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Opinion / Arab-Israeli Society’s Response to the War Can Help Mend the Rift Between Jewish and Arab Israelis

Tension and suspicion have characterized the relationship between Jewish and Arab Israelis over the years, but the current war is bringing the two populations’ shared “Israeliness” to the forefront | The war is an opportunity to increase solidarity and find common ground, but also a test of leadership

חוריה אלסעדי עם פעילים נוספים. אנשים צריכים לראות את הסולידריות (צילום: עומדים ביחד)
A joint fundraising event for Jews and Arabs in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod. (Photo: Standing Together)
By Muhammad Suwaed

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, relationships between Jews and Arabs in the state have known countless upheavals, tensions, and ups and downs. Often, external conflict between Israel and Arab countries or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza affect internal Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

The ongoing (and seemingly inherent) conflict between Israel and the Arab world has left its mark on the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab sectors. In times of crisis and war, we witness a growing identification of the Arabs in Israel with the Palestinian and Arab side, partly because many of them have families in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Beginning in the early 1990s, a series of formative events happened in Israel that greatly affected the relationship between the Arab and Jewish sectors of Israel, resulting in Israeli Arabs’ “Israeliness” becoming more reflected in Israeli society.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, when scud missiles fired on Israel did not distinguish between Jews and Arabs in Israel, many Arab Israelis came to feel that they were part of the war front for the first time. Just as Jewish Israelis did, Arab Israelis made sure their safe rooms were stocked with gas masks and listened intently to the IDF spokesperson.

The feeling of Israeli identity was spurred on two years later, when the Arab parties took part in the governing coalition and provided the Labor-Meretz government with a safety net during the Oslo Accords (1992-1996). For the first time, Arab parties were partners in dramatic decisions and did not automatically vote against the government, as was their tradition.

Despite the tensions that exist between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority during times of war and military conflicts, economic necessities and trends of Arab citizens’ integration into Israeli society still remain the most important elements affecting the relationship between Arab Israelis and the state. Jews and Arabs’ integration in the workplace often creates a reality in which professional values and norms of behavior determine the relationship between them.

Past experience also shows that, while exceptional events can reduce levels of integration between the Arab and Jewish populations, a point of irreversible rupture is not reached. During the return to normalcy, economic considerations increase and proximity and daily connection between the two populations continue to play a significant role in determining the relationship, creating a social dynamic that contributes to the acceptance of the other.

Arab society has undergone an ideological transformation over the years, especially since the Arab Spring. While the countries of the Arab world experienced massive upheavals that forced them to deal with internal problems and a direct struggle between the citizens and their regimes, the Arabs in Israel realized more than ever that they live in a stable, democratic country with all that implies. An expression of this transformation can be seen in the conduct of the chairman of the Ra’am Party, MK Mansour Abbas, who, since being appointed party leader in 2018, has undergone an ideological transformation. Ra’am is no longer an ineffective opposition party, but a party with ambitions to sit at the table of any government and openly talk about the need to advance the interests of Arab society.

The events of the massacre and the outbreak of the war led to a maturation among the Arab public in Israel, who realized that they were an inseparable part of the homefront and the war. The infiltration of Hamas terrorists and the missile attack led to the deaths, abductions, and injuries of dozens of Arabs, mainly Bedouins from southern Israel. Since Oct. 7, a trend is evident of Arab Israelis identifying with Israel and its Jewish citizens.

In a survey the Israel Democracy Institute conducted in early November 2023, 66% of Muslim Israelis and 84% of Christian and Druze Israelis reported feeling part of the state and its problems. The Arab public as a whole showed responsibility and refused to engage with the provocations of radical elements within society who wanted to dredge up an unnecessary conflict. Religious, social, and political leaders refused to be dragged along by voices that tried to inflame the public. They realized that the day after the war’s end they would have to continue living together, and Israeli leadership praised the commitment and the positive behavior of the Arab sector.

Looking ahead, we understand that every crisis is an opportunity. The consequences of Oct. 7 are a shared opportunity to strengthen the ties between the Arab population and the state so that crises that happened in the past do not reoccur in the future. To this end, it is necessary to act on five main levels:

The state must recognize clearly and unequivocally that the Arab minority in Israel is a part of the public, observes law and order, and is mostly loyal to the state, with many Arab Israelis serving in the security forces and volunteering for national-civil service.

There must be continued investment in Arab society in Israel, especially in localities where the population is of low socioeconomic status. There must be a freeze on the intended cuts in the five-year plan for economic investment in the Arab sector to develop the standard of living in the Arab localities, a cut which the Shin Bet recently defined as a long-term strategic threat to Israel.

After a momentary slowdown in the instances of murders in the Arab population after Oct. 7, the number of victims of violence in the Arab sector resumed climbing, as a significant number of Arab towns in the West Bank became no man’s land and lacked governance. Arab society’s calls from before the war to take drastic actions against crime must not be ignored. National and local leadership ought to hold round table meetings in Arab localities, with the participation of public representatives, heads of authorities, representatives of the law enforcement system, and the government offices.

The state must see civil initiatives, such as the Jewish and Arab joint military organizations that were created during the war to help affected families, as a basis for leveraging the relations between the sectors and for future cooperation at the local level that will be reflected on the national level.

Finally, the leadership, both of the Arab sector and of the Jewish sector, must act to increase the solidarity that characterizes the last few months and avoid inflammatory discourse, especially in times of crisis.

Prof. Muhammad Suwaed is an expert on Israel-Arab relations, a researcher of religion, ethnicity, and tribalism in the Middle East, and the head of the Institute for the Study of Arab Society in Israel at the Western Galilee Academic College. 

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