Follow Roos Bollen's experience in an Arab village in Israel

By 04/08/2014Travel scholarship

Roos Bollen has recently graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science, with a Master’s degree in Conflict Studies. The Lutfia Rabbani Foundation enabled Roos to study Colloquial Palestinian and Standard Arabic in northern Israel and carry out a small research project on the Palestinian identity of Arabs living in this part of Israel. In this second blog post, she describes the subtle ways in which Israeli discriminatory policies sanction the Arab minority residing within Israel, which seems to suggest that these policies are designed to compel Arabs to leave.

  Roos’ story

Blog Post 2 29-9-2014

While travelling through Israel, I was incited to write this blogpost by the extreme contrasts I observed between Jewish and Arab communities. In some parts of northern Israel cities are mixed, like Haifa and Akka, but many remain segregated, though located very close to one another. Spending the morning in the Arab villages of Kufr Yasif and Jdeide, before doing groceries in a brand new shopping mall in the Jewish town of Karmi’el, I was startled by the drastic differences in urban planning and development of these three places. Though the Arab towns are merely a ten minute drive away from the Jewish cities, it is as if you move from one country to a completely other country. Jewish and Arab cities literally are worlds apart – and discrimination against Israeli Arabs is nowhere so visible and palpable as in the look and appearance of their municipalities. Apart from discrimination in the area of budget allocation, I will argue that Israeli Arabs suffer from inequality in the education system, have limited economic opportunities compared to their Jewish co-nationals and increasingly suffer from tightened security policies.

At first sight, the relation of the Israeli state and Jewish majority with the Arab minority actually seems rather exemplary for a deeply divided society. Israel has no constitution, but its Proclamation of Independence (1948) and a set of ‘Basic Laws’ legally enshrine the ‘complete equality of social and political rights [of] all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex’ as well as ‘freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture’. In fact, the Proclamation specifically mentions Arab inhabitants, who are requested to take part in the construction of the Israeli state ‘on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions’. Likewise, the Basic Laws guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms to all residents of Israel, such as the right to exercise any profession or occupation, or the right to privacy. Israeli politicians and academics are keen on presenting Israel as a model of coexistence, and they uphold a narrative about the successful management of the Arab minority residing within Israel’s borders. Reiter (2009), for instance, claims that ‘in Israel, the Palestinians’ distinct identity and collective cultural rights are respected, they enjoy political freedom and they benefit from Israel’s social welfare system, economic progress and democratic norms’. Smooha (2002) praises Israel for being ‘a democracy that extends various kinds of rights to 1 million Palestinian Arab citizens ‘who are perceived as a threat’ [emphasis added] – as if this perception would justify (on the contrary) the restriction of the rights of Israeli Palestinians. Smooha (2002:487) even insinuates that the Arabs are excessively enjoying the commendable Israeli system: ‘As the Arab natural increase rate is double that of the Jewish rate and the Arab women’s participation rate in the labour force is less than half of the Jewish rate, Arabs enjoy a disproportionate part of the state allocations to family allowances, other social-security benefits, education and many services’ [italics added].

In spite of this rhetoric, a closer look at the daily lives of Arab citizens in Israel largely debunks this myth and reveals a reality of systematic inequality and marginalisation in all spheres of life.

Firstly, Israeli Arabs are partly deprived from using their mother tongue, Arabic, which unites the different Arab communities. Arabic has a formal status of being the second official language in Israel, a status that dates back to the British mandate. Nevertheless, this status ceased to exist in practice a long time ago. For example, in Israel higher education is exclusively available in Hebrew (sometimes course material may be in English). Though Arab children can go to state-supported Arab primary and secondary schools, courses at university and other higher education institutions are taught in Hebrew. Given that higher education is pivotal in increasing one’s career prospects, the condition of monolingualism at Israeli colleges and universities is highly detrimental to the socio-economic opportunities of Arab students, who are obliged to express themselves in a language that is not their mother tongue. By way of comparison, in Macedonia – a small Balkan country that is reasonably similar to Israel in terms of minority demographics: the Albanians constitute approximately 20% of the Macedonian population, whereas Arabs are a bit more than one fifth of the Israeli population – Albanian students do have the possibility to receive university education in Albanian (for instance at the State University of Tetovo or at the South East European University). After the brief armed conflict in Macedonia of 2001, the comprehensive peace agreement that was adopted by all parties – the Ohrid Framework Agreement – also contained an article securing state funding ‘for university level education in languages spoken by at least 20 percent of the population of Macedonia’ [emphasis added]. Whereas we, Western observers, have considered that this and other stipulations of the Ohrid Framework Agreement were indispensable and very successful; we do not question the fact that Israeli Arabs must follow university education in Hebrew.

Another example of how the official status of Arabic is not translated into practice comes from the political arena. The Knesset, the unicameral Israeli Parliament, has 120 members, very few of whom are Israeli Arabs. As Arabic is an official language next to Hebrew, the Arab Members of Knesset (MKs) should be able to express themselves in Arabic. However, as Jewish Israelis don’t learn Arabic, the Arab MKs generally refrain from using their mother tongue, as the majority of their audience will not understand their speech.

