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Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel: A ‘Fifth Column’?

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 [1] . 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’[2]. 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[3]. 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[4]. 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[5].


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[6]. 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[7].  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[8]. 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[9]. 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” [10].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 [11]. 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[12]. 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’[13]. 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[14]. 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[15]. 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 [16]. 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 [17].



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 [18]. 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 [19].

[1] Katie Heskethv et al., The Inequality Report: The Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel 4-5 (Adalah 2011), https://www.adalah.org/uploads/oldfiles/upfiles/2011/Adalah_The_Inequality_Report_March_2011.pdf

(last visited Jan. 6, 2018)

[2] Liberman Calls for Arab Israeli Terrorists to Be ‘beheaded’, 2015 The Times of Isr., Mar. 8, 2015 at (2015), https://www.timesofisrael.com/liberman-calls-for-arab-israeli-terrorists-to-be-beheaded/ (last visited Jan. 7, 2018)

Lieberman Slams Arab Israeli Protestors As “Fifth Columnists”, 2015 Middle E. Eye, Feb. 12, 2015 at (2015), https://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/144304 (last visited Jan. 7, 2018).

[3] Are These Israel’s Bravest Soldiers? Meet the Sunni Muslim Arabs Who Fight on the Front Line in an ‘unbreakable Blood Pact , 2016 MailOnline, Feb. 5, 2016 at (2016), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3362369/Are-Israel-s-bravest-soldiers-Meet-Sunni-Muslim-Arabs-fight-line-unbreakable-blood-pact.html (last visited Jan. 8, 2018)

Israel’s Arab Soldiers Who Fight for the Jewish State, 2016 BBC, Nov. 8, 2016 at (2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37895021 (last visited Jan. 8, 2018).

[4] Walter Lippmann, “The Fifth Column”, 1942 Los Angeles Times, Feb. 13, 1942 at (1942), http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/active_learning/explorations/japanese_internment/lippmann.cfm (last visited Jan. 11, 2018)

Danny Lewis, 75 Years Ago, the Secretary of the Navy Falsely Blamed Japanese-Americans for Pearl Harbor, 2016 Smithsonian Mag., Dec. 15, 2016 at (2016), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/75-years-ago-secretary-navy-blamed-japanese-americans-pearl-harbor-180961417/ (last visited Jan. 11, 2018).

[5] Paul Preston, Hemingway’s Forgotten Spanish Civil War Play to Be Produced for Only Second Time Ever, 2016 The Guardian, Mar. 18, 2016 at (2016), https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/mar/18/ernest-hemingway-the-fifth-column-spanish-civil-war-play-revived-first-time-70-years (last visited Jan. 11, 2018).

[6] The Involvement of Arafat, PA Senior Officials and Apparatuses in Terrorism Against Israel: Corruption and Crime (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Isr. 2002) (prepared by a team headed by Dani Naveh, Israeli Minister of Parliamentary Affairs), http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Palestinian/Pages/The%20Involvement%20of%20Arafat-%20PA%20Senior%20Officials%20and.aspx (last visited Jan. 11, 2018)

[7] Joe Stork, Miranda Sissons & Johanna Bjorken, Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians 8-23 (Hanny Megally ed., Human Rights Watch 2002), https://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/isrl-pa/ISRAELPA1002.pdf (last visited Jan. 11, 2018)

[8] Basel Ghattas Knesset, https://knesset.gov.il/mk/eng/mk_eng.asp?mk_individual_id_t=867 (last visited Jan. 11, 2018)

Court Convicts MK Basel Ghattas, 2017 Arutz Sheva, Mar. 22, 2017 at (2017), https://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/227133 (last visited Jan. 11, 2018).

9Amy Tiebel, Israeli Arab Officer Sentenced for Spying, 2006 The Associated Press, June 18, 2006 at (2006), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/18/AR2006061800561.html (last visited Jan. 11, 2018).

[10] Amjad Iraqi, Palestinian Citizens Will Always Be Enemies in a Jewish State , 2015 +972, Oct. 7, 2015 at (2015), https://972mag.com/palestinian-citizens-will-always-be-enemies-in-jewish-state/112450/ (last visited Jan. 12, 2018)

Israeli Arabs: The Official Summation of the or Commission Report, 2003 Jewish Virtual Libr., Sept. 2, 2003 at (2003) (the Or Commission was constituted to investigate violent public riots that happened in October 2000 across Arab cities and towns in Israel and claimed lives of 13 Arab protesters.), http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-official-summation-of-the-or-commission-report-september-2003 (last visited Jan. 12, 2018).

Or Commission Report Excerpts, Seeds of Peace , https://www.seedsofpeace.org/asel/or-commission-materials/excerpts/ (last visited Jan. 12, 2018).

Or Commission Timeline, 2003 Haaretz, Aug. 31, 2003 at (2003), https://www.haaretz.com/news/or-commission-timeline-1.98720 (last visited Jan. 12, 2018).

[11] Katie Hesketh et al., The Inequality Report: The Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel 7-12 (Adalah 2011), https://www.adalah.org/uploads/oldfiles/upfiles/2011/Adalah_The_Inequality_Report_March_2011.pdf (last visited Jan. 14, 2018)

Dua’ NAKHALA, Shackled at Home: The Palestinian Minority in Israel (European Parliament 2012), http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2009_2014/documents/dplc/dv/palestinian_minority_/palestinian_minority_en.pdf (last visited Jan. 14, 2018)

[12]Current Status of Palestinian Arab Citizens in Israel, in The Palestinian Arab Citizens of Israel: Status, Opportunities and Challenges for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace 43-52 (Mossawa Ctr. 2006), http://www.mossawa.org/uploads/2006%20The%20Palestinian%20Arab%20Citizens%20of%20Israel%20Status.pdf (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

Arik Rudnitzky, Back to the Knesset? Israeli Arab Vote in the 20th Knesset Elections , 22 Isr. Aff., Sept. 7, 2016 at 683-96 (2016), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13537121.2016.1174384?journalCode=fisa20 (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

[13] Oren Yiftachel, Palestinian Citizenship in Israel, in the Palestinians in Israel: Readings in History, Politics and Society 128-35 (Nadim N. Rouhana & Areej Sabbagh-Khoury eds., Mada al-Carmel Arab Ctr. for Applied Soc. Research 2011), http://mada-research.org/en/files/2011/09/ebook-english-book.pdf (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

The Political Participation of Arab Citizens in Israel: An Attitude Survey Ahead of the Elections to the 20th Knesset January 2015 (The Abraham Fund Initiatives 2015), http://www.abrahamfund.org/webfiles/fck/Election%20Survey%20Full%20Report%20%20-%20English%20-%20January%202015.pdf (last visited Jan. 14, 2018)

[14] Itamar Radai et al., The Arab Citizens in Israel: Current Trends According to Recent Opinion Polls 103-04 (The Inst. for Nat’l Sec. Studies 2015), http://www.inss.org.il/he/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/systemfiles/SystemFiles/adkan18_2ENG_version2_Radai%20et%20al.pdf (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

[15] Dov Lieber, Ahmad Tibi Urges Israelis Not to ‘live By the Sword’, 2016 The Times of Isr., Dec. 24, 2016 at (2016), https://www.timesofisrael.com/ahmad-tibi-urges-israelis-not-to-live-by-the-sword/ (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

Arab MK Raises Palestinian Flag on Temple Mount, 2015 The Times of Isr., Jan. 4, 2015 at (2015), https://www.timesofisrael.com/arab-mk-raises-palestinian-flag-on-temple-mount/ (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

[16] Sammy Smooha, Still Playing By the Rules Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel 2012: Findings and Conclusions 11-12 (Isr. Democracy Inst. 2013), https://en.idi.org.il/media/5109/arab-jewish-index-2012-eng.pdf (last visited Jan. 14, 2018)

Carolina Landsmann , The Arab Lawmaker Vying to Be Prime Minister of a Utopian Israeli-Palestinian State , 2017 Haaretz, Mar. 4, 2017 at (2017), https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.774936 (last visited Jan. 14, 2018)

[17]Ben Lynfield, Survey: 60% of Arab Israelis Have Positive View of State, 2017 The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 27, 2017 at (2017), http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Survey-60-percent-of-Arab-Israelis-have-positive-view-of-state-506150 (last visited Jan. 14, 2018)

[18] Farah Najjar, How Israeli Citizens Are Becoming Stateless, 2017 Al Jazeera, Aug. 31, 2017 at (2017), http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/08/israeli-citizens-stateless-170831105301896.html (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

[19] Dov Waxman, Israel’s Palestinian Minority in the Two-State Solution: The Missing Dimension, 27 Middle E. Pol’y Council , http://www.mepc.org/israels-palestinian-minority-two-state-solution-missing-dimension (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

Munshi Zubaer Haque is an Intern at the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies

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