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
  • Arabs comprise just over 20 percent of Israel’s population. The vast majority are citizens, while those in Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital, are considered “permanent residents.”
  • Arab citizens have the same legal rights as Jewish Israelis, but they tend to live in poorer cities, have less formal education, and face other challenges that some experts attribute to structural discrimination.
  • Arab political parties have long struggled to gain representation in Israel’s government, and many Arabs have expressed alarm at the leadership of right-wing Jewish politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Introduction

Israel was founded as a homeland for the Jewish people seventy-five years ago, but a significant portion of its population has always been Arab. Today, Arab citizens of Israel—distinct from Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—remain the country’s largest minority group.

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They have the same legal rights as Jewish citizens, but many continue to face discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantages. Meanwhile, the two communities are divided by the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as religious and cultural differences. A flare-up of intercommunal violence in 2021 highlighted that the simmering tensions can sometimes boil over.

Who are the Arab citizens of Israel?

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The overwhelming majority are the remnants and descendants of the Arabs who stayed within the borders Israel declared after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The state of Israel was created 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 in what Arabs call the nakba, or catastrophe, about 150,000 remained [PDF] within the portion of mandatory Palestine that would become the state of Israel, and they automatically became citizens, forming about half of Israel’s population.* Unlike Jewish citizens, Arab citizens of Israel were subjected to military rule until 1966.

A year later, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and offered the hundreds of thousands of Arabs living there Israeli citizenship, but most of them declined. The United Nations considers [PDF] the land occupied Palestinian territory. Arabs who live there today are counted in both Israeli and Palestinian censuses, and few are Israeli citizens.

Today, about 21 percent of Israel’s population is Arab, totaling some two million people. All are citizens of Israel except the few hundred thousand in East Jerusalem, who are permanent residents, a designation that affords them fewer rights. The majority of Arab citizens are Sunni Muslims, though there are many Christians and also Druze, who more often embrace Israeli identity. They share history, culture, and family ties with Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian diaspora populations in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries.

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Israeli government documents and media refer to Arab citizens as “Arabs” or “Israeli Arabs,” and some Arabs use those terms themselves. Global news media usually use similar phrasing to distinguish these residents from Arabs who live in the Palestinian territories. Most members of this community self-identify as “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” and some identify just as “Palestinian” to indicate their rejection of Israeli identity. Others prefer to be referred to as Arab citizens of Israel for various reasons. The phrase is used in this Backgrounder, as it represents the current political and legal reality.

Where do they live?

Most Israeli cities have either majority Jewish or Arab populations. Towns in the Galilee, in the north; in the so-called Little Triangle, along the 1949 Armistice Line that delineated Israel’s border with the West Bank; and in the southern Negev region have mostly Arab populations. About one-tenth of Arabs live in the seven “mixed” cities where populations are more intermingled, such as Haifa and Lod (the Hebrew name for the city Arabs call al-Lyd). Still, even these areas often have mostly Jewish or Arab neighborhoods. This geographic separation persists for multiple reasons, including the legacy of restrictions imposed at the time of Israel’s founding, which outlined where non-Jewish Israelis could live and work; a split education system in which most schools teach according to either Arab or Jewish language and cultural norms; and prevailing prejudices against integrating neighborhoods.

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Today, nearly all Arab towns and cities have lower standards of living than those that are predominantly Jewish. This separation and socioeconomic disparity fuel intense debate. Some analysts argue that Israel has effectively established an unjust, segregated society. “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. Conversely, Arik Rudnitzky of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) tells CFR that terms such as “segregation,” “de facto separation,” or the more conservative “voluntary separation” reflect individual worldviews, but that there is no expert consensus on how to characterize this separation. Experts such as Nachum Blass of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel say many in both communities prefer separation, though Arabs are increasingly moving to Jewish areas to improve their standards of living, as well as to work and attend school.

Do they have the same rights and opportunities as other Israelis?

Israel’s declaration of independence recognizes the equality of all the country’s residents, Arabs included, but equality is not explicitly enshrined in Israel’s Basic Laws, the closest thing it has to a constitution. Some rights groups argue that dozens of laws indirectly or directly discriminate against Arabs.

Israel’s establishment as an explicitly Jewish state is a primary point of contention, with many of the state’s critics arguing that this by nature casts non-Jews as second-class citizens with fewer rights. The 1950 Law of Return, for example, grants all Jews, as well as their children, grandchildren, and spouses, the right to move to Israel and automatically gain citizenship. Non-Jews do not have these rights. Palestinians and their descendants have no legal right to return to the lands their families held before being displaced in 1948 or 1967.

Another major difference is that, unlike the vast majority of Jewish Israelis, Arab citizens do not have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the country’s military. They can still enlist, and some do, especially Druze and Circassians, but some are stigmatized in their communities as a result. Yet, not enlisting can significantly disadvantage them both socially and economically. For instance, many Israelis make important and lasting personal connections with their fellow citizens through the IDF, and they also receive many financial benefits, such as education assistance and discounted permits for building homes and owning land.

