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Arab Israelis thrust into spotlight by fighting

May 15, 2021

Arab citizens of Israel are being drawn into the conflict as the IDF bombards the Gaza Strip. Amid street fights between Jews and Arabs, knives have been brandished and firebombs thrown.

A large group of men stand in front of a mosque in the city of Lod, Israel
Fearing attacks by Jewish nationalists, Israeli Palestinians guarded this mosque in LodImage: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel have been clashing in the streets as the military continues strikes on the Gaza Strip and the Hamas organization. In the city of Lod, southeast of Tel Aviv, security forces had to put a stop to street fighting that involved guns and knives. A yeshiva, or Jewish religious school, and a synagogue in Lod were also set alight.

In the old port city of Akko, and in Bat Yam on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, men were surrounded in their cars by mobs of people, dragged out and savagely beaten. The man in Akko was Jewish; in Bat Yam, the mob believed the driver was Palestinian.

These are just a few examples of the violence flaring up across Israel. Hundreds of people have already been arrested after such incidents. In Lod, a state of emergency has been declared.  

The Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, warned of "civil war." 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter: "To the citizens of Israel I say: I do not care if your blood is boiling. You cannot take the law into your own hands." 

"You cannot grab an ordinary Arab citizen and try to lynch him — just as we cannot watch Arab citizens do this to Jewish citizens," Netanyahu wrote. "This will not happen. This is something that I am certain is shared by most citizens of Israel."

Map shows the Gaza Strip and its borders to Israel
The Gaza Strip and its borders to Israel

Palestinians mourn Nakba

When the state of Israel was declared in 1948, about 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homeland. The Palestinians call this the Nakba, or catastrophe: From their point of view, it was ethnic cleansing. The official Israeli telling, however, is that people fled of their own accord after Arab leaders called on them to do so. The descendants of the Arabs who remained in what became the state of Israel are the Palestinian Israelis of today. Palestinian citizens of East Jerusalem have separate status.

In 2019, Israeli Palestinians made up about 21% of the country's population. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, this figure has been rising steadily for more than 50 years because the birth rate in this demographic group is higher. Jewish nationalists say this threatens the supremacy of the Jewish segment of the population. The shift is slowed somewhat by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, who also tend to have more children.

On average, Palestinians in Israel enjoy a higher standard of living than Palestinians in the West Bank — and especially in Gaza. However, compared with the Jewish majority, Arabs remain at Israel's economic margins. According to data from the National Insurance Institute, in 2016 almost half the Palestinian families in Israel were living in poverty, compared with just 13% of Jewish families. (This statistic excluded the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, 45% of whose families lived in poverty.)

The nation-state law introduced by Netanyahu's nationalist government in 2018 further marginalized Arab citizens. The law declares Israel to be the "national home of the Jewish people," with an undivided Jerusalem as its capital. It states that Hebrew is the sole national language; Arabic is relegated to an undefined "special status."

In response to this law, Palestinian groups called for a boycott in the subsequent Knesset elections, and as a result they were less strongly represented in the parliament than the demographics would suggest. The Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties joined the anti-Netanyahu camp. However, before elections in March, the United Arab List broke away from this bloc. Hoping to use the divided Knesset to the Palestinians' advantage, party leader Mansour Abbas declared his willingness to make as many concessions as possible to support a future government. For a while, the party's four elected deputies were seen as potential kingmakers — but the latest fighting has thrown the negotiations for an anti-Netanyahu coalition into disarray.

This article has been translated from German.