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Arab Citizens of Israel: Who are They, What do We Know About Them, and What is Their Future?

posted on: Mar 14, 2018


Arab Citizens of Israel: Who are They, What do We Know About Them, and What is Their Future?
By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Most Arabs with Israeli citizenship identify as “Palestinian citizen of Israel,” “Palestinian Arab,” or just plain “Palestinian.” A minority, more conservatively, identify as “Israeli Arab” or “Arab Israeli.” The issue of Arab identity, as defined by those Arabs living in Israel, is fraught with politicization. As we see from these various ethnic tags, the question of the identity of Arabs in Israel is complicated.

Contributing writer John Mason recently (February 11, 2018) attended a conference held by the American University (AU) of Washington D.C. that brought the issue of self-identity by Arabs living in Israel front and center. Titled “The Arab Population in Israel: 1948 to Today,” the conference was sponsored by AU’s Center for Israeli Studies, The Arab Studies Program, College of Law and an independent group, The Greater Washington Forum on Israeli Arab Issues. Four prominent Arabs who are Israeli citizens were the key presenters. Two of them, one male, the other female live and work in Israel, while the other two, both males, reside in the U.S. The focus of this article is issues raised by these participants about self-identity. However, it goes beyond the four individuals’ perceptions to the broader issue of how Palestinians, in general, perceive themselves in the context of the Arab Israeli situation.

Arab Citizens of Israel: Who are They, What do We Know About Them, and What is Their Future?

Map of Israel showing presence of Arabs living in  Israel

Who are the Arabs in Israel?

Arab citizens of Israel share ethnic roots and the Arabic language, which define them as Arabs. They generally speak a Palestinian dialect of Arabic, but some also are bilingual in modern Hebrew. The Arab population is over 1 ½ million, comprising about 1/5th of Israel’s total population. According to a recent census, most are Sunni Muslims (82%), with a small minority of Christians (9%) and Druze (9%). They live in cities, towns and in the desert (the Bedouin). Many have families who live in the West Bank, Gaza, and, as refugees in surrounding Arab countries. Arabs from East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights annexed after the 1967 6-Day War refused Israeli citizenship.

Arab Citizens of Israel: Who are They, What do We Know About Them, and What is Their Future?

Arab citizens of Israel exercising their voting right

Citizenship of Arabs in Israel was determined in part by default, namely through the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The victors in this war called it a “War of Independence,” while those who were affected negatively refer to it as “the Catastrophe” (in Arabic, Nakba). Most of the million Arabs there, in the British Mandate of Palestine, fled or were expelled after that war, while 20%, some 150,000, stayed, The land they left behind is highly contested today and many Arabs who lost their land feel they have the “right of return.” Those who stayed are the grandparents and parents of today’s Arabs in Israel. Citizenship was offered to those Arabs who stayed.

Over time, Israeli law has not been very kind towards Arab residents. In the absence of a state constitution, the legislature has expropriated a considerable amount of Arab property, including land. While Arab citizens can vote for members of the legislature or the Knesset, their representation is, while not insignificant, mostly symbolic. Arabs as of 1966 supposedly have the same rights under the law as Jewish citizens. Following the 1967 6-day war and more recently, Arabs in Israel have come to resist the absence of equality under Israeli law. This was seen in protests against continued land expropriation and in a larger movement based on the politicization of Islam. The then-new phenomena, called Intifada, or Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, began in the 1980s and recurred in 2000.

Arab Citizens of Israel: Who are They, What do We Know About Them, and What is Their Future?

Arabs in the Israeli Knesset

How do Arabs in Israel relate to the State?

Arabs refer to themselves as “an indigenous people,” meaning the first or original people to occupy a land. While disputable, the fact is that there were many more people of Arab descent in the British Mandate of Palestine than people of other ethnicities. And, while the Israeli government, after 1948, referred to the minority Arab population as “Israeli Arabs,” over time but especially after the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, many Arab citizens declared themselves Palestinian, pure and simple. In parallel, a recent survey by the Times of Israel, showed that more than 75% of Arabs in Israel “do not believe that Israel has the right to define itself as a Jewish state.

Arab Citizens of Israel: Who are They, What do We Know About Them, and What is Their Future?

Arab citizens of Israel protesting under the Palestinian flag

While many Arabs express the feeling that they are “proud citizens” of Israel, they reject the definition of Israel as a “Jewish state.” This concurs with the Palestine Authority position that sees Judaism “as a religion, not a nation.” Conversely, the Times reported that The Israel Democracy Institute Peace Index (IDI) of 2013 showed that “…a majority of Jewish Israelis (52.5%) maintain that those ‘unwilling to affirm that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people should lose the right to vote.’”

Discrimination by Israeli Jews against Arabs in their country is seen in the IDI opinion survey showing that a large majority of Jews “…believe matters of peace and security should be decided by Jews alone.” A really sore point for Arab citizens is that they are not allowed to join the Israel Defense Forces. More broadly, as noted earlier, since the Israeli state has no constitution, the question of who is served by democracy in the state is an explosive one. Such features of a democracy as equality before the law and related issues of civil liberties, including freedom of expression and association, are more easily finessed in the absence of such a constitution. In the long run, this may not bode well for the Arabs in Israel.

What is the future of Arabs in Israel?

This question was raised at the aforementioned conference, “The Arab Population in Israel: 1948 to Today.” Responses by the four Arab panelists from Israel were mostly contingent on a number of related issues. One panelist expressed a degree of satisfaction with his status as an “Arab Israeli” compared to the other three. A second suggested that more individual freedom and access to state resources must be accorded if Arabs in Israel were to see themselves as equal to Jewish citizens. A third panelist suggested that the regional economic integration of Arabs, including West Bank and Gaza, into the Israeli economy was critical to their improved status as Israeli citizens. The fourth looked at the broader context of equity between Palestine, namely the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel. He thought that the “two-state solution,” originally developed under the United Nations and one pursued by many of the world’s governing nations for seven decades, was no longer viable. This stance, if correct, would clearly leave the geopolitics of the Arab-Israeli situation, much less the status of Arab citizens of Israel, up in the air.

The conference evoked a sense of mixed optimism-pessimism about the place of Arabs in Israel, especially given the overall status of the present Arab-Israeli situation. The recent declaration by the U.S. President that, for the U.S., Jerusalem will become the capital of Israel — seemingly regardless of anything else — unnecessarily complicates any future negotiations between Israel and the entity most call Palestine. Jerusalem, to remind ourselves, is holy to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike; thus this holy city must provide space for all three faiths. Future negotiations, if they occur, will ultimately define

Arab Citizens of Israel: Who are They, What do We Know About Them, and What is Their Future?

Maps of (l.) Palestine 1920-48 and (r.) proposed UN partition plan, 1947

the fate of Arab citizens of Israel, the occupied territories, much less of Jerusalem. For the time being, Arabs who live in Israel and who hope for a resolution, live in limbo.  

John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.