The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Long overlooked, Israel’s Arab citizens are increasingly asserting their Palestinian identity

Mahmoud Abo Arisheh, a theater director, poet and lawyer, near the theater where he works as a director in the Old City of Jaffa. (Corinna Kern for The Washington Post)
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JAFFA, Israel — Growing up in an Arab village in northern Israel in the 1990s, Mahmoud Abo Arisheh was sure of at least two things: He was Israeli, and he was not allowed to talk politics.

“Be careful, or the Shin Bet will get you,” his parents told him, referring to Israel’s domestic security service.

Decades later, much has changed: Abo Arisheh is a lawyer, a poet and a theater director living in this cosmopolitan port city. He attends protests and talks politics freely — in Arabic, Hebrew and English. And while his citizenship may remain Israeli, the identity most dear to him is that of a Palestinian.

“I didn’t know anything about being Palestinian,” said the 32-year-old, “but then I opened my eyes.”

And now, it seems, so are many others.

In just the past month, Palestinian citizens of Israel — also known as Israeli Arabs — have risen up in mass, nationwide demonstrations to protest Israeli evictions and police raids. They have been arrested by the hundreds following some of the worst communal violence between Arabs and Jews in Israel’s post-independence history. And one of their main political parties — an Islamist one, no less — has become the linchpin in a likely new Israeli government that would allow a far-right religious Zionist to become prime minister in the coming days.

For a community that is often overlooked despite numbering nearly 2 million people — or about 20 percent of the Israeli population — these are momentous days indeed.

“For a long time, a lot of the world did not know about our existence,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh. “What’s happening now is a rediscovery of the Palestinians of Israel.”

Abu Shehadeh is a member of Israel’s Knesset, or parliament. He is also a proud Palestinian. In a world accustomed to thinking of Israelis and Palestinians as an oppositional binary, he can understand why his identity may be confusing.

“We became citizens in the state that was established on the ruins of our homeland,” he said while sitting in a Hebrew-signed cafe at the heart of the ancient Arab city of Jaffa, which has been absorbed into broader Tel Aviv. “So it’s a very complicated situation.”

Lately it has become even more so. Israel insists that its Arab citizens receive equal rights and point out that they — unlike Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank or in Gaza — get to choose their leaders in elections. But Palestinians living in Israel — a population that includes Muslims, Christians and Druze — have become increasingly vocal in speaking out against what many describe as their second-class status.

Even the terminology is increasingly contested.

Palestinians living within Israel’s internationally recognized borders are often known colloquially as “the 48 Arabs,” a reference to their origins. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or were expelled during the 1948 war that erupted upon the creation of the state of Israel. Those who stayed, and their descendants, were dubbed “Israeli Arabs” by the nascent Jewish state, which uses the term to this day.

But surveys show that the people that term is meant to describe favor “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” an identity they say honors both their roots in historic Palestine and their connection to relatives in the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora.

“Israel has tried through different tools to de-Palestinize and to Israelize and to split the identity,” said Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, who teaches sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But we are all part of one community. We are all Palestinians.”

Scholars who study the issue say that preference for an explicit recognition of Palestinian identity has grown with time, especially in the past two decades. It is particularly strong, they say, among younger generations who did not experience the trauma of Israel’s birth — to Palestinians, the “Nakba,” or catastrophe.

For people who often feel caught between two worlds, however, the contours of what it means to be a Palestinian citizen of Israel remain a work in progress.

Conflict between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza always confronts the Palestinian population in Israel with challenging questions of identity. But last month’s round of fighting — with Israeli airstrikes pounding in Gaza and rockets pouring out of the besieged territory aimed at Israel — was particularly fraught.

Demonstrations among Palestinians in “mixed cities” — those with substantial Arab and Jewish populations — resulted in deadly clashes. Israeli police officials said Arabs had been responsible for most of the violence, with Jewish residents targeted for attack and synagogues burned. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “restore order with an iron fist.”

After Arab-Jewish violence erupts inside Israeli towns, a divided country may never be the same

Palestinians in places such as Jaffa say they felt the weight of that crackdown: Peaceful protests, they say, were met with assaults by police working with Jewish settlers who had arrived from the occupied West Bank. The state’s bias, they say, has continued in the aftermath of the violence, with the bulk of the more than 1,500 arrests coming among Arabs, not Jews.

“We were chanting, ‘No to oppression, no to racism,’ when the police attacked us without any reason,” said Bashar Ali, a 25-year-old student at Tel Aviv University. “One policeman put his knee on my neck and two policemen handcuffed me. I remembered George Floyd.”

Ali said he was released the next day, and police officials deny any mistreatment. Advocates say the police behavior was something new for Palestinians in Israel.

“We know police violence, but not on this scale. We know it in the West Bank, but not in ’48,” said Sawsan Zaher, a human rights lawyer with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

Zaher said the shift is in keeping with a broader transformation of Israeli society, one in which the country has become more overtly Jewish and less tolerant of those who do not share the faith. A 2018 law that defined Israel as the Jewish homeland and downgraded the status of the Arabic language typified the change.

Ironically, one of the foremost proponents of that law, Naftali Bennett, is due to become prime minister within days thanks to the support of an Arab party. The decision by the Ra’am party, an Islamist group that shares common ideological roots with Hamas, made history: No independent Arab party has ever joined an Israeli government.

After decades of watching from the outside in, party leader Mansour Abbas has told reporters it was time for Arab parties to take a role in the country’s governance. The decision, he has said, would guarantee Palestinian communities in Israel a greater share of the budget, as well as recognition for a handful of Bedouin villages in the Negev desert.

But rather than be celebrated, the decision has split Palestinians in Israel, with many accusing Abbas of enabling a racist regime. Bennett has openly boasted of killing Arabs during his military service and has advocated annexing much of the West Bank.

“I am ashamed,” said Abu Shehadeh, the Knesset member, who represents a rival party.

Israeli opposition lawmakers say they’re ready for parliamentary vote to replace Netanyahu

Instead of engaging with the government, many younger Palestinians say it is important to challenge it in the streets and call attention to what they regard as violations of their civil rights.

In the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Al Ajami, just south of Jaffa’s historic core, a spate of evictions of Palestinian residents by the state housing authority is “sparking a fire under this city,” said Jacob Hanania, 32.

His grandmother was recently ordered to leave the home that he said has been in the family since before 1948. It is among a number of properties, inhabited by Palestinians even after being seized by the state decades ago, that are now being sold to investors.

Young people, Hanania said, also face discrimination: When applying for jobs, he said he has noticed that many employers require military service, a duty from which Palestinians are exempt. “It’s their way of asking whether you’re Jewish or Arab,” said Hanania.

Nearly half of Palestinians in Israel live in poverty, and a quarter are unemployed. Even those who have made it professionally in Israel say the country often seems less than invested in their well-being, with vast disparities between Arab and Jewish areas in the quality of schools, roads and other basic infrastructure.

“I take my citizenship seriously. I pay taxes, like any other citizen. And I expect that the government will treat me as an equal,” said Abo Arisheh, the lawyer, poet and theater director. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”

As a child, his parents warned him about talking politics. But having watched friends arrested for protesting in recent weeks — and fearing that he could be next — he wonders how much has truly changed.

“The feeling,” he said, “is that we’re being treated as enemies in our own homeland.”