After the war: Jewish-Arab relations in Israel

The war in Gaza did not only wreak huge damage on the strip—it added to the polarisation of Israeli society too.

Andreas Hackl
2 October 2014

“Jewish Israelis usually don’t confront me with their opinions. But now it all comes out,” said Yazid, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, as we sat in a Tel Aviv coffee shop. A few seconds later sirens went off and the waiters hectically guided everyone into a nearby building for shelter. An explosion was heard from above, people waited for another minute and then they returned to business as usual.

It was mid-July and the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip had just begun, and with it a difficult balancing act for Israel’s 1.3m-strong Arab minority. While most Palestinian citizens of Israel stood in solidarity with their brethren in Gaza and their hearts were beating for the victims of Israeli bombardments, the Jewish citizens around them mourned the very soldiers they disdained.

True, for Israeli Palestinians negotiating everyday life has always been precarious. But things have become much worse since the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers in June and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager in east Jerusalem by Jewish extremists.

With the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, armed conflict has once again been put on hold. But the shadow of war and violence remains long, cutting a deep rift between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Indeed relations have come close to collapse, according to Dan Rabinowitz, professor of Anthropology at Tel Aviv University—and by “collapse” he means "a potential initiative by Palestinian citizens towards an uprising”. He said the violence and nationalist rhetoric of recent months had made things “much worse from a situation that has already been difficult for a number of years”.

Heirs of 1948

Palestinian citizens make up roughly 17% of Israel’s population of 8m. Most are descendants of the 160,000 Palestinian Arabs who did not become refugees in 1948 but instead remained within the newly created state of Israel. 

About 30 Israeli laws discriminate directly against them, according to the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah)—for example, the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law prevents Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza married to Israeli citizens from acquiring Israeli residency. Resources are allocated unequally and there are political and cultural pressures against their identification with Palestinians and Arab politics elsewhere. The prospect of an actual Arab uprising within Israel may seem vague in the short run. But every new escalation of violence may well become another stepping-stone on the way to a collapse of fragile Jewish-Arab relations.

Palestinians’ ability to feel safe and equal within the majority-Jewish society has been undermined by the threat from the right: agitated crowds of ultra-nationalist activists have turned the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities into dangerous areas of confrontation. Yet protesting has become a rather dangerous thing for Arabs in Israel to do. And not only protesting: on one recent Sunday 200 Jewish extremists tried to prevent the wedding of a Muslim man and a Jewish woman, chanting “Assimilation is Holocaust” and “Death to Arabs”.

Jewish and Arab citizens may have grown more distant than ever, but they still study at the same universities and work at the same companies. Many also live in the same neighbourhoods. “I can’t stand this duality anymore,” said Aida (20), a Palestinian-Israeli student at Tel Aviv University, ordering a drink in a bar in fluent Hebrew. “My good friends are in Gaza, locked in and fearing for their lives. But the people around me support the army that bombards them.” While her two feet stand firmly on Israeli ground, her mind is half-absent in the Gaza Strip. “Every message on Twitter I got is a sign that they are alive,” she said.

Aida, whose parents live in an Arab town in Israel, has been deeply connected with Palestinians, in Israel and elsewhere, since her childhood. And yet she is bound to a life in Israel, studies cinema and lives in student dormitories on an Israeli campus.

One recent event had a very sobering effect on those who had not yet lost hope—the announcement by the Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, via his regular column in the liberal daily Haaretz, that “coexistence has failed” and that he was leaving Jerusalem for the United States. A Palestinian student at Tel Aviv wrote in an online magazine: “You were supposed to be optimistic, you were supposed to give us hope. Instead you are only proposing despair.” But even she, in private, later admitted: “You know, in reality, I am not that optimistic either.”


Since the lives of most Palestinian citizens are so entangled with Jewish-Israeli society, an actual uprising may seem unlikely at first sight. But Rabinowitz thinks many young Palestinians may want to discard their affiliation with Israel once and for all—even more so, given the now-widespread intolerance they faceBeyond the right wing there have been popular social-media campaigns against Arabs and there is a growing climate of anti-Arab sentiment.

Rabinowitz detects “an increasing inability among Jewish Israelis to think about Palestinians as humans”. In this the media have played a part, according to Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group:

The vast majority of Israeli media joined the narrative in which Hamas just wants to kill Israelis and destroy Israel. When you reduce human beings to an ideology, it dehumanises because you don't see why they do it or what the positive goal is they articulate. Reductionism is what eventually leads to dehumanisation.

Joint protests and actions between Jewish and Palestinian citizens have become extremely rare—even though all the major anti-war demonstrations in the weeks before the ceasefire agreement sought a joint stand. At the site of one residual protest—the main event having been called off for fear of rocket fire—Mickey Gitzin, a Tel Aviv-Jaffa city councillor from the Jewish left-wing party Meretz, said hardly any Arabs would have participated, even without the government warnings

Palestinian citizens, for the most part, see little reason to join protests organised by the Zionist left. “I can’t attend a protest under an Israeli flag,” said Sami Abu Shahade, a former member of the council for the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), an Arab nationalist party.

