While Iran and Syria, along with their proxies Hamas and Hizbullah, are often cited as Israel’s primary security concerns, Israeli Arabs are a growing strategic threat. What began as hostility toward the Jewish identity of the state has evolved into a growing identification with Palestinian nationalism and Islamism. Thus, the challenge posed by Israel’s Arabs to the security of the state is now characterized by religious ideology as well as political identity, making rapprochement increasingly less likely.
Israeli Arabs in Context
Despite allegations that Israel cleansed itself of its Arab population, Arabs have lived in the state of Israel since the founding of the state. Approximately 150,000 Arabs elected to live in Israel after the armistice of 1949. In accordance with Israeli law, the state took measures to ensure that Israeli Arabs enjoyed the same rights and privileges as Jewish Israeli citizens. Over six decades, however, the Israeli Arabs have developed a unique political identity, distinctly separate from the Israeli political identity, and often hostile to it.
In 2000, a poll published by the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot revealed that 66 percent of Israeli Arabs would back the Palestinians in any confrontation with Israel, while only 13 percent would support their own country. Similarly, a 1999 survey by the Institute for Peace Research at Givat Haviva found that 32.8 percent of Israeli Arabs believed that only “Israeli” was “appropriate to their self-identity.”
At the beginning of 2001, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS) reported that 18.7 percent of Israel’s population, including East Jerusalem, was Arab. Today, the Israeli Arab population centers and political hotbeds outside of Jerusalem are found in an area known as the “Triangle” in Northern Israel, where the majority of the Israeli Arabs live.
A Fifth Column
With the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the subsequent outbreak of the “al-Aqsa intifada” in September 2000, Israeli security officials voiced concerns over the role of Israeli Arabs in the violence. Some Israeli politicians went as far as calling the Israeli Arabs a “fifth column.”
Gideon Ezra, minister for internal security at the time, said, “Since September 2000 we have seen a significant connection, in terrorist attacks, between Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza and Israeli Arabs.” In 1999, Israeli Arabs perpetrated two attacks. In 2000, there were eight; in 2001 it rose to 30; and in 2002 the number jumped dramatically to 77.
In 2004, Avi Dichter, the director of Israel’s General Security Services (GSS) told the Israeli cabinet that the Arab population in East Jerusalem, “represents today the largest reservoir for terror attacks within the Green Line.” He noted that terror attacks perpetrated by East Jerusalem Arabs stemmed from the same ideological roots as terror attacks by Palestinians from the territories.
By 2005, the GSS identified a significant rise in Iranian attempts to recruit Israeli citizens as spies. Of particular concern were the Israeli Arabs with jobs that afforded them access to sensitive information. Jaris Jaris, one Israeli Arab convicted of spying for Iran, sought election to the Knesset as a member of the left-wing political party, Meretz. The plan was to provide Tehran with sensitive information gleaned from that position.
Some Israeli Arabs have also aligned with the global jihadist movement after exposure to Islamist material on the Internet. For example, two Israeli Arabs from the town of Jaljulya in northern Israel were arrested for planning al-Qaeda-inspired attacks against Israeli military targets. The two had learned al-Qaeda philosophy from the Internet, as well as how to produce an explosive device.
Enemies of the State
While Israeli Arabs are certainly not unanimous in their hatred toward Israel, many prominent Israeli Arab leaders have openly challenged Israel’s right to exist. Arab Israeli Member of Knesset (MK) Ahmed Tibi stated, “we are not loyal to the Zionist ideology. We are victims of Zionism and the Zionist ideology, mainly the confiscation of lands from Arabs in 1948, and after that, giving it to Jews. That is to say no, we are not loyal to the ideology.”
During the summer 2006 war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, Israeli security services suspected that Arab MK Azmi Bishara was providing Hizbullah with intelligence that may have undermined the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) operations. Indeed, Bishara advised Hizbullah to “deepen the strike against Israel.”
Lesser known figures have also emerged as enemies of the state. One Israeli Arab, Ra’ed Mazareb, was arrested for informing Hizbullah where their Katyusha rockets were falling during the 2006 war, in an attempt to improve the terrorist group’s targeting. Mazareb also provided the group with detailed information about IDF troop movements, as well as the Israeli use of blimps to locate Hizbullah targets in Beirut.
Israeli Arab leaders are increasingly identifying with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and are thus becoming more involved in Palestinian affairs. After meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) representatives in Cyprus, Amir Makhoul, the head of one Israeli Arab organization, called upon the PA in 2007 to include Israeli Arabs in any PA referendum on peace talks with Israel. “If there’s going to be a Palestinian referendum,” he stated, “it has to be a collective referendum and include the Arabs in Israel, like every other part of the Palestinian people.” Makhoul also warned PA president Mahmoud Abbas not to discuss a permanent deal with Israel, asserting that Abbas did “not have the strength and support of the people.”
