How Israel’s Arab Citizens Fare in an Unequal Society

The most serious clashes in decades between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel erupted in several cities in parallel with Israel’s fourth major conflict with the militant Palestinian Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip. It was a new turn of events that shocked many in the country. For Israel’s Arabs, years of frustration with being treated as second-class citizens rose to the surface, compounding anger over Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians. Mobs of Jews, some feeling threatened by the Arab rioting and others extremists shouting “Death to Arabs,” fought back. Reinforced police crews stamped out the violence, but the underlying tensions remain.

1. Who are the Arab citizens of Israel?

At nearly 2 million people, Arabs make up more than 20% of Israel’s population. Most descended from Palestinians who were not expelled or did not flee during the fighting surrounding Israel’s 1948 independence. Apart from a large community in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, they live in the less-densely populated northern and southern parts of the country, away from the economic heartland. Arabs in Israel are not a monolith; they differ in religious and tribal backgrounds and attitudes toward the state. They are not conscripted into the military, though a tiny minority do enlist, eliciting disapproval from most in the community, who are unwilling to take up arms against their Palestinian relatives and friends.

2. How do they fare in Israel?

Israel has one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, partly due to the plight of its Arab populace. On paper, the community enjoys equal rights with the Jewish majority, but nearly 40% lives in poverty rooted in a weaker educational system and poorer access to basic infrastructure. A proliferation of illegal guns and tribal violence has resulted in a 50% jump in the murder rate over the past four years, yet Arab neighborhoods suffer from a lack of policing. In addition, there are more than 300,000 Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and is considered occupied territory under international law. They are granted most of the rights as other citizens except for the ability to vote in Israeli national elections. Some Israeli Arabs have risen to high positions in politics and business, such as Samer Haj-Yahia, the chairman of one of Israel’s biggest banks, and Ayoub Kara, who was briefly the country’s communications minister as a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

3. How do they relate to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank?

The political parties that represent Arab Israelis are ideologically diverse, but all support the establishment of a separate, independent Palestinian state in east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The country’s Arabs have expressed their support for the Palestinian statehood cause mainly through non-violent protest of Israel’s control over those territories, although clashes with Israeli forces have occurred. Thirteen Arabs and one Jew were killed in 10 days of rioting in October 2000 at the start of the second intifadah, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. A government inquiry found that police used excessive force.

4. What influence do Arab parties have in Israel?

Power is so widely dispersed among political parties in Israel that the country’s governments have always been coalitions. The idea of having Arab political parties join one was long considered fantastical because of mutual distrust and ideological conflict. The lack of political clout is one reason voter turnout among Arabs is significantly lower than among Jews. The situation changed recently, when rivals of Netanyahu began flirting with the idea of partnering with a bloc of Arab parties as a means to unseat him. Israel appeared close to inducting the first government to include an Arab party when that potential coalition crumbled in the wake of the fighting with Gaza and sectarian riots in its towns.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg Opinion column by Pankaj Mishra on how the most formidable threat to the country’s present and future stability is now internal.
  • A QuickTake on the latest surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence and another on the two-state solution.
  • Author Yossi Klein Halevi argued that the pandemic created an opportunity to strengthen Arab-Jewish ties in Israel.

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