Prior to the Al-Aqsa uprising, almost all of the players in the Middle East overlooked, or at least under-appreciated, the political role of the Palestinians in Israel. Israelis, for their part, assumed that Palestinians inside the Green Line would automatically support any peace agreement, and that their votes were almost unanimously secured for any “left” Israeli candidate. Few looked seriously at fundamental changes taking place in this community. The Israeli police killed 13 Palestinians and injured hundreds during the recent demonstrations in many Palestinian towns and villages inside Israel. These events reflected the Israeli government’s hostile and aggressive behavior toward its own citizens. Yet even more so, they noticeably demonstrated the significant changes in the Palestinian community’s self-perception and collective identity. As evidenced by their actions, Palestinians in Israel were ready to launch massive protest actions concerning national issues that relate to the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict. This, in conclusion, should be a strong reminder of the sensitive and fragile situation of this community, which The New York Times Magazine called “Israel’s next Palestinian problem.”
History and Demographics:
The 156,000 Palestinians that remained in the newly established Jewish state of Israel in 1948 have grown into more than one million. Their annual birth rate exceeded five percent in the 1950s and 1960s, and decreased to around three percent in recent years.
More than 20 percent of these one million people are displaced from their towns and villages as internal refugees. Palestinians in Israel now live in three main geographical areas: the Galilee, or the northern district of Israel where they comprise half of the population; the central triangle of Israel; and in the Negev in the south. The majority of Palestinians in Israel (60 percent) live in 115 villages. An additional 20 percent live in 7 towns, 10 percent live in 6 mixed Jewish-Palestinian cities, and the rest live in over 40 “unrecognized” villages that are considered illegal by the government.
Statistics of Discrimination:
Until 1966, the Palestinian citizens of Israel lived under military administration. Still today, despite supposedly being equal citizens of a democratic state, the Palestinian minority continues to be subjected to systematic institutional and legal discrimination, and is completely marginalized by the Israeli government. Israeli prime ministers from left and right have recently acknowledged this discrimination, yet little has been done to bridge the wide gap that has been created between Jews and Palestinians.
When one looks at the economic conditions of Palestinians in Israel, this gap becomes apparent. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics has classified all communities in Israel into 10 clusters according to their socio-economic status. All 10 communities in the lowest cluster are Palestinian. Out of 26 communities in the second lowest cluster, 23 are Palestinian. None of the Palestinian communities ranked higher than the five lowest classifications. Moreover, almost 50 percent of the children living below the poverty line in Israel are Palestinian, despite the fact that Palestinians do not comprise more than 20 percent of Israel’s entire population. Palestinians in Israel also receive less education than their Jewish counterparts. Sixty percent of the Palestinian labor force have a maximum of nine years of education. Only five percent of Palestinians have college degrees or higher, compared to 17 percent of Jews in Israel.
In addition, Palestinians encounter problems of overcrowding. They own less than three percent of Israel’s land, and less than 50 percent of that land is under their local authority’s jurisdiction. The severe lack of appropriate, updated urban plans for their neighborhoods has created a serious housing problem. This shortage has resulted in a high population density, as well as more than 10,000 illegal houses threatened to be demolished under court order.
According to a report submitted to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by Adalla, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, there are 17 Israeli laws that are discriminatory against Palestinians. These laws create a reality in which Palestinian citizens are deprived of basic educational, religious, social, and economic rights.
A Lesson Learned:
For nearly 22 years, the United States blocked enforcement of UNSCR 425 and nine subsequent resolutions demanding Israel’s unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon. Had the U.S. not opposed these resolutions, Palestinians would have seen a precedent for Israeli withdrawal through a nonviolent process based on international law, and would have had more faith in U.S. leadership.
Instead, Palestinians saw the Israelis withdraw only when a protracted guerrilla war resulted in losses of Israeli soldiers to a degree deemed unacceptable by the Israeli public. Israel was forced to make a hasty, chaotic retreat this past May. Unfortunately, as with Lebanon, continued guerrilla warfare against Israel will likely lead to thousands of Arab casualties, primarily civilians, and the dislocation of tens of thousands more. Yet unlike Lebanon, such violence will probably not convince Israel to withdraw. Israelis see the West Bank-for strategic, religious, and nationalistic reasons-as far more important.
While Middle East leaders pursued the Oslo process, presumably in hopes of more stable and steady negotiations, the Palestinian minority in Israel faced turbulent changes. After the Oslo Accords were signed, this community discovered that no attention was being given to its issues, and that, in fact, these had been set aside as an internal Israeli matter. Shortly thereafter, two major processes began. One involved strengthening the integration of Palestinian citizens into Israel-leading to more “Israelization”-and a focus on civil rights issues. The other process was one of creating a new political agenda with a strong, enlightened national discourse and a focus on collective rights, accompanied by a young, well-educated leadership.
These changes in the political awareness and behavior of Palestinians were coupled together with the shocking disappointment in the policies of Barak’s supposedly “left” government which came to power partially due to their votes. These combined issues led to a very volatile and explosive situation. Indications of this potential disruption were obvious during the past two years. The Palestinians in Israel have vigorously protested against, and successfully prevented, the Israeli authorities’ attempts at demolishing houses and confiscating land in various Palestinian communities within the Green Line. The Israeli government wanted to use the targeted land for the army and for the construction of a new highway. In all of these confrontations, Palestinians were determined to defend their rights, and were ready to pay whatever price necessary.
Another important element that has contributed to this tense situation is the racist and de-legitimizing statements many Israeli politicians have made against Palestinians. Alek Ron, an Israeli police commander in the northern district, accused the Palestinians of radicalism, called for strict measures against them, and blamed them for the violence. Not less demeaning was the total absence of an appropriately firm response to such statements from the “left” Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Shlomo Ben-Ami, or from any other “liberal” Labor or Meretz ministers. All these factors contributed to the inevitable confrontation which could have only been triggered by a major national issue such as the Al-Aqsa uprising.
It is difficult to predict long term developments within the Palestinian community inside Israel, since these are becoming, to a large extent, dependent on the changing circumstances in the entire region. The current situation is itself a result of the recent events. However, the Israeli forces’ brutal and aggressive reaction-using lethal weapons and live ammunition-against unarmed citizen protesters, together with the racist mob attacks by Israeli Jewish civilians against Palestinians and their property, will undoubtedly comprise a major landmark in the Palestinian minority’s history.
For the short term, changes are expected to take place in three main areas: 1) Within the Palestinian community’s internal politics, a tangible increase in the power of the groups and parties focusing on national and collective rights is realistically anticipated. 2) The re-implementation of the old “carrot and stick” policies of the Israeli government toward Palestinians will likely occur, this time with more emphasis on the “stick” in the beginning, and with only cosmetic changes in the discriminatory practices. 3) Palestinians in Israel will likely build stronger ties with the Palestinian people as a whole-as well as with the larger Arab world-in politics, culture, and other areas. This process will create a more integrated and active role for them in the coming months, and perhaps years.
Basel Ghattas is General Director of the Galilee Society near Haifa.