Furthermore, the Arabic language is continuously threatened in the public space. A few years ago, the Israeli Transport Ministry provoked upheaval when it announced that it intended to replace all trilingual road signs by signs in Hebrew only, with the Hebrew transliteration in English of the place name. Though large mixed Israeli cities with an important Arab population are still identified on road signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English, smaller Arab towns are often not indicated at all along the roads and high ways. The existence of the Arab village of Kufr Yasif – Kfar Yasif in Modern Hebrew – is outright denied as it is not properly indicated as such along the roads leading to the small Arab town. The only signaling panel pointing to the existence of Kufr Yasif is a sign that mentions the ‘Junction Yasif’ [emphasis added] – as if the village the junction is named after doesn’t exist.



Similarly, the route 85, which connects Kufr Yasif with the Jewish town of Karmi’el, passes by the Arab communities of Majd Al-Krum, Bi’ne and Deir El-Asad, the existence of which will be unknown to strangers taking this route, as there is no mention of these places along the route 85.



These observations bring me to the allocation of public funds, in particular for education and local communities. The distribution of state resources in general doesn’t favour the Arab minority, in spite of what Smooha (2002), cited above, claims. Israeli-born scholar Ronnie Olesker (2014) denounces several laws adopted since the Second Intifadah that specifically disadvantage the Israeli Palestinians. For instance, the Absorption of Discharged Soldiers (Amendment No. 12) Law adopted in 2010 foresees that citizens who serve in the IDF receive particular social benefits. As Israeli Arabs are exempted from military service, they are automatically barred from receiving this type of financial support. In the same way, a law adopted in 2002 (Emergency Economic Plan – Legislative Amendments to Achieve the Budget’s Goals and the Economic Policy for the 2002-2003 Fiscal Year) stipulates that families whose members have served in the army are entitled to a higher amount of children allotment payment.

Roos3When it comes to education, the inequality between Arab and Jewish citizens is quite well documented. Human Rights Watch already denounced this inequality in the area of education in a 2001 report, but it seems that little has changed since. I saw what this form of discrimination looks like in practice, when I visited a primary school in Kufr Yasif and a secondary school in Jdeide. Here below, one of the class rooms in the Arab primary school of Mr. Jerias Elias, a dedicated principal who comes to his school nearly every day, especially during weekends and holidays, to maintain the building: Nothing special you’ll say. Nothing special indeed, as Arab schools lack the resources to properly equip the classrooms and maintain the buildings and their facilities in a good state. The two schools I visited confirmed what Golan-Agnon (2006) found: that ‘in general, the physical conditions in the schools are bad and they lack basic study aids’.

Discrimination is equally visible outside the classroom, in the Arab villages where the pupils live. Next: three pictures that I took in the centre of Kufr Yasif, followed by two pictures from the Jewish town of Karmi’el – the differences in terms of urban planning (especially the state and design of the roads, the pavements – or rather: lack thereof – and the arrangement of the buildings) are undeniable.

In short, Arab villages are poor and underdeveloped compared to their Jewish counterparts. And even worse, the prospects for improvement are very limited. In addition to insufficient resources, there is in an obvious lack of space. Arab towns cannot expand. Even building new houses within the existing borders of the Arab municipalities is hard, as a construction license is expensive – not to mention the price of land. In Kufr Yasif, a small community with approximately 9.000 inhabitants, a construction license to build an average apartment costs 50.000 Shekels (almost €11.000) – by way of comparison: in the Netherlands, the price of a ‘bouwvergunning’ varies between €200 and €5.000, dependent on the municipality and the scope of the construction. The alternative, moving to Jewish towns, is not a credible option either. Not because Palestinian citizens of Israel necessarily want to live ‘in self-segregated [‘not legally imposed, but of their own choice’] towns, villages or neighborhoods’ (Reiter, 2009). Rather, Arabs who wish to move to Jewish towns encounter multiple obstacles when they try to do so – starting with prejudiced landlords who do not accept Arab renters. Smooha (2002:486) at last acknowledges this problem:

The state allotment of land to the Arabs for development of local authorities, public facilities, industrial parks and housing projects is very limited and much below Arab needs and demands. The state does not found new Arab towns and neighborhoods. Another component of the Israeli land regime is the Jewish staffing and mastering of planning, building and zoning committees.

Finally, and in addition to these material aspects of inequality, this summer I also witnessed discrimination against Israeli Palestinian during the protests and strikes by Israeli Arabs against the war in Gaza. Israeli Arab citizens were prevented from peacefully expressing their opposition to the Israeli campaign in Gaza. Some Arab protesters were arrested during the manifestations, others were arrested under the pretext that the protesters had not requested or received a permit to hold a manifestation. Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has kept track of some of these flagrant violations of the right to protest that each citizen should enjoy. Jewish right wing (counter-) protests, however, received permission from the Israeli authorities – anti-Arab groups were for instance allowed to protest during and against the wedding of an Arab man from Jaffa and a Jewish woman.


