(Photo by ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The organised anger of Israel’s Arab citizens

The violence that’s receiving much less media coverage than Gaza

The crisis, horrors, and instability of what is happening in Gaza at the moment are, of course, grimly obvious. But to be clinical about it all, it’s happened before and may well happen again. Hamas and Israel are at war, the former is being partly supplied and advised by Iran, and nobody in the region actually sees this as a particular surprise. That’s not in any way to downplay the suffering, but to acknowledge an open wound of reality. What, if we’re candid, is far more worrying for Israel is a phenomenon not seen before: the organised anger of some of its Arab citizens, leading to violence and even death. This has received far less media coverage than Gaza, but is potentially much more ominous.

They vandalised cars, assaulted Arab drivers, and vandalised Arab-owned property

On a warm Tuesday evening, as the evictions in Jerusalem were raking place, and Gaza began to rumble, hundreds of young Arabs in the Israeli town of Lod – an ancient settlement, but now perhaps best-known as being close to the country’s main airport – rioted and roared. They waved Palestinian flags, torched cars and flats owed by Israeli Jews, and even destroyed a synagogue. Another riot took place in Acre, and there was unrest elsewhere. There were stabbings and shootings.

In response, a crowd of ultra-right-wing Jewish Israelis attacked Arabs in Bat Yam, close to Tel Aviv, and considered a seaside more than a battleground. They vandalised cars, assaulted Arab drivers, and vandalised Arab-owned property. Even in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, Arab youths ran along streets screaming Allahu akbar, and Jewish gangs retaliated with “Death to the Arabs.” There were hundreds of arrests.

Lod contains one of the poorest communities in the country, but the same can’t be said for some of the Arab populations in other towns, who also rioted. As for the Israeli Jewish hard right, they’ve been growing in size and confidence for years, empowered by a government that is helped rather harmed by polarization and, unlike its predecessors, shows little commitment to the mixed nature of Israeli society.

But whatever the reason and context, if Israeli Arabs reject the state, it is difficult to see how the country can remain stable and intact. Its population is more than 9 million, with almost 75% being Jewish. Of the remaining quarter, some are defined as “others”, coming from various backgrounds, but 21% are Arab. That’s almost 2 million people who are raised as Israelis, speak Hebrew, vote, have – at least officially – similar rights as their Jewish compatriots, but have the very same origins as those Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, east Jerusalem, or the diaspora.

They’re Israeli less by choice than by political circumstance. During the war of 1948, when modern Israel came into being, various communities remained. Today, most are Muslim, with less than 10% identifying as Christian, and the same number as Druze, a Muslim sect that has traditionally been loyal to any state – Israel, Syria, Lebanon – in which it finds itself. Almost half of Israeli Arabs live in majority Arab towns in northern Israel, with Nazareth being the largest, but there are also mixed communities, and while in Haifa most live in the Wadi Ara region, the city itself, and its university and social life, has a strong Arab flavour. But much of this is changing. Whereas Haifa was until fairly recently renowned for its mixing of Jews and Arabs, distance is now far more common than intimacy. Without any doubt, things have deteriorated.

There are qualifying factors of course. Christians are often, though not always, more middle-class and part of the Israeli establishment than Muslins, older Israeli Arabs tend to be far more loyal to the state, and while very few, but some, young Arabs perform military service – they’re not obliged to do so – they do conduct a form of national service, working in hospitals or with social services. Those who were screaming and burning were hardly the majority, but their actions are virtually unprecedented. The last time the police intervened en masse in Israeli Arab areas was more than 55 years ago!

The intensity of the current situation will likely diminish, but the fundamental reasons for the resentment will not disappear

The intensity of the current situation will likely diminish, but the fundamental reasons for the resentment will not disappear. As my friend from Cana (yes, the first miracle) said to me, “They lead us to water, but they won’t let us drink.” He would never attack a Jewish Israeli, never torch a synagogue, and doesn’t feel Lebanese or Jordanian, but he certainly doesn’t feel part of modern Israel. And his children are far more radical. They’ve seen an uneven application of social policy, housing, financial support, and employment opportunities, and they increasingly identify with their people in the West Bank and Gaza, even when have very limited experience of them.

The inescapable reality is that the Jewish state has become far more Jewish since the decline of various Labour governments and, in particular, the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu. There’s been a deliberate attempt to make Jerusalem a Jewish city – that’s what the recent evictions were about – and settlements have been encouraged rather than limited. There have also been attempts at internal legislation to affirm Israel as being exclusively Jewish, and some would argue to expunge the Israeli Arab identity, and create a form of second-class citizen. That’s partly a response to the increasing size of the Arab minority, but also due to the rise of Jewish nationalism. This was always a Jewish state of course, but if I compare the country I first visited 35 years ago to the one I see now, the differences are tangible, and deeply troubling.

There are, naturally, exceptions. Israel’s medical system contains numerous Arab doctors and nurses, and they co-exist as equals and friends with their Jewish coworkers. I interviewed an Israeli Arab ER doctor in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center recently, just before Israel’s Independence Day, when people party and celebrate. “Of course I’ll have a barbeque with my friends at my home, and most of them will be Jewish, the doctors I work with. But I’ll be enjoying my friends, not celebrating the creation of Israel.” And that is the view of an educated member of the middle class. Imagine the response of a minimum wage earning 22-year-old living in a crowded flat with his family.

Or take the example of former Israeli footballer Abbas Suan. “I didn’t sing the anthem during international games. Unless there will be a change in the words of the anthem not everybody can sing”, he explained. “The words ‘Jewish soul craving’ do not fit the Arab sector. If I would sing the anthem it would be a lie.” When he said this there were many Israeli Jews who applauded, arguing that here was a man who represented his country, was loyal and loving, but felt excluded. But there were others who had a very different view indeed. When it comes to sport, extremely influential in Israel, leading team Betar Jerusalem has a hardcore fan base that riots if a Muslim, let alone an Arab, is considered for the team.

Little of this will be apparent in well-to-do homes in Tel Aviv, and most of us encounter Israeli Jews who are progressive, open-minded, and long to include their Arab neighbours in greater society. But the wounds and divisions have now been revealed in all of their grimness, and unless there is a change of government and a subsequent change of direction that will only get worse. Israel can fight on some fronts, but not all.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover