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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region


Filed under: Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

 No. 478     May 2002

Israeli Arabs — A Growing Time Bomb

The riots by Israeli Arabs in October 2000, which took place in conjunction with the outbreak of a renewed wave of Palestinian violence against Israeli Jews, resulted in the deaths of 12 Israeli Arabs (and one from the West Bank) in confrontations with the police. The widespread rioting shocked the Israeli Jewish community and the Arabs even more.

These events brought the matter of the rights of Israeli Arabs to the fore in Israeli public discourse, and the subsequent participation of Israeli Arabs in suicide bombings and their assistance in other Palestinian attacks in Israel added a still more frightening dimension to the issue. In February 2002, the head of Israel’s General Security Service reported to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Iran and Hizballah, and not just Hamas, had succeeded in penetrating a minority of Israel’s Arab population.

Israelis are afraid to visit Arab villages; Israeli Arabs feel increasingly isolated and alienated, and their members of Knesset, for the most part, have often assumed entirely belligerent positions toward the State of Israel. In view of these events, and given the reported radicalization of some young Israeli Arabs (or as they increasingly identify themselves: Palestinians living in Israel), this growing time bomb within the country must be confronted. For 50 years civil peace existed 99 percent of the time and, according to a high-level retired security official interviewed for this article, “99 percent of the population never acted against Israel even though feeling they were not being treated fairly.”

In light of these events, it is important to examine the conditions within Israel that contribute in part to this new development. This is a brief review of the Jewish values that supportthe rationale to serve Israeli Arab citizens equally, the human needs of these Israeli citizens, and the Israeli government’s responses to their needs.

What Does Jewish Tradition Say?

The courts in Israel do not consider Israeli Arabs — after over 50 years as citizens — to be strangers. (The word ger can be translated as stranger or minority. The latter translation is preferred here). To Israel’s credit, there is no institutional racism or discrimination in the laws. Of course, no separate water fountains, seats, entrances or exits are to be found labeled for Arabs or Palestinians only.

Reading Jewish sources provides a framework for philosophical underpinnings — a rationale for action born of age-old teachings which have guided the Jews for centuries and continue to guide them today.

If Israeli Palestinians are entitled by law to equal services, they are not the same as the “strangers” to which Jewish texts of old refer. If our ancestors aspired to treat all residents equally, their arguments should resonate exponentially today among those of us who guide ourselves on Israel being a Jewish state and not just a state for Jews.

A thoughtful Jew, who is affected by Jewish teachings and takes them seriously, must wrestle with understanding the demands and expectations that Jewish teachings have upon the Jewish state. The Torah is replete with teachings and commandments regarding the treatment of the stranger.

The rabbis underlined the principle that “every human being is created by God” when exploring the beginning of Genesis. Because of that, Abraham is commanded to be a source of blessing for all families of the earth. In Leviticus 19:18 we read “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” Dr. Leo Jung, a mid-twentieth century scholar, felt that a strict interpretation would read “Love Thy Neighbor; He is Thyself.” Certainly the treatment of the “stranger” is given as an injunction in Leviticus 19:33 that “the stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as a homeborn among you” and that “you love him as thyself.”

According to tradition, the ger toshav (resident alien, if you will) was expected to live by the Noahide laws as the paradigm for all humankind. These requirements include promoting justice, not engaging in cruelty to animals, and disdaining theft, robbery, homicide, idolatry, and immorality. In the ancient tradition, such people were admitted to citizenship. This brought them automatic entitlement to what today we call social services, supporting non-Jews at the equivalent level given to Jews. Free burial for non-Jews in need was required as well as a share in charitable gifts. In the Mishna, Rabbi Eliezer notes these strangers have a share in the world to come, Ke’Yisroel, even as Jews do.

Maimonides, our greatest sage, in the 12th chapter of Hilkhot Melakhim, taught that the ger toshav was to be treated gently and kindly, even as a fellow [sic] Jew.

The Jewish question here is: Are all citizens of Israel eligible for equal treatment under the law in regard to the most elemental services a government pledges to provide its citizens — housing, jobs, schooling, human services, elemental infrastructures for living?

