The Middle East Channel

Israel’s wake-up call

Ten years ago this week, Israel narrowly avoided an internal uprising by its Palestinian-Arab minority. Next time it might not be so lucky. On Friday, thousands of Arab citizens of Israel marched to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the ‘events of October 2000,’ demonstrations were held in many Arab towns and villages, and a general ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Ten years ago this week, Israel narrowly avoided an internal uprising by its Palestinian-Arab minority. Next time it might not be so lucky. On Friday, thousands of Arab citizens of Israel marched to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the ‘events of October 2000,' demonstrations were held in many Arab towns and villages, and a general strike for the day was declared by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, the de facto representative of Israel's Arab minority. For the Arab community, the events of a decade ago are an unhealed wound. For Israel, they are a reminder of the risks it runs by neglecting and discriminating against its Arab citizens.

In October 2000, as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza launched their ‘al-Aqsa Intifada' in anger and frustration over the failures of the Oslo peace process, Arabs in Israel were on the verge of unleashing their own Intifada. For ten days, they staged massive demonstrations throughout Israel, blocked roads, burned tires, and set fire to shops and buildings. Just like their counterparts in the Occupied Territories, some young Arab protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at passing cars, and at police vehicles and policemen. In response, the Israeli police fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and even live ammunition. 13 protesters (12 Israeli citizens plus one Gazan) were shot and killed by the police, and many more were injured.

Ten years ago this week, Israel narrowly avoided an internal uprising by its Palestinian-Arab minority. Next time it might not be so lucky. On Friday, thousands of Arab citizens of Israel marched to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the ‘events of October 2000,’ demonstrations were held in many Arab towns and villages, and a general strike for the day was declared by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, the de facto representative of Israel’s Arab minority. For the Arab community, the events of a decade ago are an unhealed wound. For Israel, they are a reminder of the risks it runs by neglecting and discriminating against its Arab citizens.

In October 2000, as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza launched their ‘al-Aqsa Intifada’ in anger and frustration over the failures of the Oslo peace process, Arabs in Israel were on the verge of unleashing their own Intifada. For ten days, they staged massive demonstrations throughout Israel, blocked roads, burned tires, and set fire to shops and buildings. Just like their counterparts in the Occupied Territories, some young Arab protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at passing cars, and at police vehicles and policemen. In response, the Israeli police fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and even live ammunition. 13 protesters (12 Israeli citizens plus one Gazan) were shot and killed by the police, and many more were injured.

The ‘events of October 2000′, as they became known, should have been a wake-up call for Israel. They were much more than just an expression of solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. They were also a protest against the inequality and discrimination that members of the Arab minority experience in Israel. The alienation, frustration, and discontent that many Arab citizens of Israel had long felt finally boiled over into anger and violence. 

Ten years later, little has changed for Israel’s Arab minority. If anything, their situation has only worsened as they have increasingly become the object of public suspicion and the target of political demagoguery (particularly by Avigdor Lieberman and his colleagues in Yisrael Beiteinu, who have introduced a slew of ‘loyalty bills’ and other anti-Arab legislation in Israel’s parliament). Although a state commission of inquiry (the Orr Commission) was established to investigate the October 2000 events and its report explicitly identified the discrimination faced by Arab citizens as one of the fundamental causes of the events (along with the behavior of the police and incitement by Arab leaders), this discrimination continues unabated. Arab municipalities, for instance, are still under-funded compared to predominantly Jewish ones, and Arabs continue to face numerous restrictions on where they can live and build homes. Nor have the socio-economic gaps between Jews and Arabs been narrowed. In fact, in recent years they have actually widened in many respects–according to the latest report by the Israeli NGO Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, official government data shows that between 2006-2008 the gaps between Arabs and Jews increased in the fields of welfare, health, employment and housing. While Israeli policy-makers have paid lip service to ending discrimination against Arabs and have announced some initiatives to promote Arab economic development in Israel, they have not given these issues sufficient attention and resources.  

The failure of successive Israeli governments since the October 2000 events to address the longstanding grievances of the Arab minority in any serious and sustained manner has further increased their disaffection. Despairing over the prospects for an improvement in their status within Israel, more and more Arabs in Israel have adopted hard-line political views and goals. This is apparent on both the elite and popular levels. The rhetoric of Arab leaders has become more strident and combative, and Arab public opinion has also become more radical. 

A major manifestation of this change in Arab attitudes over the last decade has been the growing trend of boycotting or at least not participating in Israeli elections. 62 percent of the Arab electorate voted in the 2003 parliamentary elections; this dropped to 56 percent in the 2006 elections and further declined to a mere 54 percent in the 2009 elections–which was the lowest Arab turnout ever in a Knesset election, and it amounted to a decline of 22 percent compared to the Arab turnout ten years earlier. Although the Israeli-Jewish participation rate has also declined (68 percent of Israeli Jews voted in the 2003 elections and in 2006 that dropped to 63 percent), this has much more to do with widespread political apathy among Israeli Jews; whereas for Arabs, it is their feeling of being politically marginalized and disempowered that has led growing numbers to not vote in Israeli elections.

This withdrawal from parliamentary politics by much of the Arab minority is potentially very dangerous for Israel. As Arab citizens ‘exit’ the Israeli political system, the risk of civil disobedience and/or large-scale violent protest increases. This risk is exacerbated by the emergence of a younger generation of Arabs in Israel. These youth, many of whom are socially deprived and marginalized, could well be less reluctant than earlier generations to protest their second-class status in Israel through confrontational and politically challenging means. This could include mass demonstrations, ongoing protests, and large-scale civil disobedience, along the lines of the first Palestinian intifada. Some might even adopt violence and terrorism. 

Could Arabs in Israel carry out their own internal Intifada? Though some discount this possibility on the grounds that the Arab minority simply has too much to lose, especially economically (Arabs already paid a stiff economic price for the events of October 2000 as Israeli Jews stopped visiting Arab towns and villages to shop and eat), Israel cannot afford to be complacent. Protests can escalate, demonstrations can turn violent, and events can easily spiral out of control. When a large minority is angry and excluded, domestic peace and stability is always in danger. This danger is especially acute in Israel’s case because of the linkage that exists between its Arab minority and Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. The continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensifies the anger of the Arab minority in Israel, while fueling Israeli-Jewish mistrust of them. This is clearly a highly combustible mix.

The tenth anniversary of the protests and riots of October 2000 should serve as a stark warning of the dangers that may lie ahead if Israel does not do a better of job of accommodating the legitimate needs and aspirations of its Arab minority. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Israel should no longer be a Jewish state, as some argue. Rather, the issue is what kind of Jewish state Israel can be? Can it become a Jewish
state in which its Arab citizens (and other non-Jews) are also truly equal, included and respected? Or will it continue to neglect, exclude, and discriminate against its Arab citizens? This choice is as decisive for the country’s future as any that it faces in the peace process.  

Dov Waxman is an associate professor in political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author, with Ilan Peleg, of the forthcoming book Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press).  

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