Palestinian in Israel

The population the government refers to as "Arab-Israeli" is increasingly embracing the term "Palestinian."

Arab-Israelis—also known as Palestinian citizens in Israel—wave Palestinian flags at a Land Day demonstration in the village of Araba in the Galilee on March 30, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)
Arab-Israelis—also known as Palestinian citizens in Israel—wave Palestinian flags at a Land Day demonstration in the village of Araba in the Galilee on March 30, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)

HAIFA, Israel—Rabea Eid has a message for you: Stop calling him Arab-Israeli.

“I don’t use the term Arab-Israeli,” said the 30-year-old journalist, who was born in the Galilee and now lives in the northern city of Haifa. “We are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. It’s very important for us, the terms and the terminology we use.”

For Eid, the term Arab-Israeli is too removed from politics. Or, as he sees it, “It puts the Arab disconnected from the Palestinian identity.”

Arab-Israeli—the official media and Israeli government term for the 20 percent of Israel’s almost 9 million citizens who are Arab-Palestinian—is increasingly unpopular among the people it’s meant to describe. Only 16 percent of this population wants to be called “Israeli Arab,” according to a 2017 survey by the University of Haifa professor Sammy Smooha provided to Foreign Policy.

“The largest now and the most growing identity is a hybrid identity, which is ‘Palestinian in Israel’” or a similar combination, Smooha said. “I think that’s what’s going to take over.”

Last summer’s adoption of the new nation-state law, which demoted the status of both the Arabic language and non-Jewish minorities in Israel, accelerated an ongoing shift in the public identity of the Palestinian population in Israel. It is a political statement to use Palestinian as a modifier—a link to cousins in the West Bank and Gaza and an identity distinct from fellow Jewish Israeli citizens.

But this shift is notable not only for semantics but also because of how it’s changing the terms of the debate. Both the Israeli and Palestinian and Arab narratives of what the conflict, and any future resolution, looks like have long sidelined the Palestinian community in Israel. Continuing to ignore this population, while relying on tired terms, is consequently perpetuating an incomplete picture of who Palestinian people are and what they want. Indeed, while many Palestinians have internalized a distinction between Arab and Palestinian, the increasingly assertive identity of Palestinians in Israel runs parallel to an ongoing reframing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a civil rights struggle, both in Israel and the occupied territories.

The term Arab-Israeli has long been used to distinguish Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. The term Palestinian on its own is most often used to describe the 2.5 million Palestinians living under the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the 1.9 million people living in blockaded Gaza ruled by the terrorist group Hamas. They have Palestinian identity cards, need permits to enter Israel, and, in the West Bank, travel using Jordanian travel documents. These groups live in the contested areas that Israel occupied after the 1967 war.

Their situation is different from that of the 350,000 Palestinian residents of disputed East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied and annexed after 1967 in a move most of the international community still rejects. East Jerusalemites can travel freely inside Israel and have access to Israeli education and health care, but they can vote only in municipal elections, not national ones. They also risk losing their residency if they live outside Jerusalem for too long. They, too, usually have Jordanian travel documents.

In contrast, Palestinian citizens of Israel—also now referred to as Palestinians inside Israel, ’48 Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Palestinian Israelis, Arab-Israelis—are part of the communities that remained inside the so-called Green Line drawn between Israel and Jordan after the 1948 war. They include Druze (a religious minority), Bedouins, Christians, and Muslims. This group, in theory, has the same rights as Jewish Israelis. In practice, though, they’ve long faced institutional discrimination, and about half of the population lives in poverty, the highest rate in Israel. Even the Druze, who have historically been the most integrated into Israeli society, including serving in the Israel Defense Forces, are furious that the new nation-state law targets them, too. (Among the different Druze communities, a minority is located in the occupied Golan Heights and still rejects Israeli citizenship and identifies as Syrian.)

Many Palestinians have internalized these divisions and, in everyday conversations, use “Palestinian” to refer to those in the West Bank and “Arab” to an Israeli citizen when speaking in Arabic. But the continual reassessment of how and why people identify themselves is reflective of an ongoing reframing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a civil rights struggle, both in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

“The term Palestinian seems to be one that they turn to as a way of affirming their identity in the face of an attempt to take it away from them,” said Khalil Shikaki, a well-known Palestinian pollster, who has observed this trend over the last decade. “And I think that in their current environment, after the passage of the nation-state law, this will probably become more of an issue than it was in the past.”

Eid, the journalist, lamented that for decades Palestinians inside Israel weren’t educated about their history and culture, with the poorest communities in the center and peripheries of the country particularly marginalized from any politics. Now, he said, that’s the challenge to change.

Indeed, with talk in Israel and the Palestinian territories of a two-state solution shifting now toward a one-state reality—be it either one binational state or one Jewish state where not all Palestinians have equal rights—some Palestinians inside Israel are asserting these two parts of their identity as the core of a more rights-based discourse, said Mohammed Zeidan, a TV producer and human rights advocate in Nazareth.

Zeidan described his identity as made of two elements: the first as a “natural and historical component as Palestinians” and the second “as citizens of Israel.”

“The challenge is that we have to … try to find a way to represent our identity with the two components,” he said. “We are part of the Palestinian people that for a long time was forgotten, both by Palestinian institutions and [by] Israel and the international community.”

For decades, Shikaki and his teams have been polling the opinions of Palestinians and Israelis, and he said that until now the term Arab-Israeli has been used in polls to distinguish from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as it is the conventional way. But he said he’s also seeing more and more people oppose the older names when they respond to this framing.

“This is an issue that is gradually becoming more and more of an issue because of certain sensitivities that are emerging as Israeli Arabs become more interested in their own national issues,” said Shikaki, including the right to self-identify as they like.

Smooha, the professor, noted that people who use the term Arab-Israeli often do so precisely because they don’t want to be seen as too political.

“Palestinian today is the enemy of the state, the enemy of the Jews,” he said of a sentiment that has been true since Israel’s founding but that far-right politicians in Israel’s government today gain support for saying. “It doesn’t mean that they don’t see themselves as Palestinian. But they don’t want to use a provocative identity. … [They are] Arabs who would like to be accommodating and don’t want to be identified as too radical, so they shy away from Palestinian.”

The growing number that is choosing to publicly self-identify differently is doing so “despite the fact that this Palestinian identity is considered [as] subversive by the state,” Smooha said.

Indeed, one significant finding of Smooha’s data is not simply that Arab-Israeli is an unpopular option but rather that more people are rejecting the Israeli part of the identity all together. Since 2003, about 30 percent of respondents have reported that they prefer the term “Palestinian Arab in Israel.” But while in 2003 just 3.7 percent said they prefer the term “Palestinian Arab” (which doesn’t reference their Israeli component at all), in 2017 that number rose to 17 percent.

There are, of course, those who are proud of the term Arab-Israeli and have risen to some of the highest echelons of society, including the Supreme Court. But in Ramla, a poor and crime-ridden city in the center of Israel, residents such as Samira, a 42-year-old mother of seven who declined to give her last name to speak frankly, don’t see these possibilities.

Samira strongly identifies as Palestinian. But she doesn’t vote or have faith in politicians, not even those from the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties in the Israeli parliament. Her biggest concern? She doesn’t feel safe going outside after dark—and no one cares because she’s an Arab woman.

“We are not here nor there,” she said. “They [outsiders] think the ’48 [Arabs] live so well. We are poor! In the West Bank, they think that we ’48 Arabs are like Jews. … And here the Jews say we are Arabs.”

Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. Twitter: @miriamaberger