On July 14, three Palestinian citizens of Israel from the town of Umm al-Fahm attacked two police officers outside Al-Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, prompting weeks of unrest in occupied Jerusalem. This incident highlights the Palestinians citizens’ tenuous relationship with the Israeli state, especially since the state has increased exclusionary policies targeting their community and leadership. This included the November 2015 ban on the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, a social and political Islamist organization that had formed a main pillar of Palestinian political engagement since the 1980s. This has led various sectors of the Palestinian society in Israel to increase their political mobilization against the state – outside the political electoral system, with which they have lost faith.
1948 Palestinians, about 20 percent of the Israeli population, are the Palestinians who remained under Israeli rule after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The national and civic identities of Palestinian citizens of Israel coexist separately. The Palestinian identity is prominent in the ideological sphere, and the Israeli identity is tied to political engagement and inclusion in democratic politics. Palestinian citizens of Israel and their leadership have historically operated within the Israeli political system to address their issues and concerns. Yet in recent years, Palestinians in Israel have become more aware of their exclusionary status. The Israeli government has been increasingly restricting the political space for their activism and alienating the community by cracking down on its leadership. Doing so has strengthened Palestinian identity, unified their leadership and created tension with the state.
The experiences of Palestinians as citizens of Israel and their tenuous relationship to the state cannot be separated from the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, during the second intifada, 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by the police in October 2000, reminding Arabs of the fragility of their citizenship status. Since then, Palestinian participation in Israeli Knesset elections has gradually declined. In 2006, the Arab voter participation rate in the Knesset elections dropped to 56 percent and again in 2009 dropped to 53 percent – down from 75 percent in 1999. This shows a lack of trust in the Israeli political system as a platform for collective action and has resulted in increased demonstrations and general strikes, and led some individuals to rely on violence to channel their discontent.
The Israeli government responded to the rising number of protests by restricting Palestinians’ political space through community surveillance and by implementing controversial and discriminatory policies.
Among these was the Nov. 2015 ban of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, which has broad support among the Palestinian community. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu justified this ban by claiming that the movement “belongs to radical Islam and is part of the global ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ movement. The two movements share an extremist ideology and a common goal – the destruction of the state of Israel.” Linking the movement to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which are hostile to Israel, enabled Netanyahu’s government to receive the support it needs to justify the ban, despite no direct links between the northern branch and any terrorist or violent incidents. However, the ban came in opposition to the recommendations of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, and was seemingly intended to shore up public perceptions that the Netanyahu government is tough on security.
The decision to ban the movement, as well as the support this decision received from other sectors of Israeli society despite the ban’s repressive nature, disappointed the Palestinian community. The Palestinian leadership in Israel worried this ban could have serious and long-term consequences for their right to organize, freedom of expression and ability to protest. The Netanyahu government immediately closed down 17 other affiliated institutions and launched an arrest campaign against other groups over the following year. These groups include the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, an institution that does maintenance and reconstruction at Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Al-Bayraq Foundation, an institution that provides transportation to Al-Aqsa Mosque from Arab towns. More recently, in August 2017, the government threatened to investigate some of these groups’ activities, including the youth summer camps organized by the Balad Party, a far-left Arab party in Israel that supports a one-state solution. This crackdown has unified the Palestinian community in Israel, despite its various factions, in support of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement.
In response to the ban, Palestinian leadership in Israel organized various demonstrations in multiple towns. The public also mobilized: Three 1948 Palestinians were arrested in December 2016 for reportedly planning a revenge operation against Israeli soldiers. In May 2017, Israeli authorities also stopped marches that supported the northern branch from reaching Jerusalem. Because the northern branch of the Islamic Movement is known for its activism in protecting the holy sites in Jerusalem, and an attack on it is considered an attack on the Palestinian cause, its ban and the public’s subsequent mobilization may have contributed to the July 2017 attack in Jerusalem.
As the uncle of one of attackers from Umm al-Fahm said, “The three martyrs were like other young men who love Jerusalem and al-Aqsa,” implying that the events were a reaction to the ban.
The arrest campaign against the Islamic Movement and other individuals and organizations has intensified since July. After the stabbings in Jerusalem, Israeli police raided houses and mosques in Umm al-Fahm and installed metal detectors at the gates where Muslim worshipers enter Al-Aqsa Mosque, resulting in clashes between police and protesters. In mid-August, the Israeli government arrested various members of the banned Islamic Movement, such as Raed Salah, Suliman Ahmad Agbaria and Kamal Khatib, for instigating violence in Jerusalem. These arrests further unified the Palestinian leadership in Israel. In response, the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel called on Arab towns and cities to organize sit-ins protesting the arrest of Raed Salah and other administrative arrests of citizens from Umm al-Fahm.
Such demonstrations against the arrests have continued into September. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan even called for the destruction of the attackers’ houses, despite them being Israeli citizens. Netanyahu aired the idea of land swaps to transfer Umm al-Fahm and nearby villages to the West Bank, further alienating the Palestinians in Israel, who view this as another attempt to reduce the Palestinian population in Israel.
The state’s backlash against the Palestinian community in Israel since July and its increased discriminatory attitude toward the community over the past few years have made the community frustrated with the elected Palestinian-Israeli leadership and the Israeli political system as a vehicle for political action.
Meanwhile, the success of demonstrations in getting the Israeli government to remove the metal detectors at the gates to Al-Aqsa Mosque is reassuring members of the community that mobilization of individuals and grass-roots activism is more effective in contesting Israel’s discriminatory policies. If Israel continues with these polices, the potential for more violent confrontations will only increase.
Anwar Mhajne is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Cincinnati. Follow her on Twitter @mhajneam. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 19, 2017, on page 7.