On a tightrope: Israel’s Arab citizens and the War Between Israel and Hamas

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The political mainstream in Arab society identifies with the Palestinian cause, namely the struggle for a two-state solution and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The vast majority of Arab citizens strongly criticizes Hamas’ practices and completely rejects Hamas’ militant approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ra'am party head MK Mansour Abbas. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

The horrific events of October 7th were received in Arab society in Israel with a complete shock. While initial responses were very similar to those of the Jewish public as many Arabs expressed their sincere sorrow and grief for over 1,400 Israeli individuals who were murdered by the Hamas terror attack, Arab society entered a state of emergency, mainly out of fear of acts of revenge by extremist Jewish elements. In the ensuing days, the country witnessed a “voluntary segregation” between Jews and Arabs. Many Arabs voluntarily confined themselves in their towns, and public and commercial movements have almost completely stopped.  Shared working places, such as medical centers and other healthcare services and mental health facilities where Arabs and Jews have long been used to working hand in hand in cases of emergency, continued to function and were almost not affected by these exceptional circumstances.

The Arab political leadership quickly responded by warning against any act of revenge or physical or verbal harm by individuals from both communities. MK Ayman Odeh, former chair of the Joint List and the current leader of the Hadash-Ta’al faction in the Knesset, was among the first political leaders who called Arab citizens to refrain from sharing any inflammatory materials in their social media profiles. Still, the tension between the two communities has overshadowed the public sphere.

It should be noted that Arab Israeli society has paid a heavy price in the current confrontation between Israel and Hamas. 20 Arab citizens were murdered by Hamas terrorists during the attack on October 7th or by Hamas rocket launches in the ensuing days. Most of the victims are Bedouin residents who live in the south of the country in settlements that were directly hit by Hamas’ rockets. These small communities, known as “unrecognized villages,” lack basic infrastructure that includes, among other things, shelters against rocket attacks. Moreover, several Bedouin inhabitants have been abducted by Hamas and are still kept hostage in Gaza.

The political mainstream in Arab society identifies with the Palestinian cause, namely the struggle for a two-state solution and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The vast majority of Arab citizens strongly criticizes Hamas’ practices and completely rejects Hamas’ militant approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Arab Israelis even consider the events of October 7th a severe blow to the Palestinian cause, by delegitimizing its moral values and political approach to the conflict. A poll among Arab citizens during the first week after the October 7th events found that 77% of the respondents opposed the terror attack and 85% opposed the kidnapping of civilians, including women and children. About 53% of the respondents said that the terror attack harmed the chances of reaching a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.[1]

A large portion of Arab society, which is predominantly Muslim, identifies with the Islamic movement in Israel. Hamas and the Islamic movement, both Palestinian offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood movement established in the 1920’s in Egypt, share similar social and religious values. Politically however, the Islamic movement stands in complete contrast to Hamas. MK Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List – a political party of the Islamic movement – explicitly condemned the Hamas attack. In one of his televised interviews, he emphasized that the Hamas attack of October 7th stands in complete contrast with the religious principles and moral values of Islam.

The Islamic movement, one of the largest social and religious organizations in Arab society, also organized transport convoys for Arab-Israeli students studying at universities across the country to their homes to avoid any harm to those living in Jewish cities. The traumatic clashes between Arabs and Jews in May 2021 still resonate in the back of the mind of many Arab citizens. As a result, the Arab political leadership explicitly warned against any act of revenge, physical or verbal harm by Jews against Arabs or by Arabs against Jews.

There were a few cases in which individuals expressed sympathy for the Hamas terror attack on their personal social profiles, but these were rare incidents. Many Arab citizens have expressed their solidarity in words and deeds with the general Israeli society. Indeed, in a recent Israel Democracy Institute poll, about 70% of Arab Israelis say they feel a part of the State of Israel and its problems. In Rahat, the largest Arab city in Israel with 79 thousand inhabitants (all Bedouin), a joint Arab-Jewish operation room was opened to supply food packages for needy families who survived the October 7th terror attack. Another Arab city, Kufr Qassem which is located not far from Tel Aviv, offered shelter for Jewish families from small localities surrounding the Gaza Strip who had to leave their ruined homes during the war. Some young Arab volunteers even went to settlements that were severely damaged by the terror attack to help in their reconstruction.

Even while the predominant response in the Arab sector is one of solidarity with the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip, these should not be interpreted as solidarity with Hamas. Rather, their main concern is for the well-being and safety of their relatives, as many Arab citizens have family in the Gaza Strip. Focused on the moral level of the Palestinian cause, Arab citizens hope that the war will end as soon as possible.

The Arab Israeli public is also anxious about the potential consequences should tensions in Jewish-Arab relations continue to deteriorate. The statement made by Minister of the National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, warning of a second “Guardian of the Walls” – another round of physical clashes between Arabs and Jews within Israel, similar to what happened in May 2021 – increased levels of anxiety among the Arab citizens of Israel. A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in the last week of October 2023 found that 33% of the Arab public describe Jewish-Arab relations in Israel as bad while only 21% think that the relations are good. These results stand in contrast to findings from another poll by the Israel Democracy Institute that was conducted in August 2021 during the Bennett-Lapid government which included, for the first time, an Arab party in the coalition – the United Arab List, headed by Mansour Abbas. That poll found that only 16% of Arab citizens described Jewish-Arab relations as bad while 30% believed the relations were good at the time.[2]

For now, no cases of physical harm between Arab and Jewish citizens inside Israel have been recorded. The Israeli Police Commissioner, Ya’acov Shabtai, even praised the Arab sector for maintaining public order and respecting state laws. Nevertheless, many Arab citizens feel that they are the ones who will pay the price for the escalation between Israel and Hamas even after the fighting is over.


This article was published in the Jerusalem Post


[1] Ela Levy-Weinrib, “A turning point for Arab Israelis.” Globes, October 22, 2023: https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-a-turning-point-for-arab-israelis-1001460690

[2] Tamar Hermann and Or Anabi, “Most Israelis Prefer to Wait Until After the War to Designate Responsibility.” The Israel Democracy Institute, October 31, 2023: https://en.idi.org.il/articles/51198