What to Know About the Arab Citizens of Israel
Backgrounder

What to Know About the Arab Citizens of Israel

Arabs represent one-fifth of Israel’s population. Systemic discrimination, outbreaks of communal violence, and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to strain their ties with Israel’s Jewish majority.
Arab citizens of Israel stand near demolished houses in the northern city of Qalansawe.
Arab citizens of Israel stand near demolished houses in the northern city of Qalansawe. Ammar Awad/Reuters
Summary
  • Called Israeli Arabs by Israel and much of the international media, and Palestinian citizens of Israel by some others, the Arab citizens of Israel comprise just over 20 percent of the population.
  • They have the same rights as Jewish Israelis but face widespread discrimination. A history of separation has meant the two peoples mostly live apart, except in certain mixed cities.
  • Despite this, an Arab political party—the Islamist United Arab List, or Ra’am—entered into Israel’s government for the first time in 2021.

Introduction

The Arab citizens of Israel, who comprise slightly more than one-fifth of Israel’s total population, possess the same rights as Jewish Israelis under the law. They are distinct from most Palestinians in the West Bank, who are governed by the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinians in Gaza, who live under Hamas’s rule, as well as most Arab residents of East Jerusalem, who have more restricted rights. But many of them consider themselves second-class citizens, and some observers fear that turmoil that has roiled the Holy Land in recent months augurs poorly for future relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab, largely Muslim minority.

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An escalation of violence in 2021 led to heightened tensions between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab, largely Muslim minority. Yet, soon after, an Arab party entered the country’s government for the first time. More than a year later, those political gains will be tested in the country’s fifth election, set for November, in less than four years.

Who are Arab citizens of Israel?

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The Israeli government refers to them as “Israeli Arabs,” and Israeli and global media usually use similar phrasing. Some members of this community identify themselves as “Palestinian citizens of Israel” or just as Palestinian to indicate their rejection of Israeli identity. Others prefer to be referred to as Arab citizens of Israel because they are seeking equal rights as Israeli citizens. The phrase is used in this Backgrounder, as it represents the current political and legal reality.

Arab citizens of Israel descend from those who remained after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which led to Israel’s creation out of the British Mandate of Palestine, then home to about 1.2 million Arabs. After more than 700,000 of them were expelled or departed from Israel in what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe, about 150,000 remained [PDF] and automatically became citizens, forming about half of the country’s population. But unlike Jewish citizens, these people were subjected to military rule until 1966. Today, about 21 percent of Israel’s population is Arab (roughly two million people). The majority are Sunni Muslims, though there are also many Christians.

Where do they live?

Most Israeli cities have either primarily Jewish or primarily Arab populations. Towns in Galilee, the so-called Little Triangle along the 1949 Armistice Line that delineated Israel’s borders, and the Negev region have mostly Arab populations. This continuing separation is due to factors including the legacy of restrictions imposed at the time of Israel’s founding, which outline where non–Jewish Israelis can live; separated schools; and labor laws that discriminated against Arabs, as well as prevailing prejudices against Arab citizens residing in Jewish neighborhoods.

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“Technically you don’t have redlining, technically you don’t have formal, Jim Crow–type segregation. In practice you do,” says Palestinian American historian Rashid Khalidi. Still, this informal separation doesn’t prevail everywhere, Khalidi says. About one-tenth of the Arab citizens of Israel live in what are officially called “mixed” cities, where the populations are intermingled, such as Haifa and Lod (the Hebrew name for the city Arabs call al-Lyd).

Do they have the same rights as other Israelis?

Officially, the Arab citizens of Israel have had equal rights since Israel’s creation. The major difference is that, unlike Jewish Israelis, Arab citizens of Israel do not have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, the country’s military. They can still enlist, and some do, especially Druze and Circassians, but in some of their communities there can be a stigma against doing so. Yet, not enlisting can contribute to economic inequality, as veterans are eligible for many benefits, such as financial assistance for education and discounted building permits.

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Apart from missing out on these benefits, the Arab citizens of Israel face discrimination that contributes to poverty ; poor access to education, jobs, and services; and underrepresentation in politics. More than half of the country’s Arab families were considered poor in 2020, compared to 40 percent of Jewish families. Socioeconomic disparities between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens are less pronounced in mixed cities, though a government audit in July 2022 found significant gaps in the provision of municipal services in those cities.

Concerns about inequality mounted after Israel passed the nation-state law in 2018. Among other provisions, the law removed Arabic as an official language but gave it a “special status,” declared Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, and said the Jewish people have a unique “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel.” The language left many Arab citizens of Israel feeling that their rights as citizens had been undermined.

In 2021, the government approved a five-year plan to boost employment, improve health-care services and housing, and develop infrastructure, among other goals, for the so-called Arab sector. The plan, set to cost over $9 billion, follows a similar initiative by the previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who designated more funding for the sector than any of his predecessors, even as he frequently incited anger toward the Arab community.

What about Palestinians in East Jerusalem?