West Bank Palestinians often reinforce Israeli Arabs’ positions. The PA is currently re-allocating seats in the Palestinian National Council (PNC). Out of a total 350 seats, 188 could be allocated to the “Palestinian Diaspora,” which would include Israeli Arab representatives. While it is unclear whether this representation would be meaningful or symbolic, it would undoubtedly deepen the Israeli Arabs’ identification with the Palestinian cause.
The enmity towards the state of Israel among the Arab Israeli sector is inextricably connected to a rise in Islamism, or militant Islam. The ties between Israeli Arabs and Islamist groups are growing. It is increasingly common to find Israeli Arab leaders visiting Lebanon or Syria to make contacts with leaders of other Islamist movements.
Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, a former mayor of Umm al-Fahm, now heads the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. He sits on the Board of Trustees of the Union of Good, an international Islamic charity that funds Hamas and is headed by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Not surprisingly, then, the Islamic Movement has adopted the inflammatory rhetoric of their Islamist brethren. In 1998, MK Tawfiq al-Khatib, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamic Movement in Israel, declared during a religious dialogue with Israelis that, “there is a precedent for Muslims accepting non-Muslim rule. But in Palestine, the Holy Land? Only Muslims can rule here.”
Reacting to the controversy surrounding Israeli construction work around the Mughrabi Gate on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Sheikh Ra’ed Salah said, “the time has come… to start an Islamic Muslim Intifada…in support of Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
Sheikh Kamal Khatib, second in command to Salah in the Islamic Movement, expressed his hopes that Israel would be replaced by an Arab state run by shari’a law as part of a greater Islamic caliphate. He asserted, “We are on the threshold of a new stage,” and “the future belongs to Islam and the Muslims.”
The proliferation of Islamism is almost sure to continue as the Muslim population within Israel grows. That growth, to Israel’s dismay, has been skyrocketing. A Tel Aviv University study revealed that, “in the past 15 years, the number of mosques in Israel has increased four and a half times, from 80 in 1988 to 363 in 2003.” During this time the Arab population has increased only by one and a half times, indicating that Islamization among Israel’s Arabs grew by 300 percent.
According to the most pessimistic Israeli forecasts, the Muslim population could grow to over two million, or 24-26 percent of Israel’s population within the next 15 years. They also will constitute 85 percent of the Israeli Arab population in the year 2020.
The Israeli Arab leadership in 2007 presented the Israeli government with a document entitled “Future Vision” which elucidated how the Israeli Arabs view their own government. The document reveals how Arab Israelis accuse Israel of being an ethnocracy that seeks “to preserve the hegemony of the Jewish majority” and “the marginality of the Arab minority.” The document also asserts that Israel is severing “the link in identity between the Palestinian Arabs and the other parts of the Palestinian nation.” The document accuses Israel of preventing, “the maintenance of physical and spiritual ties with their brothers in Jerusalem, on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, and with the Palestinian refugees [in the Diaspora].”
“Future Vision” is a document that urges the unity of the Palestinian people and demands the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories. Its main thrust, however, is recognition as a national minority since the Israeli Arabs assert that they are “the original natives of the country.”
Following the publication of the “Future Vision” document, Israel’s GSS chief Yuval Diskin reportedly warned the prime minister’s office that Israeli Arabs were rapidly becoming a “strategic threat.” The GSS report said the threat of Arab irredentism exceeded that of any external danger including Iran, and that Israel’s Arab population was a “genuine long-range danger to the Jewish character and very existence of the State of Israel.”
After 60 years, many of the Israeli Arabs have resisted integrating into Israeli society. Thanks to the influence of Islamism, Palestinian nationalism, and even outside actors such as Iran, the Israeli Arabs have adopted increasingly dangerous rhetoric and openly challenged their country’s Jewish identity. Due to the growth of the Islamic Movement in recent years and its increasing ties to rejectionist groups, it would not be surprising to see a significant percentage of Israeli Arabs reject the Jewish state even if a Palestinian state is established pursuant to a permanent status agreement.
More worrisome is the potential terrorist threat that this population poses. Israeli Arabs have rare access to Israeli society, which is undoubtedly valued by state actors, such as Iran or Syria, as well as non-state actors, such as Hamas, Hizbullah, or even al-Qaeda. As such, the state of Israel will likely face many challenges in its attempts to balance the civil rights of its Arab citizens while simultaneously preventing security breaches from this sector of society that grows more dangerous with each passing year.
Barak M. Seener is the Greater Middle East Section Director for the Henry Jackson Society (UK).