Within days of Hamas’s massacre last month that left 1,400 people dead in Israel, a gas station near the southern city of Be’er Sheva was packed with Israeli soldiers. Convoys of beaten-up military jeeps were zigzagging in and out of the pump terminals, and the roadside cafe had stopped taking civilian orders, trying to reserve all available stock for troops preparing for the first ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in just under a decade. In the parking lot, Israelis manned a makeshift booth offering falafel to passing soldiers, playing patriotic songs. The gas station workers, meanwhile, leaned on stock pallets in a shaded corner—four Bedouins speaking to each other in broken Hebrew with thick Arab accents, staring out into a nation not quite their own on the brink of war. They must have been terrified of outing themselves as Arabs.
By the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, there were roughly 156,000 Palestinians who found themselves within what became the official borders of the state of Israel. Almost overnight, they had morphed into citizens of Israel. As of 2020, they number almost 2 million (including East Jerusalem Palestinians who hold permanent resident status), comprising about 20 percent of Israel’s population. They had evaded exile, but their initial relations to the state were marred by resentment and confusion: Many had relatives settled in tent cities in neighboring Arab countries, and large swaths of their former agricultural lands had been expropriated. Almost two decades would pass until these Arab towns in Israel would be released from military rule.
Arab citizens began from a point of severe disadvantage. Much of the Palestinian population lived in farming communities with lower levels of literacy. On top of this, there were deep feelings of resentment associated with the establishment of Israel and the new necessity of navigating it in what then was the enemy tongue.
More than half a century later, these Arabs are intimately embedded in the fabric of Israeli life. All signs indicate that, over time, socioeconomic gaps have narrowed. Scarcely a single sector can function without Arab labor. Schooling and the domestic life of Arab Israelis are still largely conducted in Arabic, and members of this population tend to gain fluency in Hebrew only upon entering higher education. In academia, most material is taught in Hebrew, and then, in most professions, Arab Israelis invariably sit alongside Israeli Jews on a daily basis.
A degree of accommodation and understanding has formed, and as far as many Israelis are concerned, this is the gold standard of coexistence. Arabs, however, continue to face discrimination and hardship—along with their own internal divisions.
“What am I? Too Israeli for the Palestinians and too Palestinian for the Israelis. Our identity is no identity, and we are born into confusion,” said Huda, an office worker who lives in the northern town of Kafr Yasif (she did not want her last name used because she is scared of reprisal).
Huda is a Christian Arab. Christians make up 1.9 percent of the Israeli population, while Muslims comprise 18 percent, and Druze, 1.6 percent.
This confused identity becomes more acute during times of war. “Unlike Israeli Jews, I hear the screams of Palestinians in my mother tongue and I understand them,” she said. “And yet, here, understanding them amounts to sympathizing with them.” (Interviews with Arab Israelis for this piece were conducted in Arabic and Hebrew, depending on the subject’s personal preference.)
Since the outbreak of the war, at least 110 Arab Israelis have been arrested for speech-related offenses, according to Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel. Separately, the group said 100 complaints have been filed against Arab Israeli students, 74 have been summoned for disciplinary hearings, and three students have been expelled.
Abed Samara, head of the Hasharon Hospital cardiac ICU in central Israel, was suspended from work for a Facebook post published roughly two years ago featuring a green flag with religious writing in Arabic and a dove symbolizing peace, along with a short text in Arabic that included the word “martyr.” The color green is traditionally associated with Islam. Samara said the flag was mistaken for the Hamas flag and the post was deeply misconstrued. “No one even bothered to consult me about any of this,” he said in an interview given to Hebrew-language media.
Dalal Abu Amneh, a popular singer and neuroscientist, was arrested and held in solitary confinement for two nights for posting a Palestinian flag with the caption, “There is no victor except for that of God.” These are just two examples of Arab Israelis who have had their reputations ruined after the events of early October—despite the fact that a recent poll showed at least 80 percent of Israel’s Arab population to be categorically against the massacre.
Fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza does not usually trigger violence between Arabs and Jews in Israel. But it did the last time Israel and Hamas fought a war in May 2021. Among the attacks on Jewish Israelis, synagogues were torched and hundreds of homes were looted—many of them in and around mixed Arab-Jewish cities.