After annexing East Jerusalem following the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel offered the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living there Israeli citizenship. Most declined but were given permanent resident status. Today, about 362,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the vast majority of its Arab population, hold this status. Permanent residency allows them to live, work, and travel freely within Israel, as well as access its health insurance and social services. However, they do not get Israeli passports (many have Jordanian ones) and cannot vote in national elections.

They can lose their residency status if the Ministry of Interior determines that East Jerusalem is no longer their primary residence. Since 1967, more than fourteen thousand Palestinians have had their residency revoked, according to a compilation of data from several government agencies by Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

How are Israel’s Arabs represented in politics?

At first, their main representation in the Knesset—Israel’s parliament—came from the Arab-Jewish Communist Party. Independent Arab parties failed to gain traction for decades and were often banned or shut down. Although there are still efforts to limit their political power, Arab parties currently hold 10 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. With low trust in elected officials limiting voter turnout in their communities, Arab citizens of Israel have never held more than 15 seats. Arab citizens of Israel have sat on the Supreme Court and worked in the foreign service, with a handful serving as ambassadors since 1995. Many have served as mayors, judges in lower courts, and in civil service positions.

Historically, Arab citizens have had little influence on Israeli policy. The grievances of their municipalities, such as those about rampant crime and a lack of building permits, have often been ignored, and until mid-2021, their independent parties were never welcomed into a governing coalition. This changed when the United Arab List (UAL), also known as Ra’am, joined an ideologically diverse mix of parties that unseated Prime Minister Netanyahu in a narrow vote. However, no ministers in the new government were from the UAL, a concession the party reportedly made in exchange for several reforms benefiting Arab communities.

For several years, the main parties—Balad, Hadash, Ta’al, and the UAL—united to form a coalition called the Joint List. But the UAL split off in 2021, and Balad in 2022, ahead of the general elections. Discord among the parties has helped bring down Arab voter turnout. Additionally, Jewish parties have increasingly courted Arab voters. Some experts predict that these shifts could cost Arab parties seats in the November vote and ultimately help return Netanyahu to power.

What is their relationship with Jewish Israelis?

Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens have a complicated relationship, though they do coexist peacefully in certain areas. For example, Israel’s health-care system has long employed Arab and Jewish medical professionals side by side. Their cooperation was especially visible as the country confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, as health workers treated patients from each other’s communities. Still, health services are more difficult to access for Arab citizens of Israel, who often live farther from hospitals than Jewish citizens do.

Mistrust between the communities is inextricable from the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the Holy Land. However, there are additional factors, such as the systemic discrimination of Arab citizens of Israel and high rates of crime in their communities, which have fewer resources for development. As far-right leaders have gained influence in recent years, they have tried to portray Arab citizens of Israel as a security threat, linking them to extremist groups, such as Hamas, that reject Israel’s legitimacy. The Century Foundation’s Dahlia Scheindlin wrote that the Netanyahu government’s often racist rhetoric and policies toward Arab citizens of Israel helped lay the foundation for the surge in violence in 2021.

The turmoil included: threats of evictions of Palestinians in a suburb of East Jerusalem, police raids at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel, and Arab attacks on Jews. The discord quickly reverberated across Israel, particularly in Lod and other mixed cities. Arab protesters burned synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, while Jewish ultranationalists chanted “death to Arabs” and vandalized Arab-owned shops. In several instances, citizens of both communities were critically injured in mob attacks.

According to a study [PDF] by the Israel Democracy Institute, the violence and subsequent crackdown on mostly Arab citizens damaged Arabs’ views of the state and Jews’ willingness to live alongside them. Eli Gottlieb, an Israel-based researcher for George Washington University, wrote of the tensions: “Where Israeli right-wingers see violent betrayal of Israeli Jews by Arab citizens with whom they’ve coexisted for decades, Israeli left-wingers see a Jewish majority that hasn’t done enough to ensure equal rights for its Arab minority

What is their relationship to Palestinians in the occupied territories?

Arab citizens of Israel share history, culture, and family ties with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Solidarity between them appeared to grow following the Jewish-Palestinian tensions of 2021, but they still tend to differ in their support for a future Palestinian state. Arab citizens of Israel support the establishment of separate Israeli and Palestinian states at a higher rate than Jewish Israelis or Palestinians in the territories, though this support has declined, according to a 2020 poll [PDF] by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Some plans for a two-state solution, such as those proposed by Minister of Transportation Avigdor Lieberman in 2004 and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2020, would give some Arab municipalities in Israel to a future Palestinian state, which could cause some Arab citizens of Israel to lose their citizenship. However, most experts agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unlikely to end soon, meaning that the citizenship of Arabs in Israel is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

Recommended Resources

The Israel Democracy Institute assesses the damage [PDF] from the 2021 outbreak in violence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

On The President’s Inbox podcast, CFR’s Steven A. Cook and James M. Lindsay discuss the causes of the 2021 turmoil in Jerusalem.

This Backgrounder explains U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Jewish Telegraph Agency’s Ben Sales looks at the de facto segregation of Jews and Arabs in Israel.

In this article for Bloomberg, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington’s Hussein Ibish argues that marginalizing Arab citizens of Israel will push them toward the Palestinian national movement.

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