31 Oct 2008
The recent clashes in Acre between Israeli Jews and those of Palestinian origin brought to the surface a very thorny issue, the uncomfortable coexistence in Israeli society between the Palestinian minority and Jewish majority. The Palestinian minority in Israel constitutes roughly one-fifth of the population and represents the indigenous people that Israel did not kick out of Palestine in 1948, when 800,000 were forced to seek refuge in neighboring Arab states.
The story of those who were forced out of their homes and homeland and those who remained was once the subject of some controversy. But the last 10 to 15 years witnessed research by what became known as the “new historians” of Israel that was based on documents from the Israeli national archives and which proved beyond doubt that Jewish terrorist organizations and later the Israeli Army planned explicitly the kind of activities, including massacres, that led to expulsion of the indigenous population and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Those who remained, and were later called Israeli Arabs, became a major problem for Israel. First, most of the land is owned either by Palestinians who were expelled or those who remained. Second, the presence of non-Jews was a challenge to the Zionist ideal of creating a pure Jewish state and the claim of establishing a civilized state among savages. Finally, the Palestinians who remained gradually started organizing themselves, speaking out not only about their political rights but most importantly (and most embarrassingly) about their civil and human rights where they were being undermined by the Jewish state. As a result, the Palestinians of Israel became a prominent example of the state’s racial discrimination policies and practices.
In the first 10 to 15 years after the creation of Israel, for example, more than 90 percent of the land that belonged to those who stayed behind was confiscated. For their part, Palestinians were confined to their villages and towns under very draconian restrictions on their movement, a system very similar to the current restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
There are two ways in which the Palestinian minority in Israel has reacted to this treatment. A minority has chosen to cooperate with the state in spite of the discrimination. They joined Zionist parties in the face of an ideology that would seem to exclude non-Jews. The majority, however, gradually joined and voted for anti-Zionist parties and later Arab parties. These led popular protests against the discriminatory policies of Israel, activities that culminated in the famous Land Day in 1976, a popular intifada against the confiscation of land in which six Palestinians were killed by Israeli police.
Israel’s attempts to subordinate its minority Palestinian community have been made under the slogan of coexistence. They partly consisted of encouraging Palestinians to integrate within the Israeli political system. In the first stages, this ensnared pro-state Palestinians with traditional tribal and family positions. But with the increase in awareness among the Palestinian minority, the vast majority of community representatives became sharply critical of the state’s policies toward that minority and are now leaders of the struggle of that community.
In spite of the rough treatment the Palestinian minority in Israel has had to endure, it has succeeded in taking a non-violent approach in its struggle for civil and human rights. This has further embarrassed Israel. But this approach has not prevented certain elements in the Jewish population from expressing bluntly and violently their hatred and hostility for that minority. The Acre events did not come as a surprise to anyone aware of the depth of the problem between the two peoples. And the quick, hostile and violent reaction from a wide range of right-wing groups and parties in Israel is another indicator of how fragile relations are and undermines the image of coexistence some in Israel would like to portray.
If Israel does not treat all its civilians equally, and without a solution to the problem of the part of the Palestinian people who live under occupation, the tensions that led to the Acre riots are likely to be repeated.
Ghassan Khatib is vice president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter publishing contending views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.