Even a short recent visit to Ahmad Tibi’s Knesset office leaves little question about where the veteran MK’s allegiance lies vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
His desk and bookshelf are lined with photographs of Tibi with his late mentor, Palestinian icon Yasser Arafat.
Tibi discusses current events in clear “we” and “they” terms. To him, “we” are the Palestinians, fighting the injustice of the Israeli state.
Rushing into his office in the middle of a busy day in parliament, Tibi has no time for small talk before launching into a frontal attack about the “hypocrisy” of Jewish society in Israel. He sidesteps a question about the appearance of Hamas flags at a recent demonstration in Jaffa, and when asked to discuss the silence of Palestinian society in the face of the recent wave of terror against Jews, Tibi says only that the issue serves to highlight the differences between the two societies.
“The only reason Israelis were upset about the Dawabsheh murders (an arson attack in the West Bank that killed three members of one family on July 31) was because settlers did it. If they had been killed by the army, no one would have even known about the attack, let alone denounce it,” he asserts to The Jerusalem Report.
When pushed to address the more recent spate of attacks, Tibi points out that he furiously denounced the 2011 slaughter of the Fogel family, in the settlement of Itamar, from the Knesset rostrum, but eventually he admits that there is a strong degree of sympathy on the Arab street in Israel for Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians.
“We can disagree on methods of struggle,” he says. “There are many different views and opinions. We, as the leadership, feel that our struggle must be waged on the public and political levels. That’s why we denounced the October 20 terror attack at the Beersheba bus station, which was committed by a Beduin citizen. Citizens must not use weapons. That’s why we issued a denunciation, in the name of the Joint Arab List.” The Negev Beduin leadership also unequivocally condemned the terror attack by a Beduin citizen.
“It is different in the occupied territories. I think the most optimal way is popular, nonviolent resistance. That’s the best way,” concludes Tibi.
In contrast to Tibi’s Balad Party, which advocates the dismantling of the Jewish state in favor of a “state of all its citizens,” MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, has made a name for himself as a voice for coexistence and Arab integration into Israeli society.
He has been outspoken about the need for a Palestinian state, but also about encouraging Israeli Arabs to fight for and maximize their civil rights as a minority population in Israel.
However, instead of acting to ramp down tensions, Odeh has called on Arab Israelis to “defend” al-Aqsa mosque – the heart of the conflict over control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
He has backed fellow Joint List MK Jamal Zahalka, who verbally assaulted Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount during the Sukkot holiday, calling them “crazy criminals. You’re all Kahanists, fascists, racists. Get out of here, you hurt Muslims.”
Sitting in his Knesset office two weeks after that incident, Odeh is personable and warm, and appears to reject Palestinian assertions that Jews have no historic ties to Jerusalem or the Temple Mount.
“We have to move the discussion about the Haram al-Sharif [Temple Mount] to the political realm and away from the religious one,” he tells The Report. “Not only because this does justice to the real core issue at hand, Israel’s occupation, but also to be effective.
“The conflict is a national, political one, not a religious one. Politically, the whole world is in favor of the 1967 lines, including East Jerusalem. But when we talk about religion? Many Western ears rightly recognize Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, etcetera, as part of the Jewish and Christian religious heritage, but forget they are also holy to Muslims.
And, at any rate, it is important to turn the discussion from Muslim-Jewish to occupied-occupier. When narrowly arguing on religious grounds, we lose the big picture, and Palestinians are thus in a weaker position,” he says.
Ultimately, Odeh says the crux of the Israel-Palestinian dilemma is psychological, and that the way for both sides to create bilateral confidence is on that level. To that end, he calls on Israel to rebuild Palestinian villages abandoned in 1948 – on condition that Israeli families do not live in them now – and to acknowledge that Palestinians view Israel’s War of Independence as the Nakba [catastrophe]. Both issues, he says, would go a long way toward reducing tensions with the Arab community.
“Listen, I’m a practical man. If there are Jews living in abandoned homes, I’ll be the first person to protest if the government wanted to kick them out.
You don’t correct one historic injustice by creating a new one.
“What would the state lose by rebuilding villages that are just abandoned? If you tell me that a particular highway must pass through this village, I’ll say OK, let’s find another solution. But is there really no way to bring them back? We must work for a historic compromise between the Arab community and the State of Israel.
”I think a move like this would be good for all Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike. Take the issue of the Nakba – Israel is the side that looks bad by denying what happened, not the Palestinians.
Compare it to the way Germany takes responsibility for the Holocaust, in contrast to the way Turkey denies its genocide of Armenians.
