‘We’re in this together.’ To Hamas, all citizens are targets, say Arab Israelis

As the country grapples with the escalating aftermath of Hamas’s onslaught, Arab citizens share their shock, pain, loss – and some concern for a repeat of the 2021 riots

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Wounded Israelis arrive at the Soroka Medical center in Beersheba, southern Israel, October 7, 2023. (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)
Wounded Israelis arrive at the Soroka Medical center in Beersheba, southern Israel, October 7, 2023. (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)

Awad Darawshe, a 23-year-old Arab Israeli paramedic, arrived at the scene of the Hamas massacre of partygoers at a music festival near Gaza on October 7 to treat the wounded. His friends begged him to leave the embattled area, but he insisted on staying to perform his duty. He was killed by Hamas terrorists, who stole his ambulance and drove it into Gaza.

Darawshe’s story stands as a symbol of the contribution and sacrifice of members of Israel’s Arab minority in facing the deadly Hamas assault that claimed the lives of over 1,300 Israelis, the majority of them civilians.

“Arabs have been hurt by this attack in the same way as Jews. Not in the same numbers, but we have been targets too. Hamas also shoots rockets on Arab towns,” Shahira Shalaby, co-deputy director at the shared society nonprofit Abraham Initiatives, said in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“We are in this together. Arabs have been shocked as much as Jews at the astonishing number of people killed, including small children, and of hostages taken. We have also been asking ourselves who could humanly be capable of such an act. We are speechless,” added Shalaby, who had a short stint as Haifa deputy mayor in 2020.

“We do not justify this massacre in any way. We condemn it in the harshest possible manner. We are hurting as much as Jews. All boundaries have been crossed,” she continued. “For days Arabs in the south were afraid of the possibility of armed terrorists still present in the area.

She also noted that many Arab communities, which have long suffered from poor infrastructure, have insufficient shelter from rocket attacks. Israel in recent years has increasingly relied on fortified rooms — a requirement in all new homes — to protect the population in place of public shelters. But Arab towns have rampant illegal construction due to a lack of government-granted permits, and these homes often are not built to code.

Shalaby’s words were echoed by Jamal Alkirnawi, a social activist from Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in southern Israel.

“We are heartbroken. Those who were slaughtered were our friends and neighbors,” he said. “We have good relations with our Jewish communities along the Gaza border. Many Rahat residents work in agriculture in the kibbutzim. Some of them were killed in the fields on the morning of October 7.”

Shortly after the massive Hamas assault began, teams of Bedouin residents of the northern Negev launched search missions to locate missing people while Hamas terrorists were still roaming the area, Haaretz reported.

Hamas’s devastating attack has drawn widespread condemnation from Israel’s Arab citizens for its unprecedented brutality, though a few cases have emerged of public expressions of solidarity with Hamas, such as six students at the University of Haifa and one at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba who were suspended for social media posts in support of the terror group.

Druze residents hand out food to Israeli soldiers who guard on a road near the Israeli border with Lebanon, on October 9, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

But mostly, Arabs and Jews have worked side by side in its aftermath to rescue the victims, treat the wounded in hospitals, and keep the country running during the tragedy. Dozens of Arab Israelis were gunned down by Hamas terrorists, or killed by Hamas rockets fired on Israeli towns.

In 2009, Alkirnawi established “A New Dawn in the Negev,” a Bedouin-Jewish coexistence organization. He put the number of Bedouins killed during the war at 18, of which at least five were from Rahat. His nonprofit has set up a “mobile situation room” to assist Bedouin families, particularly in unrecognized villages, to cope with the ongoing crisis by providing mental health assistance from psychologists and social workers.

Jamal Alkirnawi, founder and executive director of the NGO “A New Dawn in the Negev,” a coexistence project targeting Bedouin youth at risk, Tel Aviv, 2019 (Rami ZInger)

“Bedouins occupy the lowest socioeconomic tier in Israeli society. Consequently, they are especially vulnerable in the current emergency. We are talking about tens of thousands of people – many of whom don’t have rocket shelters. In an unrecognized village, a family of four was directly hit by a Hamas rocket and died instantly,” said Alkirnawi, adding that eight Bedouins in total have so far been killed by missiles from Gaza.

The social activist, together with other volunteers from the area, opened a logistics center in Segev Shalom, near Beersheba, to distribute supplies to families who have had to leave their homes, or who are in dire financial straits due to daily laborers not being able to work.

‘To a terrorist invading Israel, all citizens are targets’

Arabs make up around 22% of the Israeli population. While they are Israeli citizens by law, many of them find it hard to identify with a country that explicitly defines itself as “Jewish” and that excludes them from its national narrative, centered around Zionism. Many feel they share a common history, language and national narrative with the other segments of the Palestinian people, in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the diaspora.

The issue of identity is therefore a fraught one for many members of the minority, starting from its very name. Some define themselves as Arab Israelis, others as Israeli Arabs, others as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

Nuseir Yassin, creator of the one-minute Nas Daily videos and a meetup he arranged in Tel Aviv (Courtesy Nuseir Yassin)

Nuseir Yassin, who has become an internet sensation in recent years thanks to his travel video blog “Nas Daily,” with 21 million followers on Facebook, wrote on Monday on X, formerly Twitter: “For the longest time, I struggled with my identity. 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.”

The social media star, a native of Arraba in the Lower Galilee who lives today in Dubai, said that he had a “shock” after hearing news of the Hamas onslaught on Israelis. “I realized that if Israel were to be ‘invaded’ like that again, we would not be safe. To a terrorist invading Israel, all citizens are targets.”

