by Munshi Zubaer Haque
The creation of State of Israel in 1948 resulted in the formation of an ethnic and religious minority of Palestinian Arabs in the new country, who eventually became citizens of this nascent nation.70 years on, this involuntary minority within a Jewish majority is often referred to as the ‘Fifth Column’ in Israel  . Most importantly these accusations have often come from the highest political echelons in Israel; a prominent Israeli political figure has been known to repeatedly refer to Arab citizens of Israel and their elected representatives in the Knesset as a ‘Fifth Column’. Given the centrality of the military in Israel as a state institution, though the rule of military conscription in Israel does not apply to its Arab citizens, there are still those Palestinian Arabs – Muslim by religion and Bedouin by ethnicity – who have also chosen to serve voluntarily in Israel Defence Forces. The question arises as to why they are referred to as a ‘Fifth Column’ and whether this might be politically correct to address an ethnic minority in this way within a Jewish majority state. In the run-up to the political developments in the US during World War II that preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, American citizens of Japanese ancestry were widely portrayed as a ‘Fifth Column’ and as enemy agents, they were subsequently secluded on internment camps throughout the entire duration of the war although there was an assessment by US naval intelligence that this ethnic community did not pose any threat at all. The term also achieved literary significance with Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 play ‘The Fifth Column’, which portrayed the spies and saboteurs during Spanish Civil war by use of this terminology.
Law abiding citizens or ‘Security Threat’?
During the Second Intifada [Palestinian Uprising], declassified documents from the Israeli foreign ministry claimed that Arab citizens of Israel liaised with senior officials of the Palestinian Authority (PA), including, President Arafat; such secret liaisons between them and Palestinian officials not only involved facilitation of money laundering or arms smuggling, but, also planning and perpetrating terror attacks in Israeli cities on behalf of proscribed Palestinian armed organizations. Even an erstwhile research report by non-governmental agency Human Rights Watch (HRW) on suicide bombings against Israeli civilians also called on concerned Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel for restraint on suicide bombings, whilst also identifying cases when Arab citizens of Israel became victims of terror attacks perpetrated by proscribed Palestinian armed groups. As recently as 2017, Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, Basel Ghattas, was convicted after it was revealed that he used his parliamentary immunity to bring cell phones for convicted Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. In his case, the Palestinians were convicted of killing Israeli soldiers. Back in 2006, a high ranking serving Arab officer in Israel Defence Forces (IDF) was also convicted on charges of espionage against Israel on behalf of Hezbollah. But apart from all these incidents concerning implications for national security, it is noteworthy that it was officially acknowledged by the Israeli state itself, back in 2000, that Arab citizens of Israel faced discrimination and social exclusion and an independent commission also recommended in an official report, “The police must instil among its officers the understanding that the Arab community as a whole is not their enemy, and that it should not be treated as an enemy” .There is an existent framework of legal inequality between Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel in the context of more than 30 such Israeli laws which cover complex issues, from rights of citizenship to rights of landholdings. Undoubtedly, Israel’s perception of its Arab minority as a ‘Fifth Column’ and its resort to draconian legal measures and state violence actually risks relegating issues of ‘Human Rights’ as ‘threats’ to state security and sovereignty . However, if electoral participation is taken as an important manifestation of viable democracy, from past electoral boycotts by Israel’s Arab citizenry after October 2000 events to the recent most 20th parliamentary elections in 2015, there seems to a gradual improvement in political participation. Given this existing framework of inequality, the civil status of Arab citizens of Israel has been conceptualized by some as ‘Ghettoized Citizenship’ within a stratified system of ‘Creeping Apartheid’. Interestingly, findings of various public opinion polls conducted among so called ‘Fifth Column’ of Arab citizens of Israel should be emphasized here in terms of Arab perceptions of Israel’s national security. In a 2014 poll, 70% of Arab respondents condemned terror attacks, 30% held Israeli policies as a resultant cause for terror attacks, 75% believed Arab politicians in Israel should condemn such attacks while 14% disagreed, an overwhelming 83% of the respondents agreed that Israel was attempting to alter the historical status quo at the Al Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount in Jerusalem. On the core question of national identity, for years, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel have chosen to present an identity split between ‘Israeli’ on one hand and ‘Palestinian’ on the other, to which veteran Arab politicians, such as Ahmad Tibi, are not an exception. The Index of Arab Jewish Relations 2012 Poll reported that 55.9% of Arabs reconciled themselves to Israel as a state with Jewish majority, 53.2% as a state with Israeli Hebrew culture, and 69.6% thinks that Israel should not be a state with Jewish majority. Interestingly, Arab respondents prefered co-existence between Arabs and Jews in a future bi-national state to an Israeli state with ethnic Jewish majority . In a 2017 poll among Arab respondents, 28% identified as ‘Israeli Arab’, 11% said ‘Israeli’, 13% said ‘Arab citizen of Israel’, 2% said ‘Israeli Muslim’,15% said ‘Palestinian’, 4% said ‘Palestinian in Israel’, 3% said ‘Palestinian citizen in Israel’, 2% said ‘Israeli Palestinian’, over 80% of respondents said that their preferred self identification was Muslim .
Israel has been continuing a policy of revocation of citizenship for its ethnic Bedouin Arab community who comprises this so-called ‘Fifth Column’, rendering them ‘Stateless’ without any any grounds of security and claiming their citizenship was given in error . For a comprehensive resolution of the ‘Palestinian Problem’, implementation of internationally backed ‘Two-State’ Solution on 1967 borders may not resolve the long standing conflict, just and durable peace can only be achieved when these Palestinian citizens of Israel are considered as an important part of this peacemaking process and policymakers think beyond statehood in West Bank and Gaza .
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Munshi Zubaer Haque is an Intern at the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies