Conspicuous Absence: Israel’s Arab Citizens

June 2023

The situation in Israel is once again tense. For the Arab public to join protests, it has to feel like a true partner in them.

By Mohammad Darawshe

Mohammad Darawshe_Israel Arabs Protest

Israeli society is in a serious debate over its own nature. The minister of justice Yariv Levin, supported by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing government, is trying to force controversial judicial reforms that would radically increase its control of supreme court appointments and decisions as well as give it more executive power over the parliament.

Netanyahu returned to power in November 2022 and is heading the most right-wing government in Israel's history. He built a coalition of ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties, which understandably scares Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Two of the most prominent ministers in the coalition – finance minister Bezalel Smotrich and national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir – are themselves West Bank settlers (illegal according to international law), and both have criminal records associated with attacks on Palestinians. Recently, Smotrich said that there was "no such thing" as a Palestinian people. This leads many to speculate that the coalition wants to remove legal constraints to annex some or all of the West Bank. If such a move were to happen, it would likely mean a mass expulsion of Palestinians.

The opposition, supported by much of the public, is opposing these reforms, describing them as a judicial coup. Nothing less is at stake, they say, than Israel’s democracy. Every Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets to express their opposition. This led Israeli president Yitzhak Hertzog to try to mediate and reduce the severity of the reforms. No clear results, however, have emerged from this process.

After five months of public protest the absence of the Arab citizens of Israel is conspicuous. Some are happy to see the judicial crisis worsen or believe that it is a logical outcome of a system that doesn’t see their community as full citizens. They note the controversy surrounding the Palestinian flag in the demonstrations and the way the protests overlook the occupation.

The Arab Citizens of Israel

Arabs citizens of Israel constitute approximately two million residents and comprise about 20 percent of Israel's population. While they are officially citizens of Israel, many identify as Palestinians. Many argue that supreme court has not been fair to them: its decisions have discriminated against Palestinians, both inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories.

For example, the 2018 nation-state law which was passed by the Israeli parliament – The Knesset, states that in Israel the right to self-determination is unique to Jewish people; it thus downgrades the status of Arabic language from the previous official state language and allows the government to adopt discriminatory policies favouring Jews in settlement as well as housing matters. This law is one of many discriminatory laws in Israel that were approved by the court – and is emblematic of the “Old Israel” that the liberals still want to protect.

Moreover, over the years the supreme court has approved harsh rulings such as the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in the occupied West Bank. In addition, the court often white-washed the settlement activities in the occupied territories, which are considered illegal according to international law. It also legitimized the creeping annexation of Palestinian lands, such as East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights.

For the Arab public to join the mass protests, it needs to feel like true partners in them. There has to be a real invitation that makes space for the Arab public with its symbols, slogans, and protest. Very few Arab citizens chose to attend or speak at these demonstrations – as they feel that they have no say in the matter anyway. At the same time, they have a lot to lose if Israel is stripped of democracy. 

Liberal Jews keep distance

The Jewish liberal camp leading the campaign against the government has kept a distance from the few Arab participants that are involved. They want to maintain the Jewish nature of the demonstrations, and even the patriotic bunting. Having Arab citizens there doesn’t serve this interest. They want to appeal to the Jewish soft right-wing, who used to vote to the Likkud, the prime minister’s party. These are voters who do not want to be on in the same side with the Arab citizens.

There’s a fierce argument within the protest movement over including calls for Palestinian rights. A large part of the Jewish liberal public does not want to bring in the topics of occupation or social justice into the protests.

The demonstration’s mainstream responds to calls for Palestinian rights with indifference or the argument that they need to remain focused on their own issues to achieve success. Nevertheless, some Israeli Arabs are pushing for greater engagement in the protests.

Some Arab citizens attend the demonstrations anyway as part of an anti-occupation bloc, which is increasing its presence at the larger protests in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. They wave Palestinian flags and chant slogans in Hebrew and Arabic denouncing occupation. Some Israeli Arabs see the protests as an opportunity to advance their demands for equality. They say that real democracy cannot exist while maintaining occupation of the Palestinian people – and that real democracy cannot discriminate against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. They realize that they need to create partnerships with Israeli liberals to legitimize their role as Israeli citizens, and find common denominators with them on matters of civil rights and equality.

Arab society has protested on the streets throughout the years, but this movement has not drawn a significant Jewish presence, including on issues such as the struggle against violence and organized crime resulting from police negligence. Very few Israeli Jews demonstrated against the nation-state law. Most chose to ignore it, and try to focus on promoting individual human rights, while sacrificing the collective rights of the Arab minority in the state.

Arab society has been disappointed by the state too many times and has thus become indifferent. The neglect has led to a lack of confidence in the possibility that anything here can change in their favour, and that has led to despair and indifference. All the while, extremism in the Jewish community is becoming more extreme.

When Arab citizens demonstrated against the nation-state law, they claimed that this is only the first blow to democracy. But that didn’t really move the Jewish liberal camps because this blow was not seen as a blow against democracy – since it benefits the Jewish public. Israeli society has pushed out Arab society, each time in a different way, and now it expects Arab society to stand alongside the liberal camp at a demonstration, maybe to increase the numbers of the demonstrators, and maybe because some of them understood that they need the strategic alliance with Arab citizens.

The organizers of the demonstrations are rejecting the engagement of leaders of Arab society and distancing them from the struggle. They censor speeches at demonstrations and issue statements neglecting the Arab community. They are looking for tailor made Arabs than can avoid bringing additional issues to the table of the demonstrations, such as occupation, discrimination, and racism.

The high court’s importance

Arab citizens, as well as Jewish liberals, understand that this government must fall. The importance of the high court lies in its defence of minorities, and the Arab minority is afraid that this might come to a definitive end. But it’s also important to remember that this community is mired in other serious problems: violence, crime, and chaos resulting from state-led actions. If none of the centre-left parties join forces with them and become a true partner, the situation will not improve. They have to understand that without partnership, the opposition cannot form a government. It has no power without Arab citizens who make 17% of the voters and can tip the balance.

In Arab society, there’s a lack of hope and faith in government institutions due to years of decisions that harmed us. But that doesn’t mean that we can stop being involved. We have to work with what there is, not as onlookers. We have to take an active position as a minority in Israel.

Mohammad Darawshe grau rund

Mohammad Darawshe is considered a leading political analyst and expert on Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel. He is the Director of Strategy at the Givat Haviva Center for Shared Society since 2014 (as well as between 2000 and 2005) and served as a Member of The Three-sector Roundtable at the Prime Minister's office and the Strategic Planning Team Authority for Economic Development of Arab Sector at the PM's Office.

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