A turning point for Arab Israelis

Arab-Israeli advocacy activist Yoseph Haddad  credit: Eyal Izhar
Arab-Israeli advocacy activist Yoseph Haddad credit: Eyal Izhar

For many Arabs in Israel, the October 7 horrors have clarified their identity: "This is Israel's 9/11. When something like this happens, we are united."

On October 9th, just two days after the horrific events that launched the Iron Swords war, vlogger Nuseir Yassin, best-known as "Nas Daily", posted the following on X (formerly Twitter): "For the longest time, I struggled with my identity. A Palestinian kid born inside Israel. Like…wtf. Many of my friends refuse to this day to say the word 'Israel' and call themselves 'Palestinian' only. But since I was 12, that did not make sense to me. So, I decided to mix the two and become a 'Palestinian-Israeli' I thought this term reflected who I was. Palestinian first. Israeli second. But after recent events, I started to think. And think. And think. And then my thoughts turned to anger. I realized that if Israel were to be 'invaded' like that again, we would not be safe… And I do not want to live under a Palestinian government. Which means I only have one home, even if I’m not Jewish: Israel… Palestine should exist too as an independent state. And I hope to see the country thrive… But it’s not my home. So, from today forward, I view myself as an 'Israeli-Palestinian'. Israeli first. Palestinian second."

Normally, Yassin publishes mainly short, light and entertaining videos on social networks under his popular "Nas Daily" brand, which has over a million followers. Now, he is using the platform he built to convey pro-Israel, pro-unity messages.

This is by no means a foregone conclusion. Israeli-Arabs, in any case, combine several components in their identities, from Palestinian Arab nationalism to Islamic belief, as well as daily life as citizens of the Jewish state. But in moments of crisis, the gaps widen.

For the most part, in previous hostilities and conflicts, Israeli-Arabs overwhelmingly sided with Palestinian Arabs. Such was the case with Operation Guardians of the Wall in early 2021, when a protest over a decision made by Israel’s Supreme Court regarding a landlord and tenant dispute that resulted in the eviction of six Palestinian families in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah spiraled out of control, resulting in IDF intervention when thousands of Israeli-Arabs around the country began rioting and looting.

But this is different kind of event, and the reaction of the majority of the Arab-Israeli public is also different. A study conducted by Nimrod Nir of the Agam Institute and Dr. Mohamed Khalaily among the Arab public shows that an overwhelming majority of the Israeli-Arab public opposes the surprise attack by Hamas, supports Israel's right to defend itself, and even expressed a willingness to volunteer to help civilians who were harmed during the attack. The findings indicate a turning point in the attitudes of the Arab public that, in previous clashes, expressed support and solidarity with the Palestinian side. The study shows that almost 80% of Israeli-Arabs oppose the Hamas attack, and 85% oppose the kidnapping of civilians. 66% of the respondents answered that Israel has the right to defend itself, compared with only 6% who said that it does not.

For Yassin this time there was no hesitation at all on whose side he should stand. "This is Israel's 9/11, unfortunately. When 9/11 happened, Muslims American were Americans first, so now I am Israeli first," he tells Globes.

"When there is a Hitler-level event, you cannot be neutral"

As a result of these statements, Yassin was enveloped in the warm embrace from Jews in Israel and around the world. "90% of the responses were positive. I was shocked by how hungry the Jewish Israelis were for partners. A minority of respondents wrote to me, saying 'Don't take sides,' but it was a minority. In the end, when the country's existence is under a real threat, neutrality is pushed aside. When there is a Hitler-level event, you cannot be neutral."

Yassin was among the first to stand by Israel, but he is not alone. More and more prominent personages in Israeli-Arab society came out against the harsh attack, including Israeli-Arab journalist-actress Lucy Aharish. "To everyone who asks, and curses, and swears at me, as why I hadn't responded, this is why," she posted online, along with a photo of her Jewish husband Tzachi Halevy, dressed in uniform with their son. "The one dearest to me has gone out to defend the country, and I have no rest. My heart is crushed by the sight of the horror and massacre that animals and sub-humans have committed against innocent people. No mercy, no compassion, no understanding."

In recent days, a woman from Kfar Aza posted a statement to her social network, telling how Aharish had assisted in rescuing two families trapped in their safe room by terrorists, alerting Halevy's unit, providing the location, and staying in contact throughout until the terrorists were eliminated and the families freed. "My hero, Lucy. An angel walking on earth," the woman wrote. Aharish also filmed an informational video in English, addressing the global audience, and has been serving throughout the current campaign as a one-woman information system.

