The moral burden of being a Palestinian citizen of Israel

For Arabs with Israeli passports, life shifts between trauma and privilege, writes Anwar Mhajne

Israeli forces detain a group of Arab-Israelis in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod on May 13, 2021, during clashes between Israeli far-right extremists and Arab-Israelis. / AFP / Ahmad GHARABLI
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My sister is a nurse at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. She felt unsafe going to work this week even though a few months ago, she and other Arab healthcare workers like her were applauded for their work in Israel during the pandemic. My two brothers, who work in Tel Aviv, are similarly afraid. Last week, the town in which my other sister lives, Jadeidi Al Makr, was sealed off by Israeli police. My nephew, who is three, is having nightmares because he was recently with his father in our hometown of Umm Al Fahm, near Haifa, when police started throwing tear gas at protesters. The targeting of Arabs by Jewish extremists in recent weeks, often as Israeli police stand by, gives my family good reason to be afraid.

Although my family is Palestinian, we have Israeli citizenship. In the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, our land was included within the borders of the newly formed State of Israel. Today, about 21 per cent of the Israeli population is like us – Arabs, mostly Muslim but also some Christians and Druze. Many live in mixed cities, such as Haifa.

Growing up in Umm Al Fahm, an overwhelmingly Muslim city that is proud of its Islamic identity and Palestinian heritage, I always had a strong sense of pride in my family’s ancestry and culture. But it also taught me what it feels like to be a second-class citizen. In Israel, Arab and Jewish children are segregated during their school years. As a child, I learned about how Arab houses were demolished by the Israeli state, which is viewed in my community as a mere continuation of the annexation of Arab land that preceded Israel’s establishment. I learned about how the Bedouins, the indigenous Arab residents of the Negev desert, live in “unrecognised” villages.

I also remember the tyres burning at the entrance to Umm Al Fahm during the Second Intifada, when Arab citizens of Israel participated in protests in solidarity with other Palestinians. As young men from my town ran away from Israeli police, I felt frustration, anger and grief, and the sense that we really do not belong anywhere.

An Israeli police car burns after an Arab Israeli demonstration following the funeral of Mousa Hassouna in the central city of Lod near Tel Aviv, on May 11, 2021.  Hassouna was killed during clashes with Israeli security following an anti-Israel demonstration over tensions in Jerusalem. / AFP / -
An Israeli police car burns after a demonstration following the funeral of Mousa Hassouna, an Arab resident of Lod, on May 11, 2021. AFP

But I haven’t always felt that way. There have been moments – albeit sometimes dark ones – when I have felt part of the Israeli experience. When I was 19, I left my childhood home to go to Beer Sheva, a primarily Jewish city, to study medical laboratory science at Ben Gurion University. It’s a unique university, because it houses Arab and Jewish students together. That was my first time having a direct connection to Israel’s Jewish community.

It was also the first time I experienced how it feels to be under rocket attacks from Hamas, the militant group ruling Gaza, which is not far from Beer Sheva. I heard the warning sirens for the first time during Operation Cast Lead, as Israelis call the three-week war between Israel and Hamas in 2008-2009.

The rocket attacks were constant, and the Jews and Arabs living in our dorm found themselves sharing bomb shelters – and awkward conversations about the Palestine-Israel conflict. In these moments, it was difficult not to understand the fear and frustration of Jewish Israelis. I felt, for a minute, like I was in their shoes.

But I did remind my Jewish colleagues and neighbours frequently that the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza fear attacks, too, and they do not have the privilege of sheltering in a bunker. The majority of them are helpless civilians, including women and children, stuck in the crossfire. After all, the technology and weapons Israel uses are capable of causing more damage than any rocket launched by Hamas.

One night, as I walked to a restaurant in Beer Sheva with a couple of friends, I was caught off guard by rocket fire, and panicked because we were in the middle of the street and didn’t know where to take shelter. We squatted behind a wall, listening to the explosions of the Iron Dome intercepting two Hamas rockets.

The Jews and Arabs in our dorm found themselves sharing bomb shelters – and awkward conversations

It occurred to me again that Gaza has no Iron Dome, and that even though I was Palestinian, if I had been born on the “wrong” side of the border, I would have had a very different experience in this conflict – one that is much less privileged than my experience of being born within the borders of the State of Israel. Suddenly, with that realisation, it became difficult for me to cling exclusively to my Palestinian identity and to forget about how my Israeli citizenship, and the socioeconomic and political effects that come with it, has influenced and amplified my opportunities in life.

As much as I am a Palestinian, I am a second-class citizen of Israel, and as much as I am that, I am better off than other Palestinians. These are the layers of contradiction the conflict forces into my life and the lives of others in my community, and my awareness of them shifted my sense of identity from Palestinian to Palestinian-Israeli.

Ten years ago, I moved to the US to pursue graduate studies, and being there has further reinforced my dual identity. In America, I have encountered people from all backgrounds, and have found myself identifying as either Palestinian or Israeli, depending on what was most likely to avoid conflict. Even though I am an Arab Muslim, the US immigration and legal systems treat me as an Israeli. My Israeli passport either validates me or invalidates me in countries all over the world.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are sometimes praised by others in the Arab world on the very rare occasions in which one of us participates in an attack on other Israelis. And yet there are so many Arab and Muslim countries I cannot visit, even as an Arab, because of my passport.

A few years ago, I travelled to Turkey, and there I got another taste of how Israeli Jews are treated even in a country Israelis are allowed to visit. In Istanbul, the first thing my Turkish friends were told was not to tell anyone that I am from Israel and not to show my passport.

The connections I developed with my Jewish roommates, friends, mentors and colleagues have been stronger than any feeling that either I or they were the “other”. These relationships have helped me, in fact, to put myself in the shoes of the Jewish “other” and to learn and understand their narratives, even when I do not agree with the way they explain or respond to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. But they have also reaffirmed my attachment to my own cultural identity as a Palestinian, and my empathy for my community across all of Palestine – inside and outside of what is now Israel. Whenever violence against Palestinians erupts in East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank or in Israel, I feel it all over again.

Dr Anwar Mhajne is a political scientist and assistant professor at Stonehill College