The incident shook Israel enough that its military a few months later staged an exercise simulating scenarios of “domestic unrest” for the first time since the Second Intifada. On Oct. 4, just three days before the massacre, an Israeli headline featured talks among police officials to loosen open-fire protocols. As of Oct. 26, that motion has been set forth for voting in the Knesset and comes as Israel is especially attuned to signs of sympathy for Hamas among Arab Israeli citizens.
“I woke up that Saturday, saw footage of the massacres, and my first thought was: We’re done for,” said Hamada Mahamid, a 30-year-old Hebrew teacher from the Arab Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, the third-largest Arab Israeli city and part of a cluster of exclusively Muslim towns and cities bordering the Green Line. “It was clear to all of us that this is no joke: People are holed up in their homes, my friends have stopped going to work, and we are even reluctant to chat over the phone,” he said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Arab Israeli politicians, who currently number 10 of 120 members of the Knesset. Even those who have generally assumed staunch positions against Israeli military operations in Palestinian territories, such as Ahmad Tibi, have urged their populations to keep a level head and avoid any actions that may risk their standing in Israel.
Hosni Sadeq, a restaurant owner from the Arab Israeli city of Tira, said he feels betrayed. Even during the quietest periods, a stabbing attempt on the other side of the country would leave his restaurant empty on the busiest day of the week—which tends to be Saturday, when Jews stream into the local marketplace for shopping and authentic Arab food. “Not only do I have to speak their language and never with a single mistake, but I have to forget my origins and never speak a word about their enemies,” he said.
For Huda, war exposes the wedge between the two peoples living on a single slice of land, which each side claims as its own. “We are not actually friends,” she said. “We exchange laughs at work, but when war breaks out, each rushes back into his own camp.”
Crime rates in Arab Israeli towns have skyrocketed in recent years. The Israeli police blame a lack of cooperation from Arab citizens for the inability to reverse the trend, but Arabs often cite a lack of initiative on the part of the authorities. “Just like in America, but a little different,” Mahamid said. “Here, no one cares when Arabs kill Arabs—if anything, it serves the state well.” Israeli politicians often refer to the danger of Arab violence seeping into Jewish communities— which Tibi called “condescending,” as it paints the Arab community as the “backyard” of Israel, where “anything can happen.”
Indeed, several months ago, Israeli Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai was heard on a leaked voice recording shrugging off the endemic violence, in a conversation with right-wing extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister. “There is nothing that can be done,” Shabtai said, according to reports. “They kill each other. That is their nature. That is the mentality of the Arabs.”
Now, as the Knesset is being called to vote on loosening open-fire protocols, calls among Israeli Jews to establish armed community-watch squadrons, and Arab officers in the police force languishing at just above 5 percent, Arabs are convinced that the police will never truly be on their side. Many have begun rethinking plans for the future.
Mahamid, who plans to marry in a couple of months, is for the first time looking into immigration options.
“The last decade of quiet is dead and gone—everyone knows it, even though some deny it,” Mahamid told me, echoing the words of Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, who, referring to Hamas in a recent address, said that “all of the terms of the past are gone and have dissipated.” Hanegbi’s words apply as much to homeland security as to the Israeli social fabric, which many Arab Israelis believe has been irreparably damaged.
“I condemn the massacre. I retched at the sight of what Hamas did. And I condemn the ceaseless bombing of innocent Gazans. If the Israelis didn’t know in advance about the massacre, how would the 2 million Gazans have known?” Mahamid said. “But when this is all said and done, we are going to be left alone with them here on the interior.”
Survivors of the massacre tend to note two things in recalling the horrors of that fateful Saturday: the sound of gunfire and the sound of Arabic. Almost every reference to that day includes a reference to the Arabic language, which as of 2018 was downgraded from an “official language” of Israel to one of “special status.” This shift came in the nation-state law, a controversial measure from the political right that sought to reaffirm Israel’s role as the “national homeland of the Jewish people” and left Arabs wondering what exactly they have been working toward over the last several decades.
“Canada is looking good at the moment,” Mahamid told me. “I can’t speak a lick of English, but I’d now prefer to babble than take my chances in Arabic on the Israeli street.”
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