Israeli Arabs and our moral compass

Muslim and Jewish women walk past one of the newly installed metal detectors in the Old City (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Muslim and Jewish women walk past one of the newly installed metal detectors in the Old City
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The news that Nashat Milhem, an Israeli Arab, killed three Israeli citizens and escaped capture for a week with the help of numerous Israeli Arab citizens does not bode well for the status of positive relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis. When we add the recent revelation that Israeli Arabs from east Jerusalem were conspiring with Hamas members in Hebron to kidnap and murder Israelis, the possibility of coexistence becomes even more difficult to imagine.
Without question, security must be the number one priority for Israel, and this reality tends to corner the Jewish population into suspecting all Arabs as potential attackers. But the words of three Israeli Arabs this week in the midst of the search for Milhem remind us not to fall into that trap, and should force all of us into thinking about the difficult situation faced by moderate Arab Israelis seeking to live in co-existence with Jewish Israelis.
One Israeli Arab voice in the news this week was Juadat Milhem, brother of the murderer of two Jews and one Druze in Tel Aviv on Friday January 1. Juadat was arrested and questioned after police suspected that the family had information and possible involvement in Nashat’s escape following the brutal killings. Upon his release and clearance from having any involvement in his brother’s actions, Juadat broke down in tears and said the following on television directed at his brother: “He should think of his siblings, his mother, his father. He should look at how we are looking... No one can believe it. He should look – we are all in trauma... and we are sorry for what happened.”
Those last few words, along with the pure emotion which Judat displayed, touched me deeply. Yes, his father and others may have helped his brother escape, and they should pay the consequences for acting as accomplices to this act of terrorism. But this brother was clearly not involved, and was emotionally distraught over what was happening.
Far too often we forget about the challenges facing Israeli Arabs who have no desire for conflict, who are equally challenged dealing with the violent, extreme element in their communities, as well as the global jihad the whole world is facing.
Juadat’s face and tears made it clear that all he wants to do is live his life as an Israeli Arab in Israel, and now his brother’s act of terrorism has dragged him into a world that he wants no part of.
Then came Mazen Qaq, a resident of east Jerusalem who heads the merchants’ committee in the Old City. He offered NIS 40,000 for anyone who could provide information that would help locate Nashat Milhem. He told the media that he sees himself as an Arab Israeli and not as Palestinian, and that this terrorist “acted against Israeli citizens, and I won’t allow someone like him to destroy trust and security. We’re cousins. We need to forget this nonsense about Arabs and Jews. We are all human beings; no matter what your religion is, we are one people.
We give you a hand, you help us and we help you. I invite everyone to come and visit Jerusalem. We want to live in peace, hand in hand.”
The merchants in the Old City have been hurt by the recent wave of violence, with reports of revenues decreasing by 70 percent, and with an estimated loss of NIS 15 million for Arab merchants. Many of them, like Mazen, want no part of this conflict, and simply want to live freely and support their families as Israeli Arabs under Israeli sovereignty. As long as we remain aware of Israeli Arabs like Mazen, Israeli Jews cannot lose their moral compass, as happened on the Aegean Airlines flight from Athens to Tel Aviv last week.
Passengers on that flight demanded that Israeli Arabs be removed despite their passing in-depth security checks. Nor can we allow ourselves to act like the passengers on the No. 129 bus from Petah Tikva to Tel Aviv, who demanded that an elderly Arab man who was mumbling to himself in Arabic be removed from the bus, even after the driver determined that the man did not pose a security threat. We must always make sure that we treat Israeli Arabs precisely the way we would treat Israeli Jews: if they are a threat to our security, then we act with caution and take action when necessary; if they pose no threat, then we are equals.
And this brings me to MK Ahmad Tibi.
When I was a member of Knesset, Tibi said things in committees and in the plenum which infuriated me, and I found myself engaged in one-on-one debates with him more than once. I continue to believe that many of his statements and actions do a disservice to the Israeli Arab population. But he said something last week in the Knesset’s Interior and Environmental Affairs Committee which led me to think more about the plight of Israeli Arabs.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told the committee that there had been 2,500 cases of weapons violations in the Arab sector over the past two years. He said the government would now open additional police stations in the Arab areas, enlist more police officers from the Arab sector, and increase their monitoring of illegal weapons in the Arab neighborhoods. MK Tibi responded to the minister, saying: “1,100 people have been murdered in the [Arab] sector since 2000 as a result of criminal activity, but the government began to take an interest in illegal guns in Arab society only in response to last Friday’s terrorist shooting in Tel Aviv. When weapons from Wadi Ara are aimed at residents [there], you didn’t hear about it. When the weapon is aimed at Jews in Tel Aviv, the entire state is furious.”
Likud MK David Bitan angered the Arab MKs when he argued that there was no way for Israeli police to deal with the situation because they are attacked when they enter Arab areas. While it is true that it is more difficult for Israeli police to operate in Arab areas, MK Tibi’s point that we are only doing something after Jews were killed resonated with me. If we are willing to take the risk of engaging those areas because Jewish citizens are being killed, we should have been willing to take that risk to protect moderate Israeli Arabs. And in this, we failed.
I visited Arab villages during my tenure as an MK in the 19th Knesset. I listened to their fears, frustrations, concerns, struggles and needs. It is not easy for the most moderate of Arabs to live in a Jewish state – their national anthem describes 2,000 years of Jewish aspirations to return to this land; their state flag is a Jewish star with the stripes of a Jewish prayer shawl. When we add the lack of adequate infrastructure in their villages, that their schools do not receive all the funding they need to succeed, that the moderate voices among them are squashed by the extremist forces, and that many Israelis do fear interaction and employment of Arabs because of security fears, life for Israeli Arabs is quite difficult.
But they would rather live in Israel than any other country in the Middle East! Israel can be proud of the fact that it is the only country in the Middle East in which Arabs have free, democratic rights. We, in Israel, can be proud that while we call ourselves a Jewish state, we also provide equal rights for minorities including Arabs. The government’s recent decision to invest NIS 15 billion in the Arab sector demonstrates our commitment to improving the quality of life for Israeli Arabs.
There is no doubt that as long as Israeli Arabs continue to attack Israeli Jews, we must act to protect ourselves. But Juadat Milhem, Mazen Qaq and MK Tibi reminded me again that the Israeli Jewish majority must remain sensitive to ensure that Israeli Arabs who embrace the difficult reality of living in a Jewish state – their country of choice – truly have equal rights and opportunities.
The writer was a member of the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid Party. He currently serves as director of the department of Zionist operations for the World Zionist Organization. This column reflects his own opinions and not necessarily those of the WZO.