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At-Home with Gila Svirsky

Woman and young boys throwing stones in Kfar Darom - photo from

18 October 2000
Subject: On Violence by Israeli Arabs


There has been much criticism, even among those in the peace camp, of the Israeli Arab community inside Israel.

I found the following article, though longish, to be the most informative about this matter, and written by someone in a position to know.

Gila Svirsky


October 16, 2000:

Dear Friends,

The violence that has engulfed Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the past two weeks has taken its toll. Close to 100 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 7 Israeli Jews have been killed, religious sites have been desecrated, and personal and government property has been destroyed.

Although all of us are dismayed by the degree of violence and anger that have erupted on all sides, I am writing to you specifically to share my thoughts on the violence within Israel, and the confrontations between the Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. As founder and director of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development (CJAED), I have worked over the last 15 years to promote cooperation and equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. From this vantage point I would like to share my understanding of the underlying basis for the recent violence, to give you my sense of what is happening behind the news stories and to examine the ramifications of these events for the future of Israeli society and for our part in shaping it.

The events of past weeks have been shocking, revealing the ease with which the veneer of “co-existence” can be shattered. Yet, as Uri Pinkerfeld, previous secretary general of Kibbutz Artzi and one of the founders of CJAED, remarked, “When you are sitting on a powder keg, is it really so surprising when it blows up?”

In many ways the events of the past weeks are reminiscent of the riots in Watts, Los Angeles and the subsequent shock as Americans recognized the depth of Blacks’ rage against White America. White-owned (in many cases Jewish-owned) stores were looted and burned. The riots marked a transition from the era of Martin Luther King where blacks and whites cooperated in fighting racism to the era led by Malcolm X’s Black Power, when whites were not as welcome in the fight for liberation.

Within Israel, Arab citizens are mounting a social challenge within the context of renewed religious and nationalist identification.

I would like to share my sense of what we need to understand and examine — beyond the shocking outpouring of violence by both Arab and Jewish young people. For the violence — condemnable as it is — is also a cry to examine, with bold honesty, the basis for joint citizenship of Palestinians and Jews in Israel.

Why did this violence erupt now, when the possibility for a final, comprehensive peace accord seemed imminent?

It happened now precisely because we are so close to reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It is a cataclysmic time for everyone. Israel is on the verge of giving back land in order to establish a Palestinian state next to Israel. That is frightening to many Israeli Jews.

For Israeli Arabs, the likely possibility of a Palestinian state has provoked deep questions of identity and national belonging. Arabs living within Israel feel deeply torn, between national sentiments and feelings of solidarity with Palestinians in the PA and the reality of their lives as Israeli citizens.

In addition, there is tremendous disappointment, frustration and feelings of betrayal in the Arab sector toward Barak and his government. In 1999 over 97% of the Israeli Arab population voted for Barak. (Even Hafez el Asad did not receive a higher percentage of the vote in Syria when he ran as the only candidate!)

These Israeli Arab constituents expected that Barak would reward this support with attention to the real problems plaguing the Arab sector. They expected to see greater budget allocations, initiatives to increase employment of Israeli Arabs in the public sector and inclusion of Arab politicians in the government coalition. None of these hopes materialized. Israeli Arabs — per capita — continue to receive only 2/3 of the budget allocations received by Israeli Jews. Israeli Arabs continue to make up less than 4% of government employees. Barak has been almost inaccessible to Arab leaders seeking to meet with him and has generally ignored the existence and needs of Arab communities in public action and speeches.

What fears sparked the violence and what fears were generated by the violence?

The fact of violence spreading across the Green Line fueled Jewish fears that, after giving back land, and recognizing a Palestinian State, Israel will face a situation in which the Palestinian citizens of the state will stage a revolution from within. Either through violent conflict — as we saw in Jaffa and in the Gush Segev area of the Galilee — or through whittling away the Jewish character and symbols of the state.

Arab Knesset members have been calling over the past year and a half for the dismantling of the Jewish Agency as an institution supported by tax money. They are calling for an Israel that is a secular democratic state for all of its citizens. This demand, which raises legitimate political questions, plays into the greatest fears of Jewish Israelis.

Arab Israelis fear that after 52 years of peaceful citizenship and active participation in the nation — in factories, in universities, in the Knesset, in daily commerce — they are still not seen as a legitimate minority within the society. Rather, the Arab citizens of Israel are treated as a fifth column — always to be contained. You can be a Palestinian citizen of Israel as long as you strip yourself of your identity.

Over the last weeks, the Israeli police, who have never shot at Jewish demonstrators (although they too have blocked major roads, attacked police and burned tires), quickly turned to the use of firearms. Where were the tear gas, water cannon and other means of crowd control? Did the political leadership give the green light for the police to shoot demonstrators because they wanted forcefully to quell expressions of Palestinian nationalism and show Palestinian citizens their “place in Israeli society”?

What is the social/economic situation that fueled the violence?

The “match” that began the violence was religious and national. Seven Palestinians were killed outside Al Aqsa mosque the day Ariel Sharon visited. Later, Israeli Arabs were among the worshippers who were killed in the disturbances following Friday prayers. However, the “fuel” which fed the explosions of violence was socio-economic.

