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At 70 years of independence, Israel’s minorities reflect

The funeral of Israeli Druze police officer Kamil Shnaan in 2017. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The funeral of Israeli Druze police officer Kamil Shnaan in 2017. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

By Ariel Ben Solomon

With Israel’s Independence Day, the battle of the narratives over Israel’s creation begins anew with Muslim Israeli Arabs remaining highly critical of the state, despite living standards that dwarf those in Arab states bordering Israel, such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

Yet, with the rise of Islamists and the persecution of minorities, especially Christians, in the region gaining steam in recent years, some of Israel’s minorities say they are thankful that they are Israeli citizens and not living elsewhere in the region.

The southern Islamic Movement head Sheikh Hamad Abu Daabes told JNS in an interview in his home in the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev Desert that “we are part of the Arab public that see Israel’s independence—that came on the backs of the Palestinian refugees — as a day for nakba [Arabic for catastrophe].

“The vast majority of Palestinians living in Israel and abroad have this perspective, but we are trying to keep our composure and stay away from violence,” he said, adding that the struggle has become both a social and political one.

Daabes sees his movement’s goal as striving for better living conditions and equality in Israel.

Joint List Knesset member and Balad Party head Jamal Zahalka told JNS that “there was no independence in 1948; it was a new era of colonialism. Instead of the British Mandate, we got Zionist colonialism, whose first step was to conquer the land and expel the Palestinians.”

“It wasn’t a day of liberty, it was a day of nakba, of catastrophe for the Palestinians,” he said. “We have a slogan saying, ‘Your independence is our nakba.’”

It is not an event that occurred in 1948, but a continuing process, argued Zahalka, adding that Palestinians are still “separated and segregated from each other,” whether from Gaza and the West Bank, or in other countries abroad.

Asked about the strong reaction of Israelis, particularly from the right wing against this narrative and the use of nakba for Israeli independence, the Arab MK responded:

“The right is afraid of words and think if they change the word, they will change the reality, but our nakba is expressed in the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish.”

As for those Arabs who say that they have a better life than they would in any Arab country — he replied that you can always find people, such as those who once lived in apartheid South Africa, who say that life was better there than in other places.

These people who support Israel “are extreme victims of oppression because they are forced to say positive things so as to keep their status in Israeli society,” proclaimed Zahalka.

The (minority) positive view of Israel

Taking the opposite position is Atta Yemini Farhat, chairman of the Druze Zionist Council for Israel.

“We lived here under the occupation of the Arabs before 1948, and we are blessed and love Israeli independence,” he told JNS, “and that the nation of Israel returned after many years of galut [Hebrew for exile].”

Responding to Zahalka and those Arab figures who voice harsh rhetoric against Israel, Farhat stated: “Whoever is against Israel can leave and go to Syria or wherever. The Druze don’t want to rule the country, and feel themselves to be an integral part of the state.”

The Arab Spring eight years ago and the resulting chaos in the Arab world led the minorities of the region, such as Christians, to view Arab dictatorships as dangerous. Today, many minorities “are waving the Israeli flag,” said Farhat.

Christians, Bedouin and even Muslims are deciding to serve in the Israel army, he said.

Druze are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, unlike Arab Muslims and Christians, who are not required to serve but can volunteer.

“Many Arabs are fed up with the idea of a Palestinian state and are not interested in that, but living in this state and getting civil rights and building schools and so on,” said the Druze political activist.

Nakba was never a nakba; it is nonsense!” exclaimed Farhat.

From the Christian side

Shadi Halul, an Israeli Christian military captain (res.) who ran for the Knesset in the past on Yisrael Beytenu’s list, told JNS that he considers himself an Israeli Aramean Christian.

Halul, the head of the Christian IDF Officers Forum, which helps recruit and support Christians serving in the IDF, was adamant that he or other Christians not be described as Arabs or Palestinians, going on to argue that “the Druze are closer to Arab culture or Islam than Christians.”

Halul, from the Galilee, successfully led a struggle a few years ago in Israel to be registered on government documents as Christian Aramean instead of Arab.

Halul founded the Aramaic Christian Association in Israel around 10 years ago and helped recruit Christians into the IDF.

“Israel independence is also my independence; I feel part of the country,” he said. “And thank G-d that after the Holocaust, the Jews returned to their homeland and created freedom for the Jews and the Christians in Israel.”

“Without Jewish recognition of our roots, it wouldn’t have happened, since the Arabs even today do not recognize our Christian existence,” he asserted.

Last August, Halul founded the first Aramaic Christian pre-military program.

Discussing former Arab Christian Balad Party Knesset member Basel Ghattas, who identified himself both as an Arab and a Christian, Halul said that he “does not represent me or most Christians in Israel.”

“People like Ghattas want to be identified as Arab or Palestinian, which in essence means to be identified along Muslim lines,” he explained, adding that the former MK had power because of the support that the Muslims gave him, not from his Christian co-religionists.

Ghattas pled guilty last year for smuggling cell phones to prisoners, agreeing to serve two years in jail and resign from the Knesset.

While many may assume that most non-Jewish groups in Israel oppose the state, the reality is more complex.

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