Updated: Sep 17, 2021
They fall between the borders, constantly trying to define their identity.
The Palestinians living in Israel must be heard. Here is a glimpse into their lives.
*Photo credit: Middle East Institute
I started writing these monthly snippets at the very beginning of this historic global pandemic. I try to choose topics that will interest curious travelers, share stories with my network of clients, keep educating myself, and keep telling the complicated story of my homeland.
In this snippet, I try to examine the complicated reality of being a Palestinian Arab living in Israel today. First, let’s set the scene. Last May, the world media focused on the rockets fired into Israel from Gaza, and on the Israeli army bombing sites in Gaza. However, within Israel itself, there were widespread violent uprisings of the Arab citizens of Israel as well as violent attacks by ultra-nationalist Jews wrapped in Israeli flags.
Israel, the start-up nation, a country with nuclear weapons and the most advanced tanks in the world, lost its ability to maintain safety in its own streets. As these events were unfolding, I woke up every morning with tears in my eyes. Those who know me well, know that I'm a pretty optimistic guy. I always see the silver linings, I'm usually hopeful. Whenever someone eulogized the liberal Jewish democracy I live in, I would always pull out of the hat an example of how things just work out when push comes to shove.
Unfortunately, its not so easy here for a Jew to build a genuine friendship with an Arab (whether Muslim, Christian, Druze). We don’t attend the same schools, and we mostly don’t live in the same areas. In 2014, while I was studying at Haifa University, I joined a program called Breaking the Ice, funded by a Swiss NGO and facilitated by Beit Hagefen, an Arab-Jewish Cultural Center. The irony is that I had to fly all the way to Swiss Alps for a 10 day hike in order to get a genuine opportunity to build a true friendship with an Arab.
Hiking along the Tour du Mont Blanc changed my life. Simply, I was taught what is empathy. I got the tools to put aside my fears, my collective trauma as an Israeli Jew, and put myself into the shoes of the Palestinians living in Israel. I learned that I don’t necessarily have to agree with them, but at least my heart was able to open, listen to their feelings, their fears, and then get back into my own shoes. This might sound obvious and trivial, but I grew up carefully choosing where I would sit on a public bus fearing it might explode any second. My experience in the Alps not only helped me understand the Arabs, but also granted me the ability to put my narrative aside, without invalidating it, and to keep trying to understand the opposing side, even into the future as new conflicts unfold.
*Photo credit: Raif Igbaria (Breaking the ice 2014)
Now I would like to share with you my unique friendship with Fares Halifa, an Arab Muslim citizen of Israel. Fares and I go out to bars, party at festivals, venture on long hikes in the desert. While we lay around bonfires and grill lamb chops, I ask him many questions about his identity, and how he feels as an Arab living in Israel. Through my relationship with Fares, I have learnt a lot about what it is like to be a Palestinian living in Israel.
After the tension from last May’s civil unrest calmed down, Fares came over to visit me. We went out to the garden, sat and shared our emotions. I would like to try and put in words the conflicting feelings that Fares expressed to me, about his life here as an Arab citizen of Israel. However, before I get into this, I think its essential to understand who the Palestinian Israelis are.
In the aftermath of the 1948 war, the territory previously administered by the British Empire as the Palestine Mandate was de facto divided into three parts: the State of Israel, the Jordanian-held West Bank, and the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip. Of the estimated 950,000 Arabs that lived in the territory that became Israel, over 80% fled or were expelled. The other 20%, over 150,000, remained. Arab citizens of Israel today are largely composed of the people who remained and their descendants.