There is no question that there is deep-seated animosity between the Israeli state and its Arab citizens. The violence between the Arab Israeli and demonstrators and the Israeli police forces throughout Israel, in places such as Jaffa, Nazareth, Um El Fahm, and other northern villages, forced the Israeli public to recognize the stark reality: although they hold Israel citizenship, Arabs in Israel suffer from economic, political and social deprivation. Here are some bare facts:

  1. 28.3% of Arab Israelis live below the poverty line, compared to 14.4 % of Jews;

  2. The Ministry of Education spends nearly twice as much per Jewish child as per Arab child;

  3. Infant mortality in the Arab sector is nearly double that among Jews.

  4. The per-capita income of Israeli Arabs is half that of Israeli Jews.

  5. Since 1975 the government has built 337,000 residential housing units in the Jewish sector and 1,000 in the Arab sector.

  6. The area under jurisdiction of Arab municipalities covers about 2.5% of the State’s territory. It has barely increased, despite the fact that the Arab population has grown from about 150,000 in 1948 to almost 1 million today — almost 20% of Israel’s population.

What about the police response?

There are many indications that the response of the police in northern Israel did not reduce the violence, but escalated it.

In the Negev, there were major demonstrations by Bedouin in Rahat, Tel Sheva and other towns. Banks and other institutions were attacked and burned. Yet, no one was killed. Instead, the Southern District police commander, worked with the local leadership of the towns in order to calm the demonstrators and restore order. In Haifa, mayor Amram Mitzna went out into the streets beside the demonstrators — addressing the crowd and calling on the police not to use firearms.

In the Northern District, the police were commanded by Alik Ron. For years the Arab public has been complaining of his racist attitudes and unequal protection of Jewish and Arab citizens — in a district where almost half the population is Arab. In the north, the police went quickly to use of firearms, by-passing the standard crowd-control techniques of tear gas and water cannon.

Perhaps the most shocking incident, however, was when an angry mob of hundreds of Israeli Jews from Upper Nazareth came down to attack a neighborhood of Arab town of Nazareth on the eve of Yom Kippur. Following police involvement, two young people from Nazareth were killed. No casualties resulted among the youth of Upper Nazareth.

This reality raises deep questions about the basic assumptions and tactics of the Israeli police toward the Israeli Arab population.

What has this done to the future of economic cooperation between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel?

Economic cooperation will continue even if, for no other reason, than necessity. The country and its economy are small. Fallout, however, has been bitter. We are receiving reports of Arab businesspeople whose Jewish clients are canceling orders. In Hadera, Tel Aviv/Jaffa and Netanya stores owned by Arabs were burned by Jews. In Nazareth, Um el Fahm and Baqa el Garbiye, banks and gas stations were burned by Arab youth. Both Jews and Arabs are afraid to enter each other’s towns.

In order to move forward, Israelis must honestly re-examine the nature of the state of Israel and the tension between the goals of democratic equality for all its citizens and maintaining the Jewish nature of the state.

At the same time people are reaching out to one another. Arab and Jewish owners of factories throughout the Galilee are meeting to discuss rebuilding. Over the past week, thousands of citizens have gotten together: kibbutz and municipal leaders in Wadi Ara, Sukkot of peace in the Arab village of Zarzir and at major crossroads and artists and writers visiting the bereaved families.

CJAED is initiating meetings with the businesses that were hurt in the recent violence. In addition, we are initiating an analysis of, and recommendations for changing, government economic policy and practice. This policy analysis will aim to level the economic playing field between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

The importance of economic ties, of mutual cooperation and respect, will only increase during the coming years. Now, more than ever, we, in Israel, and concerned people around the world, must work to make Israel a society in which all of its citizens receive equal access to educational, employment and investment opportunities. We invite you to continue to join us in this effort.

Sarah Kreimer
Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development

16 Galgalei
Haplada Street, PO Box 12017
Herzliya Pituach 46733 Israel
Tel: 972-9-954-1379 extension 103
Fax: 972-9-954-0136
Cellular: 972-52-275-315

Back January 1991: War Is a Crime
March 1996:  Bombs, Revenge, and One Iota of Hope
   2 Nov 1996: Hand in Hand in Hebron
  4 Apr 1997:  Children Still Alive and Abdallah
25 May 1998:  So We Won’t Die in Any More Wars
10 July 1998:   Lena Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
  2 Aug 1998:  Lena’s New Home... Destroyed
  3 Jan 1999: Rifle Grenade #400
  9 July 1999: A Housewarming for Peace
23 Jan 2000: The Politics of the Tree
18 Oct 2000: On Violence by Israeli Arabs
10 Nov 2000: Peace Efforts in Israel
22 Nov 2000: We Refuse to Be Enemies
23 Nov 2000: Meeting of Women MKs for Peace
26 Nov 2000: Views of Faisal Husseini
28 Nov 2000: Lack of coverage for women’s events
  1 Dec 2000: Principles and Action
  8 Dec 2000: Women in Black today
30 Dec 2000: On the Way to Crowning Jerusalem with Peace
Letters from Jerusalem, 2001
Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
New & recent letters from Jerusalem (2004)
Resources and Links

© 2000 Gila Svirsky, Sarah Kreimer. Graphic showing stone-throwers in Kfar Darom is from the Photo Gallery.

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