Home inFocus The War of Independence 2.0 (Spring 2024) “Like…wtf”: Israel’s Arab Citizens Feel Lucky

“Like…wtf”: Israel’s Arab Citizens Feel Lucky

Bassam Tawil Spring 2024
A delegation of leaders from the Druze community joins an the IDF’s Navy ceremony. (Photo: IDF)

IDF Sergeant First Class (Res.) Ahmed Abu Latif, 26, a husband and father to a one-year-old baby, was killed on January 22 during the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Abu Latif, a Muslim citizen of Israel, embodied the spirit of unity and patriotism in Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 massacre of Israelis. He also represented a shining example of coexistence and unwavering love for Israel.

In a message on Facebook at the beginning of the war, Abu Latif, who was working as a security guard at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, wrote:

As a Bedouin-Israeli, serving in the IDF Bedouin Gadsar (Desert Reconnaissance Battalion) was an honor that revealed my strengths and introduced me to lifelong friends. I love connecting with people and bridging cultures, whether it’s hosting friends for a meal or visiting friends from Kibbutz Shovel and playing guitar songs by Yehudit Ravitz.

On October 9 at 8 p.m., accompanied by my brother-in-law, I embarked on a mission to distribute food to soldiers. En route, our attention was drawn to a police car, and simultaneously, we received alarming messages about terrorists infiltrating the Mishmar Hanegev area near Rahat. As armed and professional security guards, we immediately joined the police forces, assisting in the search for the terrorists. The adrenaline-fueled mission was both intense and fulfilling, highlighting the importance of safeguarding our home. Thankfully, the terrorists were swiftly located and dealt with by the police.

In the backdrop of the ongoing war, we often hear about the involvement of Arab citizens. It’s disheartening to know that among the fallen heroes are Bedouin and Druze soldiers, Muslims, and Christians who courageously defended our country. The Bedouin community mourns all civilian victims, regardless of their background—Jews, Christians, or Muslims. This brings me to a crucial point: we all share the same destiny, and our strength lies in unity. Unfortunately, there are those who seek to undermine cooperation between different sectors, sowing seeds of mistrust. I urge you not to be swayed by such attempts and to stand strong in our shared commitment to unity.

Abu Latif had also filmed a video to encourage enlistment to the IDF’s Desert Reconnaissance Unit. He was not the only member of Israel’s predominantly Arab minority to die in the war, and not the only Arab to serve in the IDF and Israel Police. Thousands of Arab Muslims, Christians and members of the Druze community have long been serving or volunteering in various branches of the Israeli security forces.

Major Jamal Abbas, 23, a company commander in the 101st Battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade, was killed in combat in the southern Gaza Strip on November 18, 2023. Abbas was born into a family of high-ranking military officers from the Druze village of Peki’in in northern Israel. His grandfather, retired Colonel Gideon Abbas, is among the first Druze soldiers to attain the rank of brigade commander in the IDF. Jamal’s father, Col. Anan Abbas, followed suit.

Another Druze officer, Lt. Col. Salman Habaka, 35, was also killed during the fighting with Hamas last November. Habaka is the most senior officer to have been killed since the beginning of the war. On October 7, when Hamas invaded Israel, he was one of the first IDF soldiers to enter Kibbutz Be’eri, where dozens of terrorists had barricaded themselves. He was responsible for neutralizing dozens of terrorists and rescuing residents holed up in their homes and shelters. “The scene at Be’eri was very bad,” he said later. “But we saw we had one main mission: To save the remaining residents and kill as many terrorists as possible. We went house-to-house and cleared out [the terrorists].”

Nisreen Yousef, a Druze woman who has been living with her husband Iyad and four children in the village of Yated, near the Gaza Strip, over the past 15 years, is credited for saving the lives of dozens of her Jewish neighbors on October 7. On that day, her husband was among the first to rush with Yated’s civilian security squad and confront the Hamas terrorists who entered their community, leaving his wife and children at home. He and the other (Jewish guards) captured two terrorists. That is when Nisreen decided to leave her home and interrogate the terrorists to get information from them about the invasion. “I caught one of them by the neck and asked him in Arabic who sent him,” she recalled.

“I told him to look me in the eye, that I’m not afraid of him. I asked him how many more terrorists were there and where are they located. He told me there are many more in the field located 100 meters from my home.”

Thanks to the information she obtained from the terrorists, Israeli security forces were dispatched to the field, where they captured 20 terrorists. Asked whether they thought they would never return to their home, Nisreen and her husband replied:

Yes. It was scary, but this is our country, this is our home. We must not show them [the terrorists] that we are weak. We must not give them the feeling that they won despite the fear, pain and the disaster we experienced.

The stories of these Israeli Muslims and Druze are a good example of how Jews and non-Jews have long been living in peace and harmony inside Israel. They are also a sign of how a growing number of the Muslim, Christian and Druze communities remain loyal to Israel. Hamas’s October 7 atrocities did not distinguish between Jew and Arab, old and young, male and female, black and white. At least 20 Arab Israeli citizens were murdered by Hamas terrorists during the attack on that day or by Hamas rocket attacks in the ensuing days. Most of the victims were Bedouin residents living in the south of Israel. Moreover, several Bedouin men and women were abducted by Hamas.