Palestinians were split between those who lived under the control of neighboring Arab countries, and those who remained in the land they consider Palestine, but who became defined as “Israeli Arabs." Shortly after the War of Independence, Israel declared martial law over most of the territories within its borders that were inhabited by Arabs, which ended in 1966, a year before the Six Day War. During the Six Day War, the West Bank was captured from Jordan and the Gaza Strip was captured from Egypt. For the first time since the Nakba, Palestinians living in Israel could enter these territories and visit their relatives and friends. This unique reality is best witnessed in a village called Barta'a, which was situated on both sides of a wadi, and had been split in the middle, causing the east side to be under the control of Jordan, and the west side under the control of Israel. After the Six Day War, the families reunited. After almost 20 years under different regimes, the community noticed marked differences: those who lived under Israeli rule had better health and dental outcomes, more academic exposure, more rights for women, etc. Those who lived under Jordanian rule felt like they got stuck in time, and their lives did not improve at all.
So, how do the Arabs living in Israel identify themselves? Most do not call themselves "Israeli Arabs, " and studies show a preference for the term “Palestinian Arabs living in Israel.”
"Fares, when you went traveling in Tanzania last year… where did you tell the people you met along the way that you were from? Israel? Palestine?"
Fares smiled and answered: "I tell them I'm from Israel, not because I feel Israeli, just because I don't want to complicate things and get into politics."
Another popular term is "48 Arabs", describing the Arabs who continued to live in Israel following the Nakba. Perhaps this term describes a genuine grievance about their history, insisting that they did not join Israel, but that Israel joined them by taking over their homeland.
And yes, there are even some, though very few, who define themselves as Israeli Arabs. Israeli media likes to advertise those Arabs who identify as Zionist Arabs, who are proud to be a minority living in a Jewish state. Yes, they exist too, but very, very few.
A unique type of antagonism has developed between the Palestinian Israelis and the Palestinians in the West Bank. As Fares admits, the lives of the Palestinians living in Israel are markedly better than that of the West Bank Arabs. "We live under civil Israeli rule, and the Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military rule". The West Bank Palestinians call Israeli Arabs “Arab el-shamenet,” which means “cream cheese Arabs”, in contrast to the simple, traditional Arab fare of labaneh (similar to yogurt).
When you listen to Palestinian Israelis speak Arabic, there isn’t one sentence without a Hebrew word, such as Kupat Holim (health insurance organizations), or beseder (OK). Although these are signs of Arab integration into Israeli society, there is also a growing assertion of their Palestinian identity. At every outbreak of violence with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and times of friction at the Muslim holy sites like the Temple Mount, this assertion of Palestinian identity is proclaimed.
In Israel of today, you can see a wide spectrum of different kinds of Palestinian Israelis. As many Arabs still live in rural villages and struggle financially, there is a growing middle class layer that is eager to get educated, have higher income jobs and integrate into what we westerns call the "modern world".
As Fares just relocated from Tel Aviv to Haifa, I drove to visit him at his new apartment. We went out for a drink on Masada Street, a bohemian hub in the mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Hadar. A lesbian Druze waitress covered with tattoos served us drinks. That moment was surreal. Here I was, sitting in an Arab bar, smelling the strong fragrance of marijuana and hearing only Arabic around me. I then realized, I'm in the Tel Aviv of the Arab el-shamenet.
Fares has worked as an accountant in Tel Aviv for a few years but wanted to join Israel’s rapidly growing high-tech bubble. He quit his job and is now studying java script programing language. On the surface, Fares' life sounds promising. He travels a lot, goes out on a weekly basis, and now he is even seeking to improve his income and change his career to a field he is passionate about.
Fares voiced his conflicting feelings, feelings that held by so many Palestinian Israelis:
"Noam, I feel very fortunate to live in Israel, I really do. I know that If I lived in Palestine, I wouldn't be able to enjoy the lifestyle I have now.
But…" Fares continued with a trembling voice, "To be honest with you, after these events, I understand that I need to get ready for the day I'll have to run away from this country. Maybe you can give me your Canadian passport?"
My body shivered, I remained silent. I turned my face the other way, so Fares doesn’t see my watering eyes. I felt so hurt, it was one of the hardest things I ever heard from a friend.
"Fares, can you tell me why you feel this way?"
"What needs to change for you to feel good living here?"
In the next snippet, I will describe the discrimination and major challenges that Fares and other Palestinian Arabs living in Israel have described to me.
Gmar Chatima Tova.