Arabs in Israel

A minority in the Jewish state.

Israeli Arabs are people of Arab ethnicity residing within the borders of the state of Israel. As of the end of 2020, their population stood at just under 2 million, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, or just over 21 percent of the overall Israeli population. That figure includes several hundred thousand Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem who do not possess Israeli citizenship but have residency rights and can generally move around the country freely. The remaining Israeli Arabs are full citizens of the state. 

The vast majority of Israeli Arabs are descendants of Palestinians who remained within Israel following the 1948 War of Independence. Some 700,000 Arabs then living in what would become Israel either fled or were driven from their homes during the conflict, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or “the catastrophe.” Those that remained numbered about 160,000. Over 80 percent of Israeli-Arabs are Muslims. The remainder are Christian or Druze. 

Persistent Inequality

Israel’s Declaration of Independence guaranteed full equality to all Israeli citizens regardless of religion. And on paper, Israeli Arabas do enjoy the same civil and political rights as Israeli Jews, with the exception that they are not subject to compulsory military service. Israeli Arabs serve in parliament, as Supreme Court judges and foreign envoys. By some measures, Arab citizens of Israel have greater political and civic freedom than most Arabs living in the Middle East, which the nonprofit Freedom House consistently ranks as among the least free regions of the world. Arabs in Israel enjoy a robust free press and can organize and criticize the government with less fear and greater freedom than Arabs elsewhere in the Middle East.

But in practice, Israeli Arabs are subject to a range of discriminatory practices, as attested to not only by local and international human rights groups, but also Israeli government sources. A 2020 report from Human Rights Watch charged that discriminatory land use policies effectively hemmed in Arab communities and prevented their growth while nurturing the expansion of Jewish ones, a charge the Israeli government denied. A 2017 report from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel found that 97 percent of outstanding housing demolition orders as of July, 2015 were for buildings in the Arab sector. Israeli Arabs also trail Israeli Jews in many key metrics of social well-being, including infant mortality, life expectancy, educational attainment and income.  

An Israeli government commission, inquiring into the 2000 clashes between Israeli police and Israeli Arabs that left 12 Arab-Israelis dead, reported: 

Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory. The establishment did not show sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the Arab population, and did not take enough action in order to allocate state resources in an equal manner. The state did not do enough or try hard enough to create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discriminatory or unjust phenomenon. Meanwhile, not enough was done to enforce the law in the Arab sector, and the illegal and undesirable phenomena that took root there.

In 2015, the Israeli government adopted resolution 922, an unprecedented five-year plan to invest nearly $3 billion in the Arab sector. But the Israeli government also took steps widely criticized as weakening efforts to achieve greater parity between Arab and Jewish Israelis, in particular the 2018 passage of the so-called nation-state law, which defined Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” and downgraded Arabic from an official language to one with “special” status, among other measures. Israeli-Arab lawmakers reacted to the passage by tearing up copies of the law on the Knesset floor, describing the measure as one enshrining “Jewish supremacy.”

Questions of Identity

The nation-state law was but one installment in a long, complicated and fraught relationship between Arab-Israelis and the state. Though media outlets commonly use the term “Palestinian” to refer exclusively to Arabs who reside in the West Bank and Gaza, polling suggests that Arab citizens of Israel increasingly identify as Palestinian and prefer the term to Israeli Arab. (A 2020 poll from the Jewish People Policy Institute seemed to show the opposite.) 

“The largest now and the most growing identity is a hybrid identity, which is ‘Palestinian in Israel,’” or some equivalent, said University of Haifa Professor Sammy Smooha, whose 2017 survey found just 16 percent of Arab citizens prefer to be called “Israeli-Arabs.” 

Yet polling has consistently shown over the years that Arab Israelis would prefer, by overwhelming margins, to remain citizens of Israel rather than accept citizenship in a future Palestinian state, even if it didn’t require them to physically move. (Some proposals to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have suggested moving the border to include heavily populated Palestinian areas of Israel within the territory of a Palestinian state.)

For their part, some Israelis consider the large Arab minority in the country to be testament to the strength of Israeli democracy. But others have long viewed the community with suspicion. Right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Liberman referred to an alliance of four majority-Arab political parties as a “fifth column” in 2019. A 2016 Pew survey found that nearly half of Israelis — 48 percent — would support the expulsion or transfer of the country’s Arab population. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew widespread criticism in 2015 when in the midst of a fiercely contested election he urged his supporters to get out and vote by warning that “droves of Arabs” were heading to the polls. Arab-Israeli political parties have never been part of a governing coalition. 

Tensions have been increasingly evident since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, when a series of riots in Arab-Israeli areas led to clashes with Israeli police that left 13 Arabs dead. Amid the fighting between Israel and Hamas in May, 2021, Israel witnessed its worst intercommunal violence in decades. Acts of mob violence broke out in various mixed Jewish-Arab towns, with individual Jews and Arabs assaulted and attacks launched on Jewish and Arab businesses.

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