Statistics from IDI show that Arab citizens of Israel continue to face structural disadvantages. For example, poorly funded schools in their localities contribute to their attaining lower levels of education and their reduced employment prospects and earning power compared to Israeli Jews. 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 Arabs had less access to municipal services in those cities.

Arab citizens’ concerns about inequality mounted after Israel passed its 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 Arabs feeling that their rights as citizens were being undermined.

To address disparities in the so-called Arab sector, in 2021, the government approved a $9 billion, five-year plan to boost employment, improve health-care services and housing, and develop infrastructure, among other goals. It followed 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?

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital and includes all of the city’s residents in its censuses, though this territorial claim is not recognized by the United Nations and is disputed by Palestinians, who view East Jerusalem as the future capital of their independent state.

A preponderance of the Arabs living in East Jerusalem identify as Palestinian and are not citizens of any country. Most Arabs there declined Israel’s offer of citizenship after the 1967 Six Day War and were instead given permanent resident status. Today, about 362,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem hold this status. Permanent residency grants them many of the same rights as Israeli citizenship, including the ability to live, work, and travel freely within Israel, as well as access to 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 and be deported if the Israeli government determines that East Jerusalem is no longer their primary residence or that they or a family member engage in anti-Israel or terrorist activities. Likewise, as of February 2023, Israel can deport and revoke the citizenship of Arabs who are convicted of terrorism and receive financial aid from the Palestinian Authority. Since 1967, more than fourteen thousand East Jerusalem Palestinians have had their residency revoked, according to a compilation of data from several government agencies by Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Some international and Palestinian rights groups argue that the revocations count as forcible transfers, which are illegal under international law.

How are Israel’s Arabs represented in politics?

Arab citizens of Israel have historically distrusted Israeli elections, a sentiment that has limited their voter turnout and resulted in their never having held more than fifteen seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. At first, their main representation in the Knesset came from the Arab-Jewish Communist Party. Independent Arab parties failed to gain traction for decades and were often banned or shut down for refusing to recognize the state of Israel. Although there are still efforts to limit their political power, such as right-wing lawmakers’ attempts to ban Arab parties from elections, Arab parties currently hold ten seats in the Knesset.

Arabs 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. Their grievances about problems in their municipalities, such as 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. Its inclusion highlighted the growing power of the Arab vote, as both Netanyahu and his opponents had courted the UAL and its supporters despite its Islamist ideology. 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 Arab 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 the following year, just before the general elections.

In late 2022, Netanyahu returned to power and formed what many observers characterized as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, to the alarm of many of the country’s Arabs. Only Hadash-Ta’al and the UAL won enough votes in that year’s election to enter the Knesset, with five seats each. Netanyahu brought several ultraconservative, formerly fringe politicians into his cabinet, including new National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who was previously convicted of inciting racism against Arabs and supporting a terrorist organization. However, Netanyahu has sought to downplay concerns that his government will infringe on minorities’ rights.

What is their relationship with Jewish Israelis?

Despite a long history of mistrust rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens work and live together peaceably in many areas. For example, Israel’s health-care system has long employed Arab and Jewish medical professionals side by side. Their cooperation was especially visible when the country confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, as health workers treated patients from each other’s communities.

Some far-right Jewish leaders have gained influence in recent years and tried to portray Arab citizens of Israel as a security threat, linking them to extremist groups, such as Hamas, that reject Israel’s legitimacy.

Tensions boiled over into a surge of sectarian violence in 2021 that included efforts to evict Palestinians in East Jerusalem, police raids at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the outbreak of a days-long war between Hamas and Israel, and violent mob attacks against both communities. The discord quickly reverberated across Israel, particularly in Lod and other mixed cities.

Three months later, an IDI survey [PDF] of Arab and Jewish citizens found that the damage to intercommunal relations was “less significant than might be expected.” Still, only about half of Jewish Israelis thought it was better for the two communities to live together, compared to around 80 percent of Arab citizens, and the underlying tensions that sparked the 2021 conflict remain unresolved.

“Clearly the combination of events in Jerusalem stirred [Arab citizens of Israel] to reassert who they are against the power of a state and society whose very existence denies them their reality,” CFR Middle East expert Steven A. Cook wrote amid the upheaval. “On the other side, of course, are Israelis who are deeply committed to the historical connection between Jews and the land…[Jewish] Israelis will neither give up nor apologize for who they are, which is how [surges in Arab-Jewish violence] become possible.”

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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Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow created the graphics for this article.

*Editor’s note: This sentence was edited to clarify that some 150,000 Arabs remained within the area that would become the state of Israel in 1948. This area did not encompass the full boundaries of the British Mandate of Palestine and largely excluded the modern territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This clarification was added on October 26, 2023.
 

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