"I felt deeply ashamed that it came from my people"

Celebs are not the only ones daring to speak out against Hamas. Five days into the fighting, a post went up by Louis Haj , an Arab resident of Acre, social activist, and former high-tech executive, who was previously involved in setting up Intel's development centers in Israel, Germany and Austria, and who now currently deals in procurement for foreign companies. Haj wrote: "As the dimensions of these unimaginable sadistic horrors are uncovered, I ask you to believe me when I say that I want it to be clear to you, and the whole world, that we stand as your brothers, as human beings, and as citizens of the country by your side... It is our simple and required, moral and human duty, to express abhorrence, to cry out loudly against unimaginable crimes.

"Our voice will be sharp and clear, unapologetic, unhesitant, unfaltering, without proportionality, with no ifs, ands, or buts. There are no dilemmas in the face of atrocities!"

Haj's post received more than 3,000 shares, was translated into English by online surfers, and an IDF commander even wrote to say he had read it to his troops. Speaking to "Globes", Haj said, "When I saw these events, I felt like I couldn't breathe. The horrors were beyond comprehension. I was in shock, like everyone else.

"I felt deeply ashamed that it came from my people, I felt the need to apologize. These are people who are supposed to be my partners. It's a bond that I wanted at that moment to break and cut myself off completely from these human monsters."

I spoke with Haj just before he entered a shiva at the home of a Jewish friend who had buried his soldier daughter. "I came to embrace him, strengthen him, and apologize. As Arabs in Israel, it is never easy for us, both when a soldier is killed and when a Palestinian is killed. This duality is always there."

Aren't you afraid to openly support Israel?

" In times of colossal horror, can we as human beings sit on the sidelines? I have always spoken plainly, and I'm not afraid of the reactions. But in my environment, I have many Arab friends who share my opinions but not all of them can post them. An Israeli-Arab who expresses himself, as I did, takes a risk."

The extremist minority tries to raise its head

The risk Haj mentions is not theoretical. During the fighting, there were cases where Arab-Israelis who expressed support for Israel were attacked by unknown persons. Thus, a day after Yoseph Haddad, an Arab-Israeli advocacy activist and CEO of the NGO Together Vouch for Each Other, published a post praising a bicycle sales business in Tayibe that donated dozens of bicycles to the residents of the south, the shop was set on fire.

Haddad, who has been posting every day in support of the residents of the south and the Israeli victims, commented on his Facebook page: "Human scum! Ever since that cursed Sabbath, sane Israeli-Arabs have had a strong desire to be part of the civilian effort. This is exactly what the extremist minority is afraid of.

"If you only knew how many times Arab business owners in Israel come up to me and say, 'Yoseph, you say what we think, but we don't have the courage to say it out loud.' The Arab public today is mobilized to help and support. The problem is that there is the extremist minority with excessive influence and power, and it threatens everyone."

Haddad is sure that at the start of the war, these extremists realized they must keep a low profile, but as the days go by, they are beginning to raise their heads. "In the beginning, a situation arose where this extreme minority realized they had to keep quiet so they wouldn't be condemned, but what will happen in a week or two as we move away from October 7th? It all depends on the police."

Indeed, the Israel Police and the State Attorney's Office are working around the clock on this matter. In recent days, the State Attorney authorized the police to open an investigation into dozens of cases where statements of support and praise for the Hamas terrorist acts were posted. So far, almost 100 suspects have been interrogated, with some already remanded in custody.

According to Haddad, this is an extremist minority that does not reflect the majority of the Arab public in Israel. "The majority of Israeli-Arabs are shocked by the atrocities they have seen. I'm a million percent sure that I'm talking about an extremist minority, but not everyone can express their voice in public. On Saturday evening, I received several calls from people who had cursed me in the past, and now they told me 'The penny has dropped.' They sent me videos in which they condemned the actions of Hamas, but after the story of the business that they set fire to in Tayibe, most asked me not to publish them."

The study of Israeli-Arab public opinion by Nimrod Nir and Dr. Muhammad Halaila also refers to this concern: 55% of survey respondents answered that they fear for their personal safety "to a great extent". That is why most remain silent. "Every Israeli-Arab I spoke to agrees that what is being done should not happen, but you have to understand that it is very difficult for an Arab to make his voice heard," explains Yassin.

However, he adds, this silence also makes a statement. "The fact that today there are not many voices supporting Hamas from among Israeli-Arabs is a good sign. Everyone remembers how, two years ago, during yhe Sheikh Jarrah period, everyone was out on the streets. The silence of Israeli-Arabs is the best thing you can ask for today."