Peace demonstrator in Tel Aviv holds up Israeli flag in Palestinian colours

Flying a flag for coexistence: a peace protest in Tel Aviv. Sharron Ward / Demotix. All rights reserved.Balad has never given much thought to participation with the Zionist left but another political party in Israel sees Arab-Jewish cooperation as essential—Hadash. “It is a party that always upheld the joint struggle as a core value. But now the Palestinians citizens are saying that they don’t want to be under an Israeli flag, and less and less Israelis are willing to join any Palestinian demonstration,” said Rabinowitz. “There may be a crucial change underway in Jewish-Arab participation.”

Gitzin explained why he wouldn’t join any Palestinian-Israeli protest. “I am Israeli and Jewish, emotionally connected to this state. I don’t relate to Arab protests that speak Arabic and the language of Palestinian nationalism,” he said.

Violent attacks

Growing extremism among Jewish Israelis has been evidenced by several recent violent attacks on left-wingers and Palestinians. The Palestinian-Israeli Wassem Husary (31) was assaulted with a friend on their way to an anti-war protest in Haifa: “We spoke Arabic on our way to the demonstration and some guys came over, shouting ‘Death to Arabs.’” After beating them up, the mob later tried to pull them out of the ambulance—the medic managed to close the doors just in time. “They were screaming terrible things. I think they wanted to kill us,” said Husary.

Mohamed Zeidan, chair of the High Follow-up Committee for Arab citizens of Israel, the minority’s national umbrella organisation, said such assaults and the developing climate of fear were related to the often polarising rhetoric of Israeli officials. “The behaviour of the Jewish street is a result of this official incitement,” he said.

The deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament, Moshe Feiglin, recently called for mass deportation of Palestinians from Gaza. The state has also taken measures against Arab politicians, such as Hanin Zoabi, a Knesset member for Balad. She was banned from parliament for six months, on suspicion of verbally assaulting police officers at a protest and denying that the kidnappers of the three young Israelis were “terrorists”.

Students at Tel Aviv now say they avoid speaking Arabic off campus for fear of attack. An Arab social worker from Haifa was enraged by Jewish colleagues seeking a donation for Israeli soldiers fighting in Gaza from her. Others have experienced dozens of Jewish Facebook friends “unfriending” them or verbally attacking them over pro-Palestinian posts. One Palestinian student confided: “It’s as if everyone just took off their masks. Opinions people may have always had are now voiced confidently.”

Tipping point

We are now at a tipping point. The actions of Jewish right-wingers and the polarisation on the street are only the tip of an iceberg. Palestinian citizens face a deep dilemma—being simultaneously made to feel more Palestinian and less accepted by the country of which they are citizens. As the prominent Arab-Israeli artist Mira Awad put it in a recent Haaretz op-ed, “My head says I’m dying to get out of here; my heart says I have no other country.”

This contradiction was strongly felt during the war. Shahade recently went with his nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter to a cinema in Rishon Lezion. Suddenly a siren went off and everyone ran towards the shelters—except him. “I ran the other way to take my children out of the mall, because I was afraid someone would lynch them,” he said.

A resident of Jaffa, once Palestine’s cosmopolitan port city, Shahade complains of declining Jewish custom for local businesses. Israel’s right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called on Jewish citizens to boycott Arab businesses which took part in a one-day general strike in mid-July, in solidarity with Gaza. “The majority of our clients are Jewish, and now they stop coming. Mr Lieberman told them so,” Shahade said.

“Israel is not treating us like citizens,” said Zeidan. “They treat us as strangers in our homeland.” Palestinian citizens feel their right to free speech ends where politics begins. One activist, Samih Jabareen, saw his Haifa-based community centre al-Warshe (Arabic for workshop) closed down because of an admittedly sensitive political event—a lecture and discussion via Skype with the exiled Palestinian revolutionary and onetime hijacker Laila Khaled. Israel’s internal intelligence agency pressed him to call off the gathering and police called him in the day after, ordering him to close down.


Despite all contention, there is also acknowledgement on both sides that some sort of coexistence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens is necessary in the long term. “We want coexistence, but only under the condition of full equality,” said Zeidan. To foster reconciliation he said Israel should investigate officials accused of incitement against Arabs.

“What the government should do now is to invest [in] efforts to integrate Palestinian citizens into the workforce, the economy and the state,” said Rabinowitz. “But this government is doing the opposite. Its policies work against what would need to be done.” He talked airily about possible “five-year plans”, about “hopes for integration and employment, to give Palestinian citizens some feeling that they are part of the project of this state”. But suddenly he stopped, reflected and said: “As I am saying this I realise how unrealistic it actually is.”

As the ceasefire in the Gaza seems to endure, one might assume Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel could go back to business as usual. “But how can I go back to study when most of my colleagues at university won’t say a word about what their army has done to my people?” said Aida, returning from the summer holidays.

The recent past will not simply fade away. And yet there are those, still, who hold on to optimism.

“Where do we go from here?” asked Awad, the artist. She answered herself:  “With all due respect to the past, I’m not willing to be stuck with it all my life, to collapse under its weight and become its victim.”

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