“I do not want to live under a Palestinian government. Which means I only have one home, even if I’m not Jewish: Israel. That’s where all my family lives. That’s where I grew up. That’s the country I want to see continue to exist so I can exist. So from today forward, I view myself as an ‘Israeli-Palestinian. Israeli first. Palestinian second,’” he added.

Preventing a repeat of the 2021 clashes between Jews and Arabs

Besides the feelings of shock and horror at the senseless brutality, Arab Israelis are also wary of a repeat of the events of May 2021, when during the IDF’s Guardian of the Walls operation against Gaza, violent clashes broke out between the Arab and Jewish communities in several parts of the country, with lynchings taking place in a number of mixed cities against members of both groups.

“In 2021, gangs of armed right-wing Jewish extremists were bused into Arab towns to retaliate against Arabs. Nobody imagined then that such a thing could be possible. We are afraid that it might happen again,” former Haifa deputy mayor Shalaby said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited the battered city of Sderot near the Gaza border on Wednesday. During the visit, he revealed that he had instructed police chief Kobi Shabtai to be prepared for a “Guardian of the Walls 2” scenario, and claimed that inter-communal riots were “imminent.” He also announced it would be made easier for civilians in Sderot to acquire weapons for self-defense, a prerogative limited today to residents of West Bank settlements.

Medical staff arrange a makeshift emergency underground hospital in the parking lot of the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa in northern Israel, on October 12, 2023. (Thomas COEX / AFP)

In spite of Ben Gvir’s claims, there have been no reports of clashes between Jews and Arabs in Israel since the onslaught and Israel’s declaration of war against Hamas. Local leaders in mixed cities seem to have learned the lesson from May 2021. “In at least three mixed cities — Haifa, Nof Hagalil (formerly known as Upper Nazareth), and Ramle — checkpoints were set up to make sure that no groups of outsiders could enter those towns and carry out violent acts against Arabs,” Shalaby said.

Akram Sakalla, an Arab member of the city council of Lod, a mixed city in central Israel that witnessed violent confrontations between Arabs and Jews during Guardian of the Walls, confirmed that some lessons were learned from those tragic events. “The situation is quiet for now. There is a large police presence, patrols among the neighborhoods in order to keep the quiet, and apparently the Shin Bet is also present, according to reports from the police itself and the city’s administration,” the council member said in an interview.

A car that was burned during clashes between Jewish and Arab residents of Lod, in the central Israeli city of Lod, May 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Lod Mayor Yair Revivo said in a statement to The Times of Israel that the city’s administration was doing everything to keep the peace in the mixed community, adding that “we want to strongly convey the message that Arabs are not our enemies. Hamas is.” He praised residents for their efforts at solidarity and maintaining the city’s social fabric.

“Lod has not been the same since 2021,” council member Sakalla said. “Suspicion is still present between Jews and Arabs, even though a number of initiatives have been launched to mend inter-communal relations.”

“It is hard to predict at this point if violence will erupt following the Hamas attack. It will depend on how long the war in Gaza drags on, if expands to the north, or, God forbid, if something happens on al-Aqsa,” referring to the mosque situated on the flashpoint Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, a source of constant friction between Muslims and Jews given the sanctity of the place for both religions.

Lod city council member Akram Sakalla, from the local list “Arab call,” September 2023 (courtesy)

“At this point, neither Jews nor Arabs are interested in an iteration of the 2021 riots. Ben Gvir said that the lynches of Guardian of the Walls are about to happen again. It is not a smart thing to say. It can be perceived as a form of incitement.”

“Today, people in Lod today will think twice if they want to deepen the divide. We are not a quiet mixed city like Jaffa or Acre,” he said, referencing two cities on the Israeli coast, in the vicinity of Tel Aviv and Haifa respectively. “But people realize that inter-communal tensions will blow up in their faces. We need new thinking to restore relations.”

“Once, I used to believe in coexistence. After the May 2021 riots, I stopped. Today, I think we need to strive for ‘equality in coexistence.’ We live next to each other, but not with each other, and we are not equal,” Sakalla continued.

File: Police are seen in Lod during ethnic rioting in the mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel, May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Arabs and Jews in Jaffa watch out for each other

Various initiatives have been launched throughout Israel to preserve relations between Jews and Arabs during the ongoing war, and prevent the conflict from negatively affecting coexistence.

Only a few hours after the start of the Hamas onslaught, and as rocket sirens went off in southern and central Israel, Amir Badran, an Arab city council member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, and some friends launched “The Guard for Jewish-Arab Partnership.”

Amir Badran, member of the Tel Aviv- Jaffa municipality with the local list ‘Kulanu HaiIr – Kulna il-Balad’ (August 2023 – Credit: Boaz Oppenheimer)

Within a few days, the initiative garnered thousands of members across all sections of the Jaffa population, as residents came together to prevent the inter-communal violence of 2021 from repeating itself.

The main purpose of the guard is to physically intervene in cases of violence by calming down the situation, document the facts, and offer solidarity, Badran told The Times of Israel.

The initiative enlisted the leaders of the city’s religious communities — Muslims, Christians and Jews — who have all appealed to their congregations to behave with restraint. The guard will be on higher alert during moments of potential tension, such as after prayer times of the three religious communities.

“Jews are afraid of what happened on the Gaza border. Arabs are afraid after hearing that Ben Gvir called on people to arm themselves. We do not want outsiders to come into our community and incite violence,” Badran said.

“We need to come together and look after each other. We want Jews and Arabs to stand in the front line, together.”

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