Last updated June 2009

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Approximately 1.3 million Palestinians or Israeli Arabs form about 20 per cent of Israel's population. However, their population is growing faster than the population as a whole.

Within the community distinctions between Christians and Muslims are rarely made since they are common victims of discrimination and share the agenda of achieving communal and individual equality with the Jewish majority. Christians are in relative decline, from 21 per cent of Israeli Palestinians in 1949 to only around 11 per cent in 2007.

The Bedouin are a tribally organized society, once nomadic but largely settled pastoralists by the beginning of the twentieth century. Out of 92,000 Bedouin in the Negev in 1947, only 11,000 remained after the foundation of Israel. The others were never fully accounted for. Those who remained were given a particularly hard time, uprooted time and again and forced to live in reservations.  Currently there are around 130,000 Bedouins in Israel (about ten per cent of Israeli Palestinians). Israel has emphasized their distinctiveness, and allows Bedouins but not other Israeli Arabs to serve in the military. In socio-economic terms there is no doubt they were in many respects different from the peasantry in 1947, but state transformation of both communities into a subordinate landless rural proletariat has eroded such differences.

Historical context

Following Israel's victory in 1948, Arabs were kept under military government until 1966, dependent on permits to leave their villages or obtain work outside them. In this way it was impossible to organize any protest or civil resistance. They were also co-opted to support the system by the offer of certain benefits, that is, employment or educational opportunities, in return for service to the state or a political party. Since Palestinians were overwhelmingly farmers, the state deliberately sequestrated over half their farmlands in order to destroy any independent economic viability, encourage emigration and concentrate food production in Jewish hands. Military government was abandoned in 1966 to allow free movement of labour in Israel's economic expansion but Arabs generally found it impossible to integrate into the mainstream of Israeli society, except as cheap labour.

The Six-Day War in 1967 led to increased contact between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.  As their grievances persisted, Israeli Arabs also became more involved in political and sometimes militant opposition to the Israeli government.  The first intifada (uprising) from 1987 to 1991 began in Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza and quickly spread throughout Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. (See Palestine.)  The rebellion and Israeli security response placed an additional burden on the relationship between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Peace talks between Israel and Palestinian leaders initiated in 1991 ended the intifada, and the 1993 Oslo Accords offered some hope that increased representation for Palestinians in the occupied territories and movement toward a Palestinian state would also help to improve acceptance in Israel of its Arab citizens.  However, Jewish and Palestinian extremists found a common enemy in the accords.  A right-wing Jewish assassin murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and Palestinian militants launched suicide terror attacks in Israel with increasing frequency.  Israeli voters elected a new government in 1996 led by Oslo opponent Binyamin Netanyahu, who pursued the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.  The careful process of building mutual trust gave way to a downward spiral of attack, counter-attack and increasing distrust in Israeli government and society not only of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but also of Israeli Arab citizens.

Amid rising Palestinian militarism in 2000, a renewed US-led peace initiative failed in July, and was followed in September by a highly provocative visit by right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon and other members of his Likud Party to the Temple Mount, a site holy to both Judaism and Islam.  Surrounded by hundreds of armed guards, Sharon was ostensibly asserting the right of Jews to visit the site.  The following day riots erupted in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and a second intifada began.  The uprising by Palestinians in the Occupied territories sparked protests of solidarity by Israeli Arabs that also expressed anger at their own unequal treatment within Israel.  Police killed 13 Israeli Arabs and injured hundreds more at one protest in October 2000.

Israeli Arabs boycotted 2001 elections that made Ariel Sharon prime minister in protest of their ongoing marginalization within Israel and Israeli responses to the intifada.  In 2002 the government began erecting a separation wall between Israel and the West Bank (and incorporating parts of the West Bank).  The barrier, built in the name of security, has had the effect of separating many Palestinian citizens of Israel from family members on the other side.

The so-called Orr Commission, named after the Israeli High Court justice that served as its chair, was established to investigate the causes of the second intifada and released its report in September 2003.  Among its conclusions, the Orr Commission found neglect and discrimination by the Israeli government with regard to its Arab population.  The government responded by setting up a ministerial committee to implement the Orr Commission's recommendations and adopted that body's proposals in June 2004.  However, many problems of discrimination remain.

In July 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants' abduction of two Israeli soldiers.  Israeli Jews and Arabs maintained fundamentally different views of the ensuing month-long conflict, as well as the continuing turmoil in the occupied territories. Israeli Palestinian antipathy towards the Israeli government’s treatment of their ethnic kin spiked again at the end of 2008, as Israel launched air strikes on Gaza that paved the way for a land invasion in January 2009. Israel said it was responding to ongoing rocket attacks by Gaza’s ruling militant group Hamas, but mounting civilian casualties shocked the world. The offensive also threatened to defer prospects for a lasting political settlement even further, ensuring that tensions between Israeli Palestinians and their government would not abate in the near future.

Current issues

Race and distrust of Israeli Arabs continue to for the basis for many Israeli government policies and actions.  In May 2006 the Israeli Supreme Court narrowly rejected a challenge to a 2003 law that instituted race-based discrimination against Palestinian citizens seeking to acquire citizenship for spouses in the occupied territories.   The law, adopted out of concern over terrorist attacks, has had the effect of forcing thousands of Palestinian families to separate.   In March 2007 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) called on Israeli lawmakers to scrap the provision, but later in the month the Knesset reauthorized it until August 2008.  Constitutional legal challenges to the law are pending.

