A Brief Window for Israel to Integrate Its Arab and Jewish Communities | Opinion

In May 2021, Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities exploded in violence. Streets in Lod, Haifa, Acre, Ramla, and Jerusalem became battlegrounds for clashes between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. At the time, the Israel Defense Forces were fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israeli Arabs were upset.

By the time the operation in Gaza was over, four Israeli citizens—three Jews and one Arab—were dead, some of them lynch by mobs. Hundreds of people—Jews and Arabs—were injured and synagogues and storefronts were smashed or burned.

The riots left the country fractured. Arabs make up about 2 million of Israel’s citizens and constitute 20 percent of the population. Most live in northern and southern Israel, many in mixed cities where you can find apartment buildings shared by Jews and Arabs.

The waxing gibbous moon rises as an Israeli Air Force fighter aircraft flies over the border area with south Lebanon in northern Israel on Feb. 22.

JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images
The IDF was particularly disturbed by what had happened and decided to set up a new unit of reservists whose job would be to protect highways to ensure they remain open in future wars so troops, tanks, and ammunition can deploy to the front as needed.

One IDF general went so far as to declare in a newspaper interview that, in a future war, the military would not cross through a well-known area of the country with an Arab majority. Keeping roads in that area open, he said, would not be worth the effort or resources if there were riots.

It is with this backdrop that a profound change is taking place in Israel: Since the Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis by Hamas, Israeli Arabs have not only not rioted, but a majority—according to several polls—support Israel’s right to defend itself with a ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. One poll, in late December, asked Israeli Arabs if they feel “part of the State of Israel and its problems.” Sixty-five percent answered that they did, while, before the war, only 48 percent had.

This is a dramatic change and one that needs to be investigated, firstly to understand why it is happening, but also so that the country can further integrate its Arab minority.

Israeli Arabs were horrified by the Hamas massacre on Oct. 7m and many have joined volunteer efforts to assist the country since. At least 24 Israeli Arabs were murdered on Oct. 7, illustrating the shared destiny and fate of Arabs and Jews in Israel.

One casualty was Awad Dawarshe, a paramedic in his 20s who was on shift that morning at the Nova music festival. He refused to evacuate, telling people that he needed to care for the wounded and that his Arabic would save him. It didn’t.

For many Israelis, witnessing Arab citizens embrace a deeper connection with the state fulfills a long-held aspiration for inclusivity and unity. However, the government’s response under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu falls short, lacking proactive engagement. Instead of embracing this dramatic change, the government is doing almost no outreach and making no effort to increase cooperation. Instead, it appears to be actively disenfranchising Arabs with decisions like the one Netanyahu took on Monday to limit Arab access to the Temple Mount during the holy month of Ramadan, which starts March 10.

Instead, the government should be actively supporting integration, highlighting activists who are working toward it. There should be more done to encourage Israeli-Arab youth to commit to national service. This does not have to be in the IDF, but there are myriad opportunities within civil society, in NGOs, that can really make a difference.

Failure to capitalize on this transformative moment would have far-reaching consequences. A responsible government would seize the chance to bridge divides and work to advance the integration of Israeli Arabs into the wider society, safeguarding Israel’s future for all its citizens. Israel risks squandering this chance, a mistake with potentially grave consequences for us all.

Yaakov Katz is a senior fellow at JPPI, a global think tank for the Jewish people, and the author of Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power and Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

Uncommon Knowledge Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

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