Americans can be forgiven for believing that the recently concluded Israeli-Palestinian conflict was just more of the same. After all, we’d seen this before, with rockets fired from one side while bombs were being dropped from the other. We even knew how the drama would end: while American policymakers mouthed their support for Israel’s right to defend itself, the same off-stage actors (primarily Qatar and Egypt), intervened to mediate a ceasefire—as they had done in the past. And so the conflict ended, the dead are now being mourned and Israelis and Palestinians have returned to their normal lives. Until the next time.
And yet, there is a growing belief among policymakers in Washington that this conflict was different. That while the recent bloody exchange between Israel and Hamas reached its predictable conclusion, the chasm between Israel and the Palestinians can no longer be wished away—and that, unless something is done to address the crisis, the seventy-year multi-generational conflict will go on and on and on. Equally significant was that while the world was riveted by the events in Gaza, a much more crucial, if less bloody, conflict was being played out inside of Israel itself. Its implications are profound.
Soon after a series of clashes broke out between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem in early May, Jewish mobs chanting “death to Arabs” roamed the streets of Israel looking for Arabs to assault. The attacks in Lod, near Tel Aviv, were particularly intense, with the Jewish mayor likening the situation to “a civil war.” The incidents, which included gruesome attacks on Arabs and the torching of synagogues, shook the Israeli political establishment. So while it’s true that Israel was subjected to rocket fire from Gaza, the threat posed to Israel by Hamas was actually far less grave than what Israel faced, and continues to face, in the cities, towns, and neighborhoods of its own country.
In fact, the mob violence that spread through Israel—with anti-Arab riots breaking out in Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Tamra, Bat Yam, and many other locations—was so intense that Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered Israeli Border Police units to reinforce local law enforcement personnel. The extra forces were necessary, Gantz announced, “to stop the incitement and agitation that is tearing Israeli society apart from within.” What Gantz failed to mention was that the Border Police units he called on were redeployed from the West Bank, where they are notorious for their harsh treatment of Palestinians. Even Jewish Israelis recoiled: would Israelis trained to police Arabs under occupation really be interested in quelling violence that targets Arab citizens of Israel as its victims? For Americans, the Gantz decision was reminiscent of that taken by the Trump administration during the Black Lives Matter protests last year, when heavily armed and baton-wielding prison guards from Texas were deployed to the streets of Washington, DC.
In all of this, there was a sense among Americans that Israel is a nation suffering from the same institutional flaws we see in America, and that led to the May 2020 death of George Floyd. While Arabs constitute just over 20 percent of Israeli citizens, their schools, municipal infrastructure, access to professional opportunities and social services lag well behind that for the rest of Israel. So too, Arab towns and neighborhoods remain marginalized, with high unemployment, rising crime, youth alienation, and widespread poverty. And in almost all Jewish majority cities an Arab minority is overseen by a heavy-handed Jewish-only police presence. The result is a growing belief among Israeli Arabs that they are second-class citizens in a nation designed, built, governed—and policed—by others.
After years of neglect, many in the Israeli government have reacted to this reality by funneling increased funding into Israeli-Arab communities. But what progress has been made has been slow and uneven, the result of the pervasive view among Jewish Israelis that a Jewish State should favor Jews, to the point where over the last seventy years no Israeli government has been formed that includes Arab political parties. In fact, a July 2018 law enacted by the Knesset institutionalized Jewish dominance, stating that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” Arab legislators greeted the bill’s passage by ripping it up, accompanying their actions with cries of “apartheid.” So it is that even as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) bombed Gaza and Hamas responded with rocket salvos, many of Israel’s cherished political beliefs were being questioned on the streets of Israel—and in the Israeli press.
Writing in the pages of The Times of Israel, political commentator David Horovitz pointed out that the Arab uprising in Israel was seeded by political leaders who, in order to keep Israel’s government in the hands of Jewish political parties, had made common cause with right-wing anti-Arab political parties, some of which were recently “shepherded into parliament as part of an alliance shamefully brokered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” Americans who shake their heads in wonder at this need only remember our own history: during our Reconstruction era, the Ku Klux Klan was a virtual wing of the southern Democratic Party. Even so, while we might feel we’re in no position to lecture Israelis on how to build a just society, it would not be inappropriate for Americans to suggest to Israelis that a real democracy derives from a nation based on laws—equally applied. Even to Palestinians.
The events in Israel are having a significant impact here in the United States, where increasing numbers of Americans, including those in our own Jewish community, have become more disaffected by America’s unwavering support for the “only democratic state in the Middle East.” That disaffection will deepen, even as (as now seems certain), Hamas and the IDF face off yet again. Which is to suggest that any future Arab-Israeli conflict will look a lot like this one: involving not only those Palestinians living under occupation, but those Israeli Arabs living in Israel itself. Indeed, the real story Americans will be focusing on in the years ahead, to the growing discomfort of the Israeli government, will have little to do with rockets—and everything to do with rights.
Mark Perry is a senior analyst for the Washington, DC-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and is the author of ten books on both the Middle East and on U.S. military history.
Image: Family and friends mourn during the funeral of Israeli man, Yigal Yehoshua, who died after succumbing to his wounds, sustained during Arab-Jewish violence in the mixed city of Lod, at a cemetery in Moshav Hadid, Israel May 18, 2021. Reuters/Ronen Zvulun