Inhabitants of Kufr Yasif demonstrating against Israel, marching in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, on Monday 21 July 2014 (during the day a general strike was held) –




This blogpost was far from an attempt to dress an exhaustive list of discriminatory laws and policies vis-à-vis the Arab minority – there are simply too many of them. Instead, I aspired to give a sense of the discrimination Israeli Arabs encounter in their daily lives. On paper, they enjoy a wide range of rights and are invited to take fully part in the Israeli society, but in practice, these rights are hardly implemented and therefore Israel fails to offer Arabs equality. ‘The State of the Jewish People’ is not likely to change its character, and therefore Palestinian Arabs will remain a ‘fifth-column’ of second-class citizens, at least in the near term. On the long term, however, this can never be a viable and stable situation. As a 2012 report of International Crisis Group puts it: ‘World attention remains fixed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but a distinct, albeit related, conflict smoulders within Israel itself. It might be no less perilous’.


Photo of Kufr Yasif I took from a hill overlooking the village –








Blog Post 1 -21-7-2014

Three reasons have led me to Kufr Yasif, or Kfar Yasif in Modern Hebrew, an Arab village of approximately 9000 inhabitants in Northern Israel. Firstly, I have a desire to improve my level of Arabic. Secondly, I am deeply interested in identity and identity politics in what scholars call ‘highly divided societies’. And finally, I am incompletely satisfied with the existing literature on the different groups within the Israeli society. Innumerable books and articles have been written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian refugees, but the Arabs living in Israel have received substantially less attention, even though they compose 20 to 25% of Israel’s society. It is difficult to find writings about Israeli Arabs, let alone pieces that are more or less ‘objective’ – though no text can of course ever be entirely objective. Work of scholars like Sammy Smooha (University of Haifa), who is an expert of the relations between Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel, shouldn’t be rejected categorically because Smooha is Israeli. Yet many of Smooha’s arguments are highly problematic, as he suggests for instance that Jewish Israelis form the ‘core nation’ of Israel, whereas other groups (‘non-core nations’) are equated with and termed ‘immigrants’. One of my objectives is to try to acquire a better understanding of the daily life of the Arab minority within Israel, their relation with the Israeli state and their perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition, I would like to get a more nuanced picture of these different communities within the Israeli society. In recent news, no matter from which Western news source, there is a tendency to simplify conflicts – whether in South-Sudan, Ukraine or Israel/Palestine – and to categorize groups of divided societies into homogeneous entities. Because of their shared language – Arabic – Israeli Arabs are seen as a being part of the same group, but at the same time they belong to different religious affiliations: Christian (Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican), Sunni or Druze. In Kufr Yasif the high concentration of places of worship attest to the complex religious mosaic of the Levant. However, the daily lives of Kufr Yasif’s inhabitants are not segregated the way their cult places and cemeteries are (on a side note, there even is an old Jewish cemetery in Kufr Yasif, which had a Jewish population until the middle of the 19th century). Sunnis, Druzes and Christians go to the same schools, sport clubs and weddings. Furthermore, there can be cleavages within these faith groups, which we may gloss over. For instance, not all Christian Arabs think alike about military service for the Israeli state, or participation in uprisings against the Israeli government. In my eyes, the fundamental question here is how identity becomes salient and mobilised. Or, in other words, why is the Palestinian identity at times not ‘prominent’ among the Israeli Arabs, even though there are conditions that would favour a mobilisation of identity, such as the ‘severe inequality between the Palestinian Arab and Jewish populations’ Ismael Abu-Saad, Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Abu-Saad writes that ‘the Palestinian Arab minority is subordinate to the Jewish majority in almost every aspect of stratification: education, occupation, employment participation and unemployment. The socioeconomic level of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel is significantly lower than that of the Jewish citizens of Israel.’ Is it this kind of grievance, and ultimately conflict, that shapes identity, or is it rather the other way around – that a heightened sense of identity inspires conflict? More difficultly, what can we do to conduct research on this?

Apart from my attempt to better understand these questions, I will also improve my Arabic in Kufr Yasif. In the mornings I study Modern Standard Arabic, or fuṣḥā, and in the evening I have a class Palestinian dialect. These classes take place in the library of the village, where we have courses with a small group of ten students.

I feel very honoured that the Lutfia Rabbani Foundation has granted me the opportunity to tell about my project on this blog. Apart from the Lutfia Rabbani Foundation, I would like to convey my heart-felt thanks to the inhabitants of Kufr Yasif. Since my arrival on Monday 14 July, I have been overwhelmed by their warmth, hospitality and amazing food. I am particularly grateful to Nada and Zahi Abu-Aqel and their children, who offered to host me for free at their house for five weeks, even though they didn’t know me. I would also like to thank the indefatigable and inspiring woman who set up the language classes, Maha Yakoub. Maha not only teaches the Palestinian Dialect and Standard Arabic course but also arranged my stay in Kufr Yasif with the Abu-Aqel family. The generosity of the people of Kufr Yasif has no limits.