When conflicts between Arab citizens and Jews erupted in Israel, with lynchings in the streets, the sirens of analysts began to sound. The mixed mayor of Lod even spoke of a civil war. Others have suggested that the social fabric is frayed, on the verge of breaking apart. These are unfounded fears, says Israeli professor Elie Rekhess.
“There is a rift between Arabs and Jews, and there is a price to pay,” he said. “Perhaps this is a wake-up call for politicians on both sides to face this problem. But we will not have a civil war. Rekhess is a visiting professor at the Crown Chair in Israeli Studies at Northwestern University in Illinois, a renowned researcher on the subject.
When Israel was established in 1948, expelling hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homes, approximately 150,000 of them remained at the borders of this new state. Called Arab-Israelis, they now form a population of 1.9 million – or 21% of the total – inhabitants.
They are citizens like any other, with the same rights, including the right to vote in frequent legislative elections. Israeli Arabs occupy seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and are key players in forming coalitions. “The Arab minority is integrated into Israel,” says Rekhess.
On the other hand, Israel passed legislation three years ago insisting that the country must be Jewish first and foremost, which alienates the Arab population, mostly Muslims. Poverty rates among Arabs are higher than those of Jews. In addition, there is more precarious access to infrastructure. These are the reasons that fuel growing accusations that Arabs live as second-class citizens, below Jews – in what they call apartheid, like what blacks experience in South Africa.
This situation leads Israeli Arabs to face a dilemma, with two national identities which do not always coexist well and which are sometimes brought into conflict by the political situation. Arab Israelis are Israelis on paper, but they are also Palestinians. They claim a link with the Arabs who live across the borders, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
These links are activated in contexts like the current one. Israeli Arabs have protested against the eviction of residents of the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, a territory occupied by Israel since 1967. They also denounce Israeli police violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most sacred in the city. ‘Islam, where hundreds of people were injured these days. Finally, they take a stand against Israeli bombing in Gaza – at least 65 people have died there and entire buildings have been destroyed. Six were killed in Israel by missile attacks by the radical Palestinian faction Hamas, which currently controls the Gaza Strip.
In his studies, Rekhess coined a term to describe the identification of Arab Israelis with the territories now under the command of Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority: Palestinianization. It is a process, he explains, that began in the 1970s, with the strengthening of the movement that demands the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet, he says, it’s a complex identification. “They want a Palestinian state on Israel’s side, but not instead. If they had to choose between giving up their membership in Israel, most would say no. Especially when they see how their brothers live in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It’s a constant dilemma, ”he says.
An identity crisis that sometimes explodes like this, with clashes between Arab citizens and Jews in Israel. In recent days, there have been lynchings of Arabs and attacks on their business establishments in different parts of the country. There were also attacks on Jews. The images, which circulated on social networks, testify to the latent tension between the groups.
None of this, Rekhess insists, means that the gap between Arabs and Jews is inevitable. “Arabs and Jews are scattered throughout Israel. It is impossible to separate them. But there are urgent problems to be faced, he says, such as the great socio-economic disparity, which favors the Jews today. “It’s not that we need a revolution. What we need is political leadership that works to resolve these tensions, ”he said. Something difficult right now, given that Israel is struggling to form a government and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership is in shambles.
“It’s quite worrying. These clashes indicate the fragility of these relations. The situation may deteriorate. With one stupid error on either side, the snowball can roll, ”says Rekhess. But he also says he sees reasons to be optimistic. “I believe in the links between Arabs and Jews in Israel. They are not doomed. The roots are deep enough to persist. “