Ahmed Abu Al'am, a board member of the Umm al-Fahm Football Club and the chairman of the Israel Football Association's committee for the promotion of football in Arab society in the periphery, is also sure that the restraint and silence by the majority of the Arab public today sends an important message. "From the minute it happened, I reacted to the events and condemned the actions of Hamas. I'm not afraid to respond. It has to be said that the Arab public in Israel should be hugely congratulated both for maintaining restraint, and not taking to the streets like at other times. Although they're trying to create a flare-up, there is no escalation within the borders of Israel."

"I want Israeli Jews to stop being so suspicious of us all the time," says Yassin. "When times get really hard, we are with you, we are part of the country, we want to be part of the country. Trust us."

"We are between two rocks and two hard places"

It sounds almost utopian - Jews and Arabs marching together, united against Hamas. But the situation, as usual, is far more complex. Along with support for Hamas that is rising among the extremist minority in Israeli-Arab society, many Jewish Israelis today are afraid of Israeli-Arabs joining the fray. This has also led, for example, to racist comments in neighborhood WhatsApp groups, with messages like, "Why are there still Arab construction workers here in the neighborhood?".

There is a low level of tolerance towards the Arab public in Israel these days. This, for example, happened to Mohammad Darawshe, a social activist and strategy manager at the Givat Haviva - Center for a Shared Society. Darawshe's cousin Awad was working as a paramedic at the Nova music festival on October 7th before he disappeared without a trace. Later it was discovered that he had been murdered. When Darawshe turned to a group of Jewish friends on WhatsApp asking for help, he discovered that not everyone was ready to hear there was also Arab pain.

"I am a member of a group that deals with peace education, and I shared a poster we made as a family that said we are still looking for information about my cousin. I received four responses from friends who wrote 'We share in your pain', and all the rest were responses of 'Why are we talking about the pain of the Arabs here?' An argument started and unpleasant statements were made. My friends in the group could not comprehend a situation in which there is pain other than Jewish pain.

"We are between two rocks and two hard places. One on hand, we feel obligated to the true belief that we are in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, we hold to the Israeli civil, social and economic identity that also demands we identify with it. The Israeli space is not comfortable or inviting for Israeli-Arabs at present, and neither is the Palestinian space. Both expect total identification with narratives with which we disagree."

Darawshe adds that while the Israeli-Arabs will not support the acts committed by Hamas against civilians, they also cannot remain indifferent to the pain of civilians in Gaza. "It is expected that we will not talk about the pain of the mothers who lost 300 children in Gaza. Even if there is justification for the amount of pain of the Palestinian citizens, we see that most of the victims are civilians and non-combatants. So, just as our human side makes very clear we are against harming innocent Israelis, we are also against injury to innocent Palestinians."

Changing misconceptions and achieving discourse

This reality is not new, the conflict between identities is not new, but it seems that recent events have brought Israeli society to an extreme point. And yet, Haddad feels optimistic. "I don't want to let the extremists on both sides win," he says, and tells a story that inspires hope.

"Last week, when I was sitting in the living room my Tel Aviv home, I heard shouting from outside: Arabic speakers shouldn't be here!'. I went downstairs to check on what was happening, and the man told me, 'My best friend was murdered in a massacre, and I see there's a son of a bitch here who speaks Arabic.' So, I took him aside and told him 'I served in the Golani brigade, I am a disabled IDF veteran, and I lost friends in the Second Lebanon War.' He wanted to hug me, saying, 'My brother, I love you'. I told him 'Wait, I haven't finished introducing myself. I am an Arab'. He was in shock."

The fellow explained to Haddad that he was not a racist but his friend was murdered, and he was unable to contain himself. Haddad made one request: "Don't generalize. I told him that before I went downstairs, I posted on Facebook about Youssef Ziadna, an Arab Bedouin from the Israeli city of Rahat, who saved more than 30 Jews from the massacre. I played him the recording of Ziadna saying, 'I'm an Israeli and there were Israelis there, and if I can help them why wouldn't I help them'. I play him the recording and the man starts to cry."

At that moment, the Jewish man asked the Arab man for forgiveness. The two shook hands and embraced. "It shows what power we humans have, to change misconceptions, and, with the right attitude, achieve discourse. This is what I want to do here. This is what we all need to do in Israel."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 22, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Arab-Israeli advocacy activist Yoseph Haddad  credit: Eyal Izhar
Arab-Israeli advocacy activist Yoseph Haddad credit: Eyal Izhar
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