Discrimination against Palestinians in employment and education is common.  Unemployment is higher among the Arab population (around 14 per cent for Arab males but 9 per cent among Jewish males). Jews do significantly better in education than Arabs, spending an average of three years more in school; the government itself has acknowledged that investment per Arab pupil is roughly 60 per cent of that for Jewish students. In August 2004, Human Rights Watch reported that the Israeli Ministry of Education provided one full-time teacher for every 16.0 children in Jewish primary schools in 2003-4, but only one for every 19.7 children in Arab primary schools.  Other state services are similarly under-resourced for the Arab population.

Arab pupils are taught in Arabic, but have used the same curriculum as that in Jewish schools. Over the objections of right-wing politicians, in July 2007 the government approved a history textbook that for the first time ever included Palestinian views on the 1948 creation of the state of Israel as a ‘catastrophe'.  However, this book was only for use in Israeli Arab schools.

Arab citizens remain under-represented in government.  Although making up 20 per cent of the population, Arabs currently have 11 members (all men) serving in the 120-member parliament, or just over nine per cent of the seats. Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon strained the relationship between the government and its Israeli Arab minority, including their representatives in parliament.  An Arab member of the Knesset resigned his seat in April 2007 as it became known that he was under investigation for ‘aiding the enemy' during the conflict, but he claimed that the government was persecuting him for his harsh criticism of its policies.  In November 2007 the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a law that bans Israelis who visit ‘enemy states' from taking seats in the Knesset.  Supporters said it was aimed at ending meetings between Arab Knesset members and representatives of the Syrian government as well as such militant groups as Hezbollah and Hamas.  Arab parliamentarians countered that the measure amounted to pure racism.

Land confiscations have continued and building permits have been withheld despite growth in the Israeli Arab population.  In September 2007 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Jewish National Fund, established in 1901 to buy land for Jews in then-Ottoman administered Palestine, could no longer follow a policy of refusing to sell land to Arabs.  The JNF administers around 13 percent of all land in Israel, in part jointly with the Israeli Lands Administration.  Anticipation of the ruling created pressure within the Knesset to make the continuation of such explicit discrimination legal. In June 2007 CERD criticized the government for impeding the land rights of Palestinians outside of Israel who wanted to return, calling on the state ‘to assure equality in the right to return to one's country and in the possession of property.'

Land issues have been the greatest problem for one subset of Israeli Arabs, the estimated 150-200,000 indigenous Bedouins of the Negev desert.  The government pursued into 2007 the repeated destruction of 45 unrecognized Bedouin villages, some of which pre-date the establishment of the Israeli state.  The Israeli government denies Bedouin claims to the land for lack of documentation.  Beyond bulldozing the shanties, the government has denied provision of electricity, water and sewage services to the unrecognized settlements that are home to around 80,000 Bedouins.  In February 2007 the Israeli housing minister told the BBC, ‘If they want their children to be educated, to grow up in the right environment, with all the culture and services, they cannot live in the desert.'  Indeed, 120,000 Bedouins have moved into seven approved government towns.  However these cramped settlements, with scant attached land, suffer shoddy design and were erected beginning in 1968 without Bedouin input.  Bedouin resettling in these towns are made to first renounce any claim to their ancestral lands. Forced urbanization has led to a loss of Bedouin traditional customs, high crime rates, drug problems and severe unemployment.  Bedouin women have been especially affected, having lost their traditional social roles; added hurdles to mobility outside the home have contributed to near 90 per cent unemployment for women.  In mid-July 2007 the government announced the establishment of a new agency to handle Bedouin issues.  Although the government continued to pursue the destruction of ‘unauthorized' Bedouin homes in the name of enforcing zoning laws and building codes, in March 2008, Human Rights Watch reported finding that this systematic demolition has taken place while at the same time the government frequently has ignored similar building violations by Jewish citizens.  Indeed, in some cases the government has provided utility services for unauthorized ranches built by Jews in the Negev desert.

A government commission established by the Israeli housing minister in December 2007 to make recommendations on the situation of the Bedouin in the Negev presented its findings in December 2008. Justice Eliezer Goldberg, the commission’s Chair, stated: ‘The Bedouin in the Negev are not illegal aliens, are not transparent and are not without rights.’ The Goldberg Commission recommended that as many of the Bedouin villages as possible should be recognized, except where they are at odds with the regional masterplan. It also recommended that retroactive building permits be issued for structures in existing communities or in villages newly gaining recognition. Finally, it recommended that nearly 3,000 unsettled Bedouin lawsuits against the state be settled, with proven Bedouin claims being compensated by money or land. In providing for the continued razing of some villages and expedited group relocation, the report came under criticism from some Bedouins who also condemned the process. By the end of 2008, the Israeli government had not adopted the report. Indeed, within days of the report’s release, the Israel Land Administration razed at least 12 houses in the unrecognized Bedouin village of al-Atrash, as well as a mosque constructed by an interfaith peace organization in the village of Wadi Na’am. 

Since 2003 Knesset committees and the full Knesset have been debating passage of a constitution for Israel in place of the basic laws and judicial interpretation that now function as a de facto constitution.  The major fault line in the debate is whether a new constitution should emphasize Israel's identity as a Jewish state, or as a democracy.  As part of the process, a 2006 report by Israeli Arab intellectuals titled ‘The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel' sparked controversy extending into 2007.  The report called for Israel to abandon its identity as a Jewish state, stop treating its Arab citizens as ‘enemies', and guarantee equal status for Jews and Arabs.  One leading Arab academic, Dr Adel Manna, said in April 2007, ‘The Israeli public doesn't want to understand that it is demanding that the Arabs become loyal but on the other hand it is not allowing them to do so.'

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