The situation of the Palestinian Arab community in Israel was discussed at a seminar last week (10 May) in the European Parliament in Brussels. The seminar, which was arranged by the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) in cooperation with the Greens-EFA and GUE-NGL political groups, focused on the community’s situation as a minority in Israel and its role in the Middle East peace process.
The minority population in Israel makes up about 21 % of the 8,7 million inhabitants in the country. The non-Jewish minority in Israel proper are descendants of the 160 000 Arabs who remained in the country after the establishment of Israel in 1948. 80 % of them are Muslim, 10 % Christian, and 10 % Druze.
The Nakba or disaster, when the majority of the Palestinians fled or was forced to leave Israel-held territory during its war of independence in 1948 against invading Arab armies, still lingers on as a tragic memory and colors the Palestinian narrative on the conflict, even more than the consequences of the six-days war 50 years ago which resulted in the occupation of Palestinian territories.
This was apparent in the seminar. The organizers had invited three speakers who all represented the Israeli Palestinians. Not surprisingly, they were frustrated about a situation where they still feel discriminated and lagging behind Israeli Jews. Recent illiberal legislation in the Israeli parliament risk infringing on minority rights and aggravating the situation.
The most known speaker was Ahmad Tibi, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al), which is part of the Joint Arab List in the Israeli parliament. He accused Israel of being an ethnic state with no equality between Jews and Arabs.
“Israel is a democracy for the Jews, but a Jewish state for the Arabs, he said. “We are 20 % of the population but providing only 10 % of the civil servants. The gap between the two groups is too large.”
“We ask for coexistence on an equal basis,” Ahmad Tibi said.
Commenting on the absent peace process, Jafar Farah, director of The Mossawa Center-The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel, said that the government is pushed by the settlers’ movement and its representatives in the coalition government. He asked EU to convince the Israelis that the Palestinians want peace.
When it comes to the moribund peace process, the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel could indeed serve as a bridge for peace. Linking the full implementation of their rights with an overall peace settlement would however be a mistake as it would only make it more difficult to achieve peace.
Israeli Arabs have justified grievances against discrimination in Israel. While much remains to be done in Israel to eradicate discrimination and incitement, it cannot be denied that the economic-social situation of the Arab minority has improved in recent years. Only last year the government decided on a multi-year programme of infrastructure investments in the minority sector.
A majority of Palestinian citizens defends Israel’s right to exist and prefer to live in Israel and not in a future Palestinian state. They can use Arabic freely, develop their own cultural identity, and enjoy local self-government. However, Ahmad Tibi has been demanding self-determination in a bi-national state without any Jewish national symbols – even if there would be a Palestinian state next to Israel.
Israeli Palestinian support for Israel may easily erode if the government does not keep its promises to narrow the gaps. The on-going conflict may also spill-over to Israel by inflammatory speeches by some Israeli Palestinian leaders – even members of the Knesset – who openly express hostility and even disloyalty to the Israeli state.
Vice-President Victor Botinaru from the S&D group concluded on a positive and moderate note. “The peace process is fundamentally important for Israel, the Palestinians and the region. We should institutionalize as many partners as possible. We have to change, without being naïve, and work with both sides to sustain the two-state solution.”