A silent vigil by Israeli Arab students at Haifa University on Nov. 16 in memory of Hamas’ assassinated military commander was a clear sign that many Arabs in Israel hope to be recognized as “Palestinian Arab citizens” of the Jewish state, says a scholar.
Oded Haklai, a Queen’s University political scientist born and raised in Israel, was referring to Ahmed Jabari, who was killed by an Israeli drone strike on the first day of Israel’s current offensive in the Gaza Strip.
In an interview, Haklai – the author of Palestinian Ethnonationalism in Israel published recently by the University of Pennsylvania Press – said that more than 50 per cent of Israeli Arabs regard themselves as “Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
The term ‘Israeli Arab’ is now associated with “state control of a national minority,” said Haklai, who was in Toronto last week to deliver a lecture on this subject at a Canadian Friends of Peace Now forum.
“Among the educated elite of Arabs in Israel, ‘Israeli Arab’ is a derogatory expression,” he added. “Among the Arab masses, ‘Arabs in Israel’ is the preferred term.”
Haklai, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem graduate and a resident of Canada since 1998, said that Israeli Arabs who identify as Palestinians hunger for the day when Israel will be replaced by a binational state. They also consider Israel to be an imperialist western implant in the Middle East.
Due to such beliefs, more than half of the Jews in Israel claim that Israeli Arabs are Fifth Columnists, he suggested.
Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel demand major changes in Israeli society, Haklai said.
Voicing their demands through communal organizations, they want to be formally recognized as a national and indigenous minority and desire autonomous political institutions, a separate parliament and Arabic-language protection. They also want the Arab education system to be more autonomous.
In addition, they demand a proportional allocation of state resources for their community and proportional representation in state institutions and government.
Most importantly, they seek to de-Judaize Israel’s “public space” so that Israeli national symbols like the Star of David flag and the Hatikvah national anthem are modified to reflect the fact that Israeli Arabs account for about 20 per cent of Israel’s current population.
“They reject the idea that Israeli Jews are a national group and have national and historical ties to the land,” he noted. “But they recognize a national Jewish identity in Israel.”
According to Haklai, Israeli Arabs who subscribe to these ideas see themselves as a disaffected, though not subversive, minority.
In his estimation, their demands are likely to be rejected by Israel, with the result that Israeli society will become even more polarized than it is today.
“Their demands are a challenge, but not a threat, to Israel’s Jewish identity,” he said. “But Jews in Israel, as well as some people in the Israeli government, regard them as a serious threat.”
Israeli Arabs will be in a better position to press for their demands if, as some demographers predict, they form one-third of Israel’s population within 25 to 50 years. “They may get increased autonomy and more of a share of public resources,” he said. “But I doubt whether their demand for de-Judaization will be accepted.”
Their demands pose a threat to prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he observed.
“They add another layer of complexity to peace talks,” he said, adding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel be officially recognized as a Jewish state by the Palestinians is partially due to demands for a binational state on the part of some Israeli Arabs.
Claiming that the gap between Jews and Arabs in Israel will continue to grow in the future, Haklai said he doubts whether Palestinian Arabs citizens in Israel will resort to violence to achieve their aims.
“They will go through normal channels – political parties, the media and the courts.”
At present, he said, Israeli Arabs are second-class citizens because the financial allocations their communities receive from the government are proportionally less than those received by Jews.
Israeli Arabs, too, are the victims of discrimination in employment and housing, he pointed out.
Nonetheless, they are substantially better off today than they were in the 1950s or 1970s.
Israel should come to grips with this problem, ultimately its most urgent one, by taking affirmative-action measures to narrow the Jewish-Arab gap.
The electoral system should be modified so that the threshold for winning a seat in parliament changes from two to five per cent. If this happens, Israeli Arab extremists will most likely be shut out of the Knesset, he said.
Further, Israeli Arabs moderates running for office should be rewarded by being included in coalition governments.
And Israel should ensure that economic development takes place in the Arab sector. Currently, the Israeli government provides incentives to employers to hire Arabs, he said.
Haklai, a 40-year-old native of Jerusalem, said he began to delve into this topic after nationwide rioting broke out in Israeli Arab towns and villages in October 2000 in support of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“The riots caught me by surprise,” he explained. “I decided to investigate.”