Israel’s Biggest Challenge: Integrating its Arab Minority

It is late, but not too late, for the government to address the task of integrating Israel’s Arabs.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on April 6, 2010.)

One of these days it will dawn on Israeli politicians that the foremost challenge the country faces, more serious than the peace process with its neighbors, is integrating its large Arab minority into the fabric of society. It is apparent that as successive governments ignore this challenge and many of the country’s Arab citizens become increasingly alienated from the State of Israel, the situation is getting more difficult as the years go by.

Every once in a while an alarm bell rings. We get a wake-up call, but our politicians, stirred from their torpor momentarily, go back to dealing with the seemingly urgent problem. The urgent first and the important later has been the strategy of Israeli governments for many years.

The latest alarm bell sounded last week during demonstrations in Sakhnin, when some demonstrators carried portraits of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Imad Mughniyeh, two of Israel’s most prominent enemies, responsible for the death of hundreds of Israelis. Still fresh in our memory are the Arab riots of October 2000. The Orr Commission, which investigated these occurrences, pointed a finger at the Islamic Movement’s northern branch and its leader, Sheikh Raed Salah.

The commission said in its report that “Sheikh Salah was responsible in the period before October 2000 for the repeated relaying of messages encouraging the use of violence … messages that negated the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel, presenting the state as an enemy.” There were also messages claiming that a massacre had been planned at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on September 29, 2000. The report concluded that Salah had made “a substantial contribution to provoking tempers and the violent and widespread outburst that took place in the Arab sector at the end of October 2000.”

No punitive action was taken against Salah and he has continued his pernicious activities, including his annual mass meetings in Umm-al-Fahm under the slogan that “Al-Aqsa is in danger.” His movement has made serious inroads among the Bedouin population in the Negev, preaching hostility against the State of Israel and calling on Bedouin youth not to volunteer for service in the Israel Defense Forces. Salah’s most recent activity was his incitement to riot in Jerusalem.

All evidence points to the fact that the Islamic Movement’s northern branch is a subversive movement whose aim is the destruction of the State of Israel. Yet it has been permitted to spread its poisonous propaganda, exploiting Israel’s democracy, which it vilifies and seeks to destroy. The government’s neglect of the Arab sector leaves fertile ground for those dedicated to preaching hostility toward Israel. So far no measures have been taken to restrain the northern branch’s dangerous activity, even though there seems to be full justification to declare its activities illegal. What is the reason for the seeming impotence of the Israeli legal system in this matter?

One should not underestimate the negative effect that such inaction is having on Israel’s Arab citizens. Many interpret it as a sign that anyone can feel free to engage in anti-Israeli activity and that the state finds no reason to actively discourage it, or is incapable of doing so. Arab citizens who have moderate views and do not identify with Israel’s enemies feel increasingly isolated, as the Islamic extremists seem to be capturing the mainstream of Israeli Arab society. This is happening while the Bedouin in the south, for years neglected by the government, easily fall prey to the preaching of radical Islam.

The government seems to show little interest in Israel’s Arab citizens, who represent nearly one-fifth of the country’s population. Rarely does a cabinet member or the prime minister visit Arab towns and villages. Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman’s proposal to grant financial assistance to some Arab municipalities represents a modest beginning in dealing with the challenge of integrating Israel’s Arab citizens into society.

But this only scratches the surface. Should the government seriously consider the subject, it must adopt a two-pronged policy. It needs a long-term program that will benefit Israel’s Arab citizens, one that would include improving Arab schools, affirmative action for the Arab community in employment, incentives for doing military and national service, and an emergency program to deal with the Negev Bedouin, the most disadvantaged sector of Israeli society. At the same time, legal measures need to be taken against seditious and subversive organizations preaching violence and support for Israel’s enemies. It is late, but not too late.

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