A Brief History

After the United Nations 1947 partition proposal for the creation of a Jewish state was rejected by the Arab countries but accepted by the Jewish Agency, the 1948 War of Independence that ensued (what the Palestinians call El Nakba — the Catastrophe) ended with some 650,000 Jews and about 160,000 Arabs living in the newly established State of Israel. Of these Arabs, 111,500 were Muslim, 34,000 were Christian, and 14,500 were Druze and other smaller, less identifiable entities. (In pre-1948 Israel, between 800,000 and 825,000 Arabs resided in the area.)1

Those Palestinians (or Arabs as they then called themselves) who remained in Israel and therefore were under Israeli law were granted restricted Israeli citizenship, being allowed to vote and being eligible under the law to equal services. Until 1966, however, they were considered a security threat, and thus were restricted in their mobility and citizen roles. They were under military government in the Galilee and part of the south. Special identification cards were issued and their ability to travel freely was controlled by the government.2 The resultant complex and ambivalent set of attitudes and practices, official and unofficial, was further complicated in 1966 when the Israeli Arabs were relieved from living under military control and placed under total civil government authority.

Almost simultaneously with the lifting of military rule, the Israeli government recognized 165 Arab villages and towns. At the same time, the nomadic encampments of Bedouin and other small villages in Israel were not recognized, but have today grown to number some 80 to 100 villages in the north and south of the country with a population of from 70,000 to 80,000 residents.3

The land in Israel was classified into three zones — for urban, agricultural, or park purposes. The unrecognized Arab villages were located on land that was dedicated, at that time, solely for agricultural or park purposes. To this day, these villages do not appear on any Israeli map. More importantly, they lack paved roads and are not connected to electrical or water services. Education and social services must be sought outside the village borders and no statistics from these villages are included in government data.4 Health services are available in only a handful of the villages. According to the Association of Forty, an Israeli non-governmental organization, the unrecognized villages present, at the very least, a profile of despair and difficulty.

The question remains: what does a group or class of citizens have a right to by way of services, regardless of negative attitudes or actions of some among them? As the decades passed, the aspirations of Israeli Arabs grew. Israel became more prosperous as did its Jewish citizens, but great disparities between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens became increasingly apparent.

Indisputably, Israeli Arabs did benefit from the increased wealth of Israel. Indeed, utilizing economic and educational indices comparing Israeli Arabs to Arabs in the surrounding countries demonstrates conclusively how much better off they are than their “cousins” outside Israel. In addition, health services have been another setting where valiant efforts have been made by the government to provide equal services and professional access.

However, the ambivalent feelings of the Israel government and Israelis toward the Arabs who chose to stay in Israel after the 1948 war must be reckoned with. Israeli Arabs were initially viewed as enemies within the State of Israel, under military government control, this despite the fact that Israel’s Declaration of Independence called for equal treatment under the law of all its citizens, regardless of their beliefs or national origin. To this day, only Druze or Bedouin serve in the army. The rationale is to save Israeli Arabs from bearing arms against their brothers. Thus, security concerns remain at the base of this decision.

The courts have been consistent in insisting on treating Israeli Arabs equally under the law, but, as in democracies everywhere, ways have been found to delay, avoid, and sometimes ignore the findings of the law.

Existing Disparities between Israeli Arabs and Jews

Throughout the decades, Israeli Arabs consistently report that they have no intention of moving out of Israel. As Israeli citizens they compare their status to Israeli Jews and are able to prove great disparities between the two groups. The argument as to how much better off they are as a result of being in Israel, as compared to Arabs elsewhere, is small solace to these Arabs who are Israeli citizens.

Some of the following data demonstrate these disparities.5 (All data quoted in this article refer to citizens of the State of Israel who reside within the state’s pre-1967 borders.) 

Demographic Highlights

  Arabs Jews

Annual percentage of growth exclusive of immigration 3.1 1.2
Average persons per household room 1.6 1.0
Median years of schooling 10.2 12.2
Live Births per 1000  
    Females 77.1 79.7
    Males 73.8 75.9
Infant mortality rate per 1000 12.8 6.3
Net reproduction rate 1.92 1.25
Fertility rate per 1000 women aged 15-49 134.7 71.9

Occupations (in percent)

  Arabs Jews

Scientific/Academic 5.6 12.5
Professional/Technical 8.4 14.5
Administrative/Managerial 1.3 5.5
Clerical 6.4 18.2
Sales and Services 12.3 17.7
Agricultural 3.6 2.2
Skilled workers in construction, industry, mining 47.1 21.5
Unskilled 15.3 8.0


These statistics point out several important issues for Israel as a Jewish state. The birthrate alone — net reproduction and fertility — confirms how quickly the Israeli Arab population is growing. If the nearly 1,000,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union had not come to Israel, Arab citizens would constitute over 25 percent of the population rather than the 18-19 percent they do today. Projecting into the future, if there is no further massive immigration, the Israeli Arabs will represent over 25 percent of the population within 10 years.

