The July 14, Temple Mount Crisis and the Fissures it Exposed in the Politics of the Israeli-Arab Citizens

On July 14, 2017, two Israeli-Druze policemen were killed in an attack — while they were on duty guarding the Haram-al-Sharif or Temple-Mount in Jerusalem — by three Israeli-Arab young men from the Israeli-Arab town of Um-el-Fahem. One of the fallen policemen is the son of former Druze member of Knesset (MK), Shakib Shannan, and a well known figure within the Druze community. The incident engendered an unprecedented rift within the ranks of the Arab citizens of Israel at the grassroots as well as leadership levels and exposed the contradictions in the Israeli-Arab politics between their Israeli citizenship and Palestinian identity, and between their loyalty to their state (Israel) and solidarity with their people (Palestinians).

The Arab constituency in Israel is composed of three sects: Muslim, Christian and Druze. The latter is a small minority of less than ten percent of all Israeli-Arabs and less than two percent of Israel’s population. In order to guarantee its interests, the Druze community as a whole has diverged from the conventional Israeli-Arab political line as it has pledged allegiance to the state of Israel. Further, the leaders of the Druze community have typically embraced a centre, mainstream Israeli political line.

These political postures towards the state of Israel have even molded the identity of each of these sects. Muslim and Christian Arabs have created multiple terms to identify themselves such as: Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, the 1948 Arabs, Israeli-Arabs or Arab-Israelis, where each term has its own distinct political connotation; further, the Israeli –Arabs are exempted from serving in the Israeli army. The majority of the Druzes however perceive themselves as Israeli Druzes and the state of Israel had even recognized the community as a whole in the early 1960s as a separate nationality: the nation of the Druze people. As part of the Israelization of the Druzes, the state enacted a law in 1956 that turned the service in the military into a mandatory one for both Druze as well as Circassian young men, while it should be noted that the majority of Druzes and Circassians conceive the service as a duty to their own state. From this narrow perspective, the Druze minority perceives the state of Israel as a secular modern state of its all citizens, rather than a Jewish state or a state for Jews.

The attack of July 14 thus highlighted these political contradictions among Israel’s Arab citizens, given that it was carried out by Israeli-Arab civilians against Israeli-Arab-Druze policemen. The questions that were raised following this attack were: what were the motives behind the attack: were the attackers brainwashed by Islamist religious clergies (Imams) in Um-el-Fahem, the capital of the outlawed Northern Wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and were they incited to kill Druze policemen, in particular, knowing that the majority of the policemen guarding the Temple are Druzes? Were the perpetrators patriots, or simply fanatic Islamist terrorists? Was the incident a terrorist attack committed by Islamist fanatics, or an act of resisting the Israeli occupation? The incident simulated heated verbal debate on social-media-networks, especially Facebook, on these issues and more. The questions that were raised: should the attack be condemned by the Arab citizens of Israel as a terrorist attack? Should the Arab public participate in the funerals of the two Druze policemen and express condolences to their parents? By contrast, should the Arab public participate in the funerals of the three attackers and express condolences to their parents? The Arab members of the Knesset, especially MKs who belong to the National Democratic Assembly Party (Balad), reverted to the old traditional discourse and described the attack as simply a response to the Israeli occupation. The problem with this argument is that the perpetrators were Israeli citizens, who by no means were living under occupation and second the attackers were religiously motivated.

Moreover, while all MKs of the Arab Joint List have refrained from hailing the action of the terrorists, mainly in order to avoid violating any Israeli law, they refused to condemn the attack or the attackers, especially  that the law does not compel them to do so. Yet, there were many Arabs citizens who explicitly condemned the attack, while others implicitly praised it by simply posting a link on their Facebook page to articles that that hailed the attack and were published outside Israel. Further, all members of the Joint List unanimously claimed that the attack was not directed against the two policemen, because they were Druzes (this view is also shared by many mainstream members of the Knesset), but because they were enforcing the Israeli occupation policy. Yet, there were other voices coming mainly from within the ranks of the Druze community asserting otherwise. In their view, the Israeli government has pursued a policy of deploying mainly Druze and some Christian policemen to guard the Temple Mount, because, first, such policemen are able communicate both in Arabic and Hebrew with people (read Muslims and Jews) who wish to enter the Temple; and second, because both Druzes and Christians are not religiously affiliated with the Temple Mount. These facts, the claim continues, were well known to the attackers. These Druze voices assert that the attackers were affiliated with the outlawed Northern Wing of the Islamic Movement and were motivated by the same ideology of ISIS and Jubhat Al-Nusra, who perceive members of non-Sunni minorities as apostates that should be given the ultimatum of either convert into Sunni-Islam or perish. These critics also claim that there were Imams who promised “Islamist martyrs” or Shaheeds, who kill these “apostates,” a place in heaven, where each of them would live a perpetual, peaceful and happy life, given that each “martyr” deserves to marry seventy two virgin young women. The problem is that many Islamist terrorist who carry out such attacks believe that these promises by Imams are true. Usually many of these terrorists come from poor families, while carrying out such attacks would abruptly put an end to their miserable life and would immediately bestow on them a happy life in heaven. Shakib Shannan refused to turn his tragedy into a sectarian conflict claiming that many Israeli-Arabs condemn such an attack. In his speech in the funeral of his son, he called for a nationwide solidarity to put an end to further violence, shouting: “replace your guns with roses… and let us make this plight the last one.” Shannan lamented however that none of his former Arab colleagues from the Joint Party in the Knesset even called him to express his/her condolences.

Furthermore, the security arrangement on the Temple Mount are very tight, given that this holy place is claimed by both Muslims as well as Jews. In this sense, the motive behind the attack was twofold: deterring Druze young men from serving on the Temple, and putting the controversy over the Temple on the world agenda, by rallying world-wide Muslim public opinion in condemning Israeli practices and control of this site.

Although the Druze community in Israel was embraced by the Israeli public and many Israeli municipalities raised the Druze flag on their building as an expression of solidarity with the community, the community as a whole found itself on a crossfire, attacked from both sides by the far-left Arabs/Muslims for enforcing the “occupation” policy of the Israeli state in the Temple, as well as by the far right Jewish religious-nationalists who attacked Druze policemen for implementing another Israeli government’s policy that prevents Jews from praying on the Temple. Thus, some chocked voices from within the Druze community were raised against the deliberate Israeli policy of using Druze policemen as the spearhead of the Israeli law enforcement agencies on the Temple.

At the local level, the intra-Israeli-Arab debate also permeated the High Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Citizens of Israel, which is an umbrella organization that comprises all streams of Israeli Arab politics that include the four Arab parties represented in the Israeli Knesset through the Joint Party, the Northern Wing of the Islamic movement, the Committee of the Heads of Arab municipalities etc. The Follow-Up Committee debated whether to visit the families of the fallen Druze policemen and express condolences to their parents. This debate turned out to be highly controversial, as the Follow-Up Committee was deeply divided on this issue; the majority of the participants rejected such a proposal. Given this major divide, the decision on whether to visit the