Arabs in Israel

A minority in the Jewish state.

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Through legislative proposals to the Knesset, they voiced their desire for full Arab-Jewish equality in Israel. Through their central administration, the Arab Monitoring Committee, they vociferously demonstrated their ability to politically organize and then unite under a single banner in general strikes such as "Land Day," "Peace Day" and "Equality Day."

Arab-Israelis were most actively involved in Israeli politics during the Oslo era (1993-2000). They were motivated by the idea that integration would lead to equality and the key obstacle to integration was the absence of Palestinian-Israeli peace. In 1996, Arab representation in Knesset reached 12 members. Even the Islamic movement, which traditionally forbade participation in Israeli parliamentary elections, decided to endorse a member of its own for candidacy in the 1996 elections.

The optimism characterized by the Oslo years came to an abrupt halt when the Second Intifada broke out in September 2000, and the Arab Monitoring Committee called for mass protests in support of the Palestinians. The ensuing week of clashes between Arab-Israelis and Israeli police led to the death of 12 Arab-Israelis.

In an attempt to tone down subsequent tensions, Arab Members of Knesset (MK) increasingly focused their legislative proposals on demonstrating that Arabs are an inseparable and committed part of Israel. Arab MKs did not, however, completely abandon the more controversial issues of Arab-Israeli identity, civil rights, and Palestinian statehood. Instead, they turned to public forums to raise these issues in a manner that elicited quick media and government response.

Arab-Israeli Identity

Torn between Arab nationalist and Islamic movements as well as the Palestinization and Israelization trends, the Arab-Israeli community is largely conflicted about its national identity. The Arab National Movement in the 1960s opened Arab-Israelis to the greater Arab world and its pan-Arab call for unification. In the 1980s this movement became largely eclipsed by the Islamic movement, which calls for the establishment of an Islamic state.

The effects of all these movements and trends on Arab-Israeli identity reveal an increasingly complex picture. A series of surveys conducted by Sammy Smooha in 2003, Arab-Jewish Relations Index, revealed that more than half of the population surveyed felt estranged by Israel and considered Israel as a Zionist state to be racist.

The sentiments expressed in these surveys, in combination with growing discontent over the level of government services provided, have caused Arabs to disassociate themselves from Israel. Many now seek to associate themselves with the Palestinian national identity, while demanding greater cultural autonomy and collective rights within Israel proper.

The political status and national identity of Arabs in modern Israel is a riddle that remains unsolved. Arabs are neither assimilated into mainstream Israeli society, nor do they aspire to be fully integrated. They are neither promised, nor completely denied equal rights. The formation of their national identity is directly connected to developments in the Palestinian territories and in Israel's democratic structure. Some have joined their futures with Israel; whereas others have united with the Palestinian sphere. Their course is ultimately dependent on the unfolding of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and other regional developments.

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Maya Kroitoru

Maya Kroitoru is a writer at the Joint Distributon Committee.