Enter the Israeli Arabs

The tragic events that followed Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram Ash-Sharif/Temple Mount have ignited Palestinian and Israeli passions and have placed another roadblock in the way to peace.

But to the surprise of many Israelis, these passions have also spread to Israeli Arab towns in a manner that was not witnessed even during the years of the intifada beginning in the late 1980s. Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel, constituting nearly 20 percent of the Jewish state’s population, have become increasingly a part of Israel’s polity and economy. So what explains their strong affinity with Palestinians elsewhere to the point of confrontation with the police in their own state?

The issues and the passions that involve Jerusalem know no boundaries.
While Israeli and Palestinian politicians negotiate such political concepts as “sovereignty,” the raw emotions among the public pertain to religion and identity: Will Muslims or Jews control the holy sites in Jerusalem?

Even secularists, both Jewish and Arab, are forced to take sides because they feel their political identities are at stake.
The highly publicized visit of Likud leader Ariel Sharon to the hotly contested area known to Arabs as Haram Ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to the Jews as the site of the first and second temples, added fuel to the mix and was later followed by a televised picture of an Arab father holding his young son, as bullets flew, begging for police to stop shooting, only to witness a bullet fatally piercing his son’s body. These heart-wrenching pictures, which were played several times on television, stirred emotions that were already boiling.

But there is more to the mobilization of Israeli Arabs than affinity with other Palestinians: the pain of coming of age as Israeli citizens.

In the past decade, many of Israel’s Islamic religious groups have made a decision to participate in Israel’s politics. Since Israel’s birth in 1948, some Arabs, especially religious Muslims, opposed participation in Israeli politics, since they viewed the state as illegitimate. But after the 1993 Oslo accords, Islamic religious groups fielded their own political candidates for the Knesset and encouraged their public to vote. They have become more Israeli than ever before.

Their game became a traditional democratic politics game: How to win the greatest number of Arab votes in the elections. Religion was employed as a means to get support, since the vast majority of Israeli Arabs are Muslim. Yet for years much of the support of Muslims went to secularist parties, especially the former Communist Party, which had been Israel’s only non-Zionist party.

The fight was, in part, internal among Israel’s Arabs. One of the early issues that the Islamic party employed was a dispute in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab town, with the secularist (and Christian by birth) mayor over a plot of land that the city planned to use as a public square. The Islamists wanted to build a mosque there.

This dispute was turned into a Christian/Muslim confrontation in Nazareth in the weeks before Israel’s national elections last year. The result was that the Islamists gained an extra seat in Israel’s Knesset, at the expense of the secularists. The irony: As Israel’s Arabs became more Israeli, their activism in generating electoral support in Israel’s democratic system has also focused attention on their core issues of Arab and Palestinian identity as tools of political mobilization. Jerusalem is the perfect tool.

But the issues politicians exploit obviously resonate with the Arab public in Israel, even as most are not militant. And when confrontations with police result in many deaths and injuries among innocent civilians, as the events of the last few days have, the issue becomes very personal: Nearly everyone in the small Arab community is in some way related to one of the victims. The police, and the state, quickly become the “bad guys,” accentuating prevalent feelings that the state still does not accept Arabs as full citizens.

Extremists among Israeli Arabs who utter hateful words are clearly a minority. But the unfortunate reality of passionate moments involving religion and politics is that peaceful majorities go on the defensive.

Most Israeli Arabs have learned to reconcile their Israeli citizenship with their Arab and Palestinian identities, making them a significant part of today’s Israel. But the tension between the two parts of the self will not be significantly reduced for Israeli Arabs until peace between Israel and the Palestinians prevails.