Israel's Arabs: A Dilemma of Duel Identity

By Album, Andrew | The Middle East, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

Israel's Arabs: A Dilemma of Duel Identity


Album, Andrew, The Middle East


The Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel after the 1948 war have fought a long struggle for equality within Israel's society and for recognition in the Arab world.

Israeli Arabs have always faced a contradiction in their identity, being both citizens of the Jewish state and members of the Arab world. For many years, both Jews and Arabs viewed them with suspicion and distrust. Many Israelis found it difficult to reconcile themselves to what they saw as the community's divided loyalties whilst in the eyes of the Arab world, according to one writer, "their alleged integration into Israeli society was often viewed as an act of treason."

Sociologist Dr Majid al-Haj believes Israeli Arabs have developed a unique identity as a result of this inherent conflict. On a nationalist level, they form part of the Palestinian people, identifying with its struggle for nationhood, as well as belonging to the wider Arab world. But there is also a civil element, which has evolved into an acceptance of the existence of Israel and a desire to not only live in the country, but also to integrate and contribute to its identity.

Israeli academic Sammy Smooha agrees. Born and educated in Israel, fluent in Arabic and Hebrew and well versed in both Arab and Israeli culture, "the new Israeli Arab," according to Smooha, "accepts Israel and sees his future tied to it." Indeed, hardly any Israeli Arabs have claimed they would move to live in a Palestinian state, were one to be created.

Their struggle is not against the existence of the Jewish state, but rather a desire for full equality within Israeli society. "Until today," says journalist Amira Hassan, "the feeling has been that this state was not built for us as citizens of Israel, it was built for the Jews." Their failure to achieve this equality - politically, economically and socially - may have led to growing resentment but this has not resulted in opposition to Israel's very existence.

Today, Israel's Arab population, which numbers some 800,000 in a country of five million people, is not a homogeneous grouping. Whilst the vast majority are Sunni Muslims, there are also sizeable Christian and Druze minorities, which between them account for a quarter of the total. Each has distinct attitudes and cultures, in spite of the fact that they are frequently all lumped together as one group.

In 1948, when Israel was established, Arab citizens were granted full civil, cultural and political rights, including the right to vote. Since then, their political involvement has manifested itself on three levels - national, local and extra-parliamentary.

In spite of retaining the right to vote in elections to the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, their political impact and exercising of power has, in reality, been less than their potential share of the vote would seem to indicate. Traditionally, voter turnout has been lower than amongst Jewish voters with groups such as the radical Abna el-Balad (The Sons of the Land), having urged voter boycotts, whilst the Islamic Movement was often ambivalent to the whole issue.

But perhaps the principal reason for this is that many voters, sometimes the majority, (such as at the last election in 1992), have backed Zionist rather than Arab parties. Originally, the Labour Party (now led by Prime Minister Rabin) and others, established Arab-affiliated lists as a very successful way of channelling Arab-votes. More recently, with the disappearance of these pseudo-parties, mainstream Zionist parties have sought to compete in their own right for the Arab vote. Many, including Labour and even the right wing Likud opposition, have included Arabs on their own slate of candidates.

In every election, primarily Arab-backed non-Zionist parties have also competed. The most successful of these has been the communist Hadash faction. At one time, it managed to garner half of the Arab vote, but has been slipping in recent polls. …

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