If their birthrate continues, the Arab population will double in about 23 years. In Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, contrary to demographic trends elsewhere, there is no sign of diminution of the Arab birthrate. If no further great immigration occurs among Jews, it would take about 60 years for the Jewish population to double.

Additionally, one by-product of the 1990s has been an increase in the number of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who have taken up residence in the Israeli Arab sector. Israeli Bedouin have been marrying Palestinian brides from the Gaza Strip and taking up residence in the Negev. Some 30-50,000 Jordanians, mostly of Palestinian background, have sought employment in the Galilee. Thus, the last decade has witnessed Palestinian Arab immigration as an added demographic factor.

Ironically, by 1998, 44 percent of Israeli Jewish youth believed that Arab citizens should be deprived of at least some of their rights because “Arabs endanger the state’s security and therefore we need to get rid of them.” Another 7 percent of the youth said “Arabs do not deserve rights in the Jewish state.” Feelings of racism have been tracked and racist attitudes among Jewish youth against Arabs have risen from 34 percent in 1974 to 39 percent in 1988.6 The current situation has undoubtedly sharpened feelings on both sides. This only highlights how increasingly difficult the issue will be for educators in the future.

On the other hand, in 1999 an Arab woman was named Miss Israel for the first time in the nation’s history. “I am totally Israeli, and I do not think about whether I am an Arab or a Jew,” said 21-year-old Rana Raslan, from Haifa. This development sent an important message of acceptance of Israeli Arabs to both Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations.

Regardless of changing attitudes among both Israeli Jews and Arabs, the Israel’s Arab citizens will continue to lag in their educational and occupational status unless government action is taken soon. The status quo can do nothing to give hope to an increasingly despondent minority. How that would contribute to stability in the future is a question Israel’s officials must confront. The issues are admittedly complex but must be dealt with beyond rhetoric.

Every Israeli government has been aware of the disparity regarding services. Almost every governmental administration has set aside money to ameliorate these disparities, but perceived (or real) exigencies diminished or diverted the resources. The information which follows shows some of the consequences of the continued and sometimes growing gaps between the Jewish and Arab communities in Israel.


Of 337,000 public housing units built during 1975-2000, less than 1,000 were in recognized Arab communities. Currently, housing built by private contractors is often constructed at the initiative of the government. Ninety-three percent of the land in Israel is owned or controlled by the government, the Israel Lands Authority, or the Jewish National Fund. Some 2.8 percent is privately owned by Jews and 4.2 percent by Arabs. Rarely is public land leased to Arabs. Only 2.5 percent of the Arab-owned land is inside Arab municipalities, the rest is in Jewish municipalities.7

The present “Master Plan” of the Ministry of Housing for the next 20 years indicates that 700,000 new units are needed, of which 211,000 are in various stages of planning. Of those in the planning stage, 5,000 are intended for use by Arab families.8 Thus, if the plan is implemented, the Arabs who represent nearly 20 percent of the present population will receive barely 2 percent of the housing. The Israeli Arabs have received only one-third of 1 percent of the public housing built in the last quarter century. Arab housing density is thus much more intensive. This is not to say that a middle class does not exist, but these data reflect the conditions of the majority of the populace.

The sewage infrastructure is an essential part of housing. Over 50 percent of Israeli Arabs use septic tanks. Projections for the future will cover at most three Arab localities of the 74 covered in the new master plan (none of which included the “unrecognized” villages), while most sewer system building projections for Jewish localities will replace existing systems because almost all Israeli Jews have sewer systems already.

Yet another dimension related to housing needs is the availability of mortgage money. Lower-cost mortgages are available to Israeli army veterans, and about 70 percent of Israelis serve in the army, but those who do not serve are entitled to 62 percent of the loans available to Israeli veterans. Consequently, the economic status of Israeli Arabs in general, coupled with their inability to receive loans equivalent to those granted veterans, has resulted in only 8 percent of Israeli Arabs receiving mortgages.

This reality further exacerbates the gap in housing between Jews and Arabs. In addition to the continued existence of the unrecognized villages, no new Arab villages have been recognized since the state’s beginning, in spite of the exponential population growth of Israeli Arabs due almost solely to the birthrate. In contrast, over 600 Jewish communities have been established since 1948. New Jewish immigrants are provided rental assistance, but young Israeli Arab couples find they must live with their parents until enough money is accumulated to buy housing.


