabs” includes Muslim and Christian Arabs, the remnant of indigenous Palestinians that had escaped the ethnic cleansing of 1948, now numbering 1.3 million strong. Significantly, it does not include Jewish Arabs, who are referred to, instead, as “oriental Jews”. Nor does it include the dispossessed Bedouins (about 100,000), who are denied legal recognition and herded in the arid northeastern part of the Negev (the western and fertile part having been reserved for Jewish settlers).

But the term also accurately reflects the sense of schizophrenia as well as exclusion that Palestinians with Israeli IDs feel. As people residing in a State formed against their will, they are not Israelis, but “Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the indigenous peoples, the residents of the State of Israel, and an integral part of the Palestinian People and the Arab and Muslim and human Nation.” In their own words, they are simply “in Israel” and must now resolve their identity and take responsibility for themselves: “who are we and what do we want for our society?”

The rising national consciousness among Palestinians in Israel is both courageous and thorny. Such consciousness aspires to counteract intangibles such as “intellectual and emotional transfer” and distancing from their Arab culture, as well as tangibles such as land, planning, and housing policies and economic strategies.

The predictable Israeli assault on this new consciousness will be ferocious, especially from the Jewish religious nationalist camp, but no less from the Israeli legal apparatus, which has already legitimatized the denial of equal citizenship rights for non-Jewish citizens. Israeli “consternation” will come from every corner, because Zionism, whether in its secular or religious variant, is basically about a nation of Jews (even though the majority is made up of foreigners to Israel) and for Jews. The various segments of Israeli society may differ regarding ways of achieving “security” and “peace”, but there has been no significant practical difference, as far as Palestinians in Israel are concerned, between left and right Israeli governments. The emphasis of both has been on the Jewish nature of the State and so in compromising the rights of Israeli Arabs.

Israeli Arabs have plenty of reasons to deny Israel moral legitimacy and to fight for their rights: “we have been suffering from extreme structural discrimination policies, national oppression, military rule that lasted till 1966, land confiscation policy, unequal budget and resources allocation, rights discrimination and threats of transfer. The State has also abused and killed its own Arab citizens, as in the Kufr Qassem massacre, the land day in 1976 and Al-Aqsa Intifada back in 2000.”

The new Israeli Arab strategies strike a reasonable balance between preservation of Arab identity and values (through institutional self rule in education, culture and religion) and achieving full citizenship and equality with the Jewish majority. Israeli Arabs are proposing a “consensual democracy” for Israel similar to the Belgian model. (Belgium is made up of communities of Dutch, French and German speakers, with each group being able to elect its own parliament that governs such things as culture, education and language).

Israeli consternation notwithstanding, the vision that Israeli Arabs are putting forward is consonant with the vision of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Hertzl, as described by the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua. Hertzl envisioned an Israel where “The rabbis didn’t get involved in politics, the Arabs had full rights, the cities all had rapid transit, the workers had social benefits undreamed of in Europe, the choice of theater and opera rivaled … Vienna. Its people did not die violent deaths and the whole world exalted in its contribution to humankind.” It is a vision, unfortunately, that is good only for outside consumption, not for Israeli governments that are driven by a mentality of greed, fear, and paranoia untempered by guilt.

The journey of Israeli Arabs towards freedom will be long and arduous, not least because the Israelis have perfected the art of using bureaucratic procedures to block the implementation of legal advances when these do take place. But articulating their vision is a major step forward and an inspiration to Palestinians everywhere. Equality for Palestinians in Israel will never happen unless they themselves make it happen.

Rima Merriman is a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

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