It is no wonder, then, that an overwhelming majority of the Israeli-Arab public opposed the Hamas attack. A study conducted by Nimrod Nir of the Adam Institute and Dr. Mohammed Khalaily among the Arab public showed that most Israeli Arabs support Israel’s right to defend itself and even expressed a willingness to volunteer to help civilians who were harmed during the Hamas attack. The study showed that almost 80 percent of Israeli Arabs opposed the Hamas attack, and 85 percent opposed the kidnapping of civilians.

Two days after the massacre, Israeli Arab blogger Nuseir Yassin, popularly known as “Nas Daily,” posted the following on X (formerly Twitter):

For the longest time, I struggled with my identity. A Palestinian kid born inside Israel. Like … wtf. Many of my friends refuse to this day to say the word ‘Israel’ and call themselves ‘Palestinian’ only. But since I was 12, that did not make sense to me. So, I decided to mix the two and become a ‘Palestinian-Israeli.’ I thought this term reflected who I was: Palestinian first, Israeli second. But after recent events, I started to think. And think. And think. And then my thoughts turned to anger. I realized that if Israel were to be ‘invaded’ like that again, we would not be safe. To a terrorist invading Israel, all citizens are targets. … And I do not want to live under a Palestinian government. Which means I only have one home, even if I’m not Jewish: Israel…”

Another survey, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, found that most Arab citizens of Israel feel a strong connection to the state in the aftermath of the October 7 carnage. Some 74 percent of respondents reported good relations with Jews, and 56 percent said that the Hamas massacre does not represent Arab society, Palestinians, or the Islamic community. The survey indicated that 70 percent of Arabs in Israel identify with the state.

Commenting on the results of the survey, Prof. Mouna Maroun, vice president and dean of research at University of Haifa and the former head of the Sagol Department of Neurobiology, the first Arab woman to hold a senior faculty position in natural sciences, said:

I’m an Israeli Arab… I’m embarrassed. And Hamas is to blame…

For the sake of humanity, I implore the Arab community to move forward and to cleverly and responsibly understand the Jewish narrative, as we have been asking them to understand ours for 75 years. For the first time, as an Arab minority we are requested to stand with empathy and understand the majority’s narrative…

In the city of Haifa, there are mixed neighborhoods and mixed apartment buildings. At the university, Jews and Arabs learn and grow together. This is the paradigm that Israel must replicate in order to move on from the tragedy of October 7.

This [Arabs identifying with Israel] demonstrates that the Arab community in Israel aspires to further integrate into society and distance itself from bad faith actors like Hamas…

Israeli Arabs and Jews are like salt and pepper: They both belong on the table, and once they’re sprinkled into a dish it’s almost impossible to distinguish between them. We must embrace and cherish our shared destiny by working with each other, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and understanding that when it comes to coexistence and shared life, there’s nothing to fear.

Maroun is among other Arab women who hold senior positions in Israeli universities. In 2021, the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem announced that Prof. Mona Khoury-Kassabri had been elected vice president of strategy and diversity at the university. It was the first time that a member of the Arab community was appointed to a senior position of vice president. “I am deeply honored to be the first Arab to serve as a Hebrew University vice president,” Khoury-Kassabri said.

“I feel confident that my experience both inside the classroom and in senior roles at the university will serve me well in promoting the strategic goals and inclusionary values of this great institution.”

In addition to education, Israel’s medical field has always served as a model of Jewish-Arab equality and coexistence. Jewish and Arab patients often share the same room in Israeli hospitals, where Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses work together.

The percentage of Arab Israeli physicians in Israel has been on the increase. By the end of 2021, Arab physicians constituted 24 percent of Israeli doctors aged 67 and younger. That same year, 43 percent of new licenses for physicians were awarded to Arab and Druze doctors. The share of Arab citizens in other healthcare professions is also considerable.

“Hospitals, the places in which so many individuals experience pain and illness, are also the places of cooperation between Jewish and Arab physicians,” noted Fahima Abbas, a researcher at Adva Center, an Israeli progressive think-tank that monitors social and economic developments. “It is incumbent upon us to remember that and to strengthen that cooperation in ordinary times as well as in emergencies. It is an important element of a democratic state.”

In 2022, Judge Khaled Kabub became the first Muslim appointed to Israel’s Supreme Court. All previous Arab Israeli justices on the 15-member court have been Christians, another example of how Israel’s Arab citizens have access to senior positions in the public sector.

In 2019, Samer Haj Yehia became the first Arab head of a major bank in Israel when he was appointed chairman of the board of directors of Bank Leumi.

Since 1948, more than 80 Arab citizens have been elected as members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. In 2020, the Knesset had 17 Arab members out of 120.

Hamas was undoubtedly hoping that the massacre its members committed on October 7 would sabotage relations not only between Israel and the Palestinians, but also between Jews and Arabs inside Israel. Fortunately, however, Hamas has been unsuccessful in pitting Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs against each other. Despite the Israel-Hamas war, the vast majority of Jews and Arabs inside Israel continue to work together and live in peace and security next to each other, and often in the same neighborhoods and buildings.

The Palestinians living under the corrupt Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip can only envy Israeli-Arab citizens for living in Israel, where they enjoy democracy, freedom of expression, access to superb healthcare, educational institutions and careers, as well as a thriving economy.

Bassam Tawil is a Muslim Arab based in the Middle East. A version of this article first appeared at Gatestone Institute and is reprinted with permission.