“Now I am absolutely not comparing the Holocaust to the Nakba – there is nothing, nothing, nothing in human history that exists on the same plane of evil as the Holocaust, and there is no comparison to be made to that horror.
But Germany took responsibility, and the nations of the world respect them for doing so. On the other hand, Turkey continues to deny that a genocide even happened in Armenia a century ago, and they look foolish.
“So, yes, there is a lot of fear, I get that. But by taking responsibility – that’s the way you build joint citizenship.
And you have nothing to lose – you’ll only gain, morally and economically.
You only have to open your mind and walk together,” he says.
Not that Odeh and Tibi necessarily represent the majority of Arab views in Israel. While the current Knesset boasts a record 16 Arab members (13 belonging to the Joint List), there are also growing signs that Arab citizens of Israel are unhappy with the elected officials who purport to represent them.
There is certainly no shortage of frustration on the Arab street in Israel over the country’s failure to address infrastructure, education and crime issues in the Arab sector. Israeli Arabs are also affected by being exposed to massive doses of Palestinian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, which reject the legitimacy of a Jewish state in any part of “historic Palestine.”
Despite this, there are growing signs that Arab citizens feel let down by the national leadership. On social and traditional media networks, an increasing number of Arab leaders and opinion makers accuse political and religious leaders of fomenting mistrust and hatred with the Jewish majority.
Perhaps the most public of these calls have come from Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam. Last year, at the height of the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge and during the aftermath of anti-Jewish rioting at several flash points in the Arab sector, Salam slammed Arab Knesset Members, accusing the latter of “sending young people out to demonstrate” but then disappearing when the community is forced to pay the price of having clashed with police.
More recently, Salam told Odeh to “get out of Nazareth” during a demonstration in mid-October, and added that the members of the Arab List are “ruining coexistence” by encouraging violent protests.
Lucy Aharish, an Arab news anchor on Channel 2 TV, recently blasted the community’s silence in the face of terrorist murders. “Even if the status quo on the Temple Mount has been broken – which it hasn’t,” Aharish said, “does that allow someone to go and murder someone else because of a sacred place? … What God are they speaking of? One that allows children to go out and murder innocent people? “What woman puts on a hijab and prays to God, then takes a knife out and tries to stab innocent people?” Aharish fumed.
Extremist views are held by a tiny minority of Palestinian Israelis, says Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. The majority, he says, look around the region and understand full well the benefits that come along with Israeli citizenship.
“Jews look at the Arab community and think that everybody is the same – that we all hate the State of Israel, that we all support terrorism, et cetera,” he tells The Report. “But it isn’t true.
Yes, I’m sorry to say that a very small number of Arab Israelis do hold those views, but they aren’t a majority, and they certainly are not the only views out there.”
The numbers clearly back Abu Rass.
Civic responsibilities, such as voting, have been on the rise, from 53 percent in the 2009 election to more than 65 percent this past March. In 2003, just 230 Arab citizens volunteered for civilian national service, a number that increased 10-fold over the ensuing decade.
Currently, there are approximately 4,000 volunteers.
The same trend is apparent in employment figures. In 2008, just four percent of public sector jobs were filled by Arab citizens. Today, the number is eight percent. Arab leaders admit this is a welcome change, but still far short of the Arab percentage of the Israeli population – 20 percent.
On the other hand, poll results in the Hebrew-language Maariv daily of October 15 showed sharp divisions in Arab society on the question of what sort of political framework they would like to see. More than 40 percent of those asked said they rejected the legitimacy of Israel out of hand, while just 11 percent said they would choose to live in “Israel as it is now.” Forty- eight percent said they would like to live inside Israel within the pre- 1967 borders, alongside an independent Palestinian state.
According to Abu Rass, these numbers provide a clear answer to the question “What do Israeli Arabs want?” ‒ To integrate into Israeli society, while maintaining family and national ties with Palestinians in the West Bank and ensuring the right to protest Israeli policies in the territories.
He warns that the lack of a political outlook for Palestinians in the West Bank, continuing discrimination against Arabs in Israel, and especially what he views as an abiding racism that has taken grip of Israeli society, is driving Palestinians in Israel to the brink.
“Listen, killing civilians should not happen under any circumstances.
These murders must be condemned.
Period. [But] I am afraid that this cycle of violence will continue as long as we are not dealing with the roots of the conflict. There is no hope for the young generation, and I fear that something is going to explode. More and more escalation.
Arabs have always struggled with Israeli governments, but now we are seeing civic clashes, on a grassroots level.
“So yes, I am very worried,” Abu Rass concludes gloomily.This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report.