Farming remains a major endeavor for Israeli Arabs who work on privately-owned land. They are allocated 2.3 percent of the water quotas and use 98.6 percent of their quotas annually. In contrast, Jews are allocated state-owned land if required and receive over 97 percent of the water quotas, though they use only 80.6 percent of their quotas. All governmental ministries have been charged by law to meet the needs of all Israeli citizens and tend to their needs with no discrimination, distributing its resources without prejudice.

Other Services

There are other areas in which there are great disparities in access to services, education, and/or employment. Some general figures will further contrast the situation for Israeli Arabs.9 By the late 1990s, 28.3 percent of Israeli Arabs remained below the poverty line compared to 16 percent of Jews. The Arabs’ average per capita income was 44 percent that of Jews. Education levels also have sharp contrasts. Among the Arabs, 42 percent dropped out before completing high school, compared to 12 percent of Jewish students. Among women, 11.7 percent of Arabs are illiterate compared to 4 percent of Jewish women. In the Israeli Arab sector, 75.6 percent of boys and 83.5 percent of girls aged 14-17 were enrolled in school in 1998, but obviously the completion rate is a problem.

At the higher education level, an irony exists in that 3,895 Arabs with advanced degrees were unemployed in January and February of 2001. Of all people seeking employment at that time, 24 percent were Arabs, but among academics and professionals seeking employment 30 percent were Arabs. Thus, “the more education [Israeli Arabs] have, the lower their chances of finding suitable work.”10

There are 4,950 positions for academics in Israeli institutions of higher learning; 50 are filled by Israeli Arabs. The Ministry of Education allocations to Druze and Bedouin, which together comprise 20 percent of the Israeli Arab population, show that the two groups receive proportionately more per capita allocations than is being given to other Israeli schools.11

According to the Ministry of Education,12 there is a five-year plan for the Arab sector that relates to all aspects of educational activity: increasing the number of pupils entitled to matriculation certificates, reducing dropping out, as well as adding study hours, increasing the auxiliary staff (psychologists, counselors, truant officers), enhancing science and technology education, and promoting special education services. Furthermore, there is an affirmative action plan with regard to construction and development of school buildings. Some 2,000 new classrooms have been allocated for 2001, of which 585 classrooms are intended for the Arab, Bedouin, and Druze sectors. Furthermore, among the non-Jewish population, the number of persons with little or no formal education (0-4 years of schooling) has decreased from 29 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 1999.

The Ministry of Justice has 1,797 employees, of whom 32 (1.7 percent) are Arabs. On the bench itself there are 426 justices at all court levels, of whom 19 (4.5 percent) are Israeli Arabs. In 1999, Abdel Rahman Zuabi, Deputy President of the Nazareth District Court, became the first Arab to sit on Israel’s Supreme Court.

Given the economic status of Israeli Arabs, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare might be expected to reflect the “clients” they serve with a representative number of Israeli Arabs, but such is not the case. Of 3,535 employees in the ministry, 170 (4.8 percent) are Israeli Arabs and, of the approximately $875 million of the ministry’s budget, approximately $12 million was dedicated specifically to Israel’s Arab citizens. Undoubtedly, more than $12 million is received by Israeli Arabs when National Insurance is included, but all data indicate that there is no proportionate share of welfare resources being devoted to their needs by any measurement.

This is the case even though 78 Arab local municipalities out of a total of 82 are in a socio-economic condition defined as extremely low. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the optimum socio-economic condition, 78 are rated under 4, and most are between 1 and 2. In the Jewish sector, however, we find only 29 of 183 municipalities (including regional municipalities similarly defined) between 1 and 4.13

Further in the area of unemployment, immediately before the current intifada there was a rate of unemployment ranging from 11.5 to 27.5 percent in 18 recognized communities, but only one community was included in the government’s three-year plan for special (focused) treatment.14

The government has always faced a dilemma regarding the use of Arabs in the defense industries, the Ministry of Defense, and, as noted, the army itself. Although Druze and some Bedouin have come to serve in the army, these groups represent, as mention before, about 20 percent of the total non-Jewish population.15

According to government statistics,16 the median years of schooling of Israeli Arabs has risen incredibly over a 35-year period (1961-1996) from 1.2 to 10.4 years. Infant death rates per thousand live births decreased significantly during that same 35-year period. In the Muslim population, the infant death rate dropped from 46.4 per thousand births to 10.0; among Christians the decrease was from 42.1 to 6.7; among the Druze it dropped from 50.4 to 8.9 deaths.

Minority communities often face developmental challenges, especially when a language different from that spoken by the majority group is used at home and at school. There are several other factors that explain the reason why the gap between economic development in the Arab sector and that of the Jewish sector has yet to be closed, among them:17

  • The average family size in the Arab sector is far higher than that of Jewish families, greatly reducing the relative number of financial providers per dependent.

  • Participation of women in the work force is still very low in the Arab sector, further reducing the average family income.

  • Education levels in the Arab sector are relatively lower than those in the Jewish sector, often leading to lower incomes.

  • The majority of Israeli Arabs live in small communities with limited economic infrastructure. This plays a contributing factor in employment in unskilled or semiskilled fields, as well as the higher overall rates of unemployment.

  • The lack of easy access to places of employment can also prevent employment commensurate with the skill or education level of the job seeker.

Toward Equity

The ongoing ambivalence toward Israeli Arab citizens can be seen as having been mitigated very little since the state’s beginning if one compares their status and level of services to that available to Jews in the same span of time. It is true that Israeli Arabs fare better than their counterparts in Arab countries. But their counterparts are in countries which fail to serve any of their citizens well, being for the most part non-democratic, often corrupt countries, ruled frequently by dictators.

The comparison is hardly a measure to bring satisfaction to thoughtful Israeli Jews who still represent a majority of its citizenry. At the time of this writing, as many governments and people in the world unfairly equate Zionism with racism, I would rather explain the governments of Israel as having engaged in benign neglect. The very miracle of Israel’s continued existence and the incredible nature of its accomplishments calls for turning to this issue. Israel’s strength has been to draw on its roots as a democracy and as a Jewish state. The courts and the parliament have been firm in that commitment. Given the political schisms and often unshared visions as to the direction some would have Israel move — to a theocracy at the expense of its democratic commitments — there is much to be emulated within Israel. No country is perfect. Even the United States, to its great shame, did not confront its own grave shortcoming as a segregated country until well over 150 years into its existence. But we recognize that “late” is better than “never.”

It is precisely because Jewish teachings are so strong and unequivocal that Israel must act now. It will give the lie to the falsity, duplicity, and cynicism of the accusations made against it. Now, more than ever, Israel must call upon its democratic and Jewish roots to “bring liberty to the land and all the inhabitants thereof.” Indeed, if not now, when?

*     *     *


* The author is grateful to Dr. Galia Golan, Professor Emeritus, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

1. As of December 2000, there were 6,201,000 people living in Israel, of whom 4,882,000 were Jews. Of the remaining 1,319,000, over 1,000,000 were Arabs. Sergio Della Pergola, World Jewish Demography at the Beginning of the 21st Century, Selected Data (Jerusalem: Department of Immigration and Absorption, December 2000). Encarta Encyclopedia. 1948 data are drawn from the Encyclopedia Judaica.

2. Encarta Encyclopedia. An early and consistent advocate of equality for Israeli Arabs was Elie Eliachar, who also advocated an independent Palestinian state as early as 1970. He served as a member of the Supreme Council of Defense under Ben Gurion. See Philip Gilon and Rex Collings, Israelis and Palestinians, Co-Existence Or… (London, 1977).

3. U.S. State Department, Human Rights Report on Israel’s Treatment of Israeli Arabs, February 25, 2000.

4. Geocartography Institute, for Union of Local Authorities, Studies, 1998.

5. Data are culled from the Israel Government Digest, Sikkuy, B’tzelem, the Israel Association of Human Rights, and the Arab Association for Human Rights, 1993-1996.

6. Ofra Mezels and Dr. Reuven Kal, Prejudice Among Israeli Youth, 1974-1988.

7. Correspondence with Shuli Dichter, Director of Sikkuy, April 13, 2002.

8. All reported data drawn from Israel Central Bureau of Statistics and the State Comptroller’s Office.

9. All figures from Israel Government Statistical Abstract #49 (1998).

10. Report on Equality and Integration of Arab Citizens in Israel, 2000-2001 (Jerusalem, Sikkuy), p. 25.

11. Figures are drawn from Looking at the Budget of the State of Israel — 1998 (Jerusalem: ADVA Center, December 1997).

12. Ministry of Education, Facts and Figures 2001, pp. 31, 41, and 93.

13. Report on Equality and Integration of Arab Citizens in Israel, 1999-2000 (Jerusalem, Sikkuy), p. 51.

14. Ibid.

15. There are about 90,000 Druze and 120,000 Bedouin, representing about 20 percent of the Arab population. Source: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Sikkuy.

16. Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

17. Ibid.