JERUSALEM: Arab Israelis are increasingly voicing a Palestinian identity and national demands, as hate attacks by Jewish extremists and laws perceived as discriminatory have multiplied.
Some 10,000 Arab Israelis rallied in northern Israel earlier this month for the right of return for Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven from their homes during the war that led to the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
It was a much higher than usual turnout for the annual commemoration of the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) and drew an angry response from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
He described the protesters as a “fifth column,” and thundered that they should “march directly to Ramallah,” a Palestinian city in the West Bank “and stay there.”
A growing number of Arab Israelis are visiting the cities of West Bank, if only to spend the odd weekend, as they search out all things Palestinians.
“The Palestinian people are one, wherever they live,” said Shaher Mahameed, from the Arab Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm, on a visit to the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
“My ID card says I’m Israeli, but my heart is Arab Palestinian, and always will be.”
More than 760,000 Palestinians — estimated today to number more than 5 million with their descendants — fled or were driven from their homes in 1948 and commemorate Nakba Day on Thursday.
The 160,000 who stayed behind are now known as Arab Israelis and number about 1.4 million, some 20 percent of Israel’s population.
Each weekend, growing numbers of Arab Israelis pack out cafes and hotels in the West Bank and flock to the markets, combining visits to relatives with cheaper shopping and leisure.
“The Palestinians who live inside Israel coming here to shop in Nablus has really given a boost to the city’s markets,” said clothes shop owner Abu Hussein.
‘Nationalism and marginalization’
The reassertion of a Palestinian identity by growing numbers of Arab Israelis comes after a string of attacks on Christian and Muslim properties by suspected Jewish extremists, and after several new Israeli laws they perceive as infringing on their civil rights.
“Palestinians inside Israel have never lost their national awareness. But at the moment it’s growing,” said Nadeem Nashef, director of an Arab youth organization based in the northern Israeli city of Haifa.
The attacks, and attempts “to give more privileges to Jews, have pushed people into taking firmer (nationalist) positions,” Nashef said.
Mordechai Kedar, professor of Arab studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, agreed.
“The attacks that have taken place in the last few weeks, such as the burning of cars and scrawling of (racist) graffiti, ignite feelings of nationalism and of marginalization,” he said.
The uptick in racist attacks has alarmed Israeli police, who have begun working in tandem with the internal security service Shin Bet to prosecute what some politicians are calling “terrorist” acts.
But despite the government’s proclamation of its determination to root out the racism of the extremists, Arab Israelis feel they are simultaneously marginalized by the establishment.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month defended plans to enshrine in law Israel’s status as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
For Palestinians, accepting Israel as a Jewish state would mean accepting the Nakba and potentially precluding the right of return for 1948 refugees and their descendents.
In March, Israel raised the threshold of votes parties need to get seats in parliament, in a bill boycotted by all opposition MPs on the basis that it marginalizes minority parties such as the Arab nationalist Balad.
But Mordechai argued that Arab Israelis still want to stay put, given the alternatives in the Middle East.
“They still prefer to live inside Israel rather than another Arab country,” Kedar said.