Back to Basics: Israel’s Arab Minority and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
World attention remains fixed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but a distinct, albeit related, conflict smoulders within Israel itself. It might be no less perilous. Jewish-Arab domestic relations have deteriorated steadily for a decade. More and more, the Jewish majority views the Palestinian minority as subversive, disloyal and - due to its birth rates - a demographic threat. Palestinian citizens are politically marginalised, economically underprivileged, ever more unwilling to accept systemic inequality and ever more willing to confront the status quo. Interaction with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict further complicates matters as negotiations bump against a core issue - whether Palestinians will recognise Israel’s Jewish character - that further inflames communal relations. There is no easy or quick fix. In the near term, Israel should take practical steps to defuse tensions with its Arab minority and integrate it into the civic order. In the longer run, the challenge to Israeli Jews and the Palestinian national movement is to come to terms with the most basic questions: what is the character of the state of Israel, and what rights should its Arab citizens enjoy?
For over six decades, Israel’s Palestinian citizens have had a unique experience: they are a Palestinian national minority in a Jewish state locked in conflict with its Arab neighbours but they also constitute an Israeli minority enjoying the benefits of citizenship in a state that prizes democracy. This has translated into ambivalent relations with both the state of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and beyond. They feel solidarity with their brethren elsewhere, yet many Arabs study in Israeli universities, work side-by-side with Jews and speak Hebrew fluently - a degree of familiarity that has only made the discrimination and alienation from which they suffer seem more acute and demands for equality more insistent.
Since 2000, a series of dramatic events have both poisoned Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and reinvigorated its Palestinian minority. The collapse of the peace process and ensuing intifada harmed Israel’s relations with not only Palestinians in the occupied territories but also its own Palestinian minority. As Palestinians in Israel organised rallies in solidarity with Gazans and West Bankers, Israeli Jews grew ever more suspicious of their loyalty. Palestinian citizens’ trust in the state plummeted after Israeli security forces killed thirteen of their own during protests in October 2000. A rapid succession of confrontations - the 2006 war in Lebanon; 2008-2009 Gaza war; and 2010 bloody Israeli raid on the aid flotilla to Gaza - further deepened mistrust, galvanising the perception among Israeli Jews that Palestinian citizens had embraced their sworn adversaries. Among Arabs, it reinforced the sense that they had no place in Israel. Several have been arrested on charges of abetting terrorist activity. Meanwhile, the crisis of the Palestinian national movement - divided, adrift and in search of a new strategy - has opened up political space for Israel’s Arab minority.