In the Galilee, Gaza war sets off reaction among Israeli Arabs

Current violence put spotlight on Israel’s main minority, writes Ruadhan Mac Cormaic in Haifa

Israeli police detain a protester during Monday’s protest by Israeli Arabs in Nazareth against the Gaza offensive. Photograph: Reuters/Ammar Awad

Israeli police detain a protester during Monday’s protest by Israeli Arabs in Nazareth against the Gaza offensive. Photograph: Reuters/Ammar Awad

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 01:00

Madj Kayyal – self-confident, purposeful, brimming with energy – has the air of a man who feels he’s part of something big.

Over coffee on a hot summer’s morning in Haifa, in northern Israel, the 23-year-old holds forth enthusiastically about how his generation has turned its back on political parties, with their hierarchies and compromises, and fashioned a newer, more fluid form of political activism dominated by smaller networks linked by social media.

“There is a big change happening,” he says. “There are internal changes in Arab society and the political movement here, and in the way people are organising.”

Kayyal’s cause is that of Palestinians in Israel. Comprising more than 20 per cent of the Israeli population, Arabs are the Jewish state’s largest minority and their position goes to the heart of some of the country’s biggest social debates. But, according to Kayyal, the younger generation haven’t merely embraced new ways of doing politics. They also want more than their parents did.

“In the 1990s it was a revolutionary thing to say ‘I am Palestinian’ or hold the Palestinian flag. It was a big issue to declare your identity,” he says. “The attitude now is to put identity into action. In the 1990s, the action was to declare solidarity – to say, ‘We are Palestinian and we support Gaza.’ In 2014, the youth movement doesn’t say, ‘We want to declare our anger.’ It says, ‘We want to change the law.’ And how are we going to do that? By taking to the streets.”

The descendants of 160,000 Palestinian Arabs who remained on their land when Israel was established in 1948, the Arabs in Israel have been under the spotlight in recent weeks as the conflict in Gaza has escalated into the deadliest confrontation here in a decade.

It was not in the West Bank but in the Arab towns of the Galilee, in the north of Israel, that some of the biggest demonstrations broke out earlier this month after a 16-year-old boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was abducted and killed near Jerusalem in what the Israeli authorities say was a racist revenge attack following the killing of three Jewish teenagers.

Street protests

Those incidents were part of the sequence of events that spiralled into the Gaza war. And as battles have raged in Gaza, the Arab communities of northern Israel have continued to take to the streets. On Monday hundreds of protesters clashed with police in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, during a 3,000-strong protest against the military strikes on Gaza.

Israel’s Arab minority, largely concentrated in the towns and cities of the Galilee, occupies an ambiguous space in the country’s political and social map. They have Israeli passports, attend Israeli schools and universities and vote in Israeli elections. According to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, they enjoy full civil rights.

Yet this is only part of the story. Half of families below the poverty line in Israel are Arab, even though the Arab community accounts for just one fifth of the population. Two-thirds of the children defined as suffering from malnutrition in 2010 in Israel were Palestinians. Schools are segregated.

A number of Arab politicians are members of the Knesset but even the Israeli foreign ministry, on its website, observes that the Arab community is “a politically peripheral group in a highly centralised state”, an Arabic-speaking minority in a Hebrew-speaking state, and “essentially non-assimilating”.

Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, Arab citizens have been exempted from compulsory military service out of consideration for their family, religious and cultural affiliations with the Arab world “as well as concern over possible dual loyalties”, as the ministry puts it. There are just 2,200 Muslims in Israel’s security services, which includes the police and prison staff.

As individuals, many Palestinians have achieved success in the Jewish state as judges, politicians, doctors, writers, broadcasters and academics. The number in the civil service is growing. Yet, within the community, there is deep-seated anger about harassment and discrimination, and what is seen as an attempt in recent years to amend the laws to weaken their rights.

Grievances include a law of loyalty which requires citizens to express full recognition of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state; the right of communities in Jewish suburbia not to accept Palestinians as residents; and the right of the state to discriminate by law against Arabs in the privatisation of lands.

“[Foreign minister] Avigdor Lieberman’s election slogan was that the problem is not the West Bank and the settlements, the problem is the Palestinians inside Israel,” says Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, a Haifa-based legal centre.

Inferior status

“Emphasising the Jewish character of the Israeli state is mainly targeting the citizenship status of the Palestinians in Israel, giving them secondary and inferior status and portraying their existence as a problem.”

The killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir was the “trigger” for protests in the Galilee, says Mohammed Zeidan of the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth, but their deeper cause was a sense of anger after years of discrimination and an increasingly hostile climate – compounded by a sense that the peace process had been buried and the international community had lost interest.

In Haifa, a relatively prosperous port town with a mixed population, social integration is “non-existent”, says Nadim Nashif, who runs Baladna, an educational organisation for young Palestinians in the town.

Jews and Arabs work alongside each other, they buy and sell to each other, but mixed marriages are rare and the communities live in different areas, maintaining merely “the minimum [contact] needed in order to have some kind of normality”. In Nazareth, about an hour’s drive from Haifa, this division is visible. There are two cities: crowded and run-down old Nazareth, where the Arab majority lives, and Nazareth Illit, or upper Nazareth, a hilltop development where the Jewish population (and increasing numbers of well-to-do Arabs) can enjoy landscaped public spaces, low crime and a fancy new shopping centre.

When standing for election last year, the mayor of Nazareth Illit said he would “rather cut off my right arm” than build an Arab school in the district.

‘Glass wall’

“You think we are living together,” Zeidan says, sitting in his office on a bustling shopping street in lower Nazareth. “But if you look closely, you will see that there is a glass wall that separates the two communities.”

There’s not much enthusiasm for the two-state solution in the Galilee, where the benefit to Palestinians could be relatively limited. The problem, Nashif argues, is the idea of a state built explicitly for one group.

“If tomorrow a Jewish person from New York takes a plane and comes here, he has much more rights than I do,” he said.

“On the other hand, it’s also time for Palestinians to recognise that there are Jewish people here and they probably will stay here, so you cannot have a Palestinian state unless you want to have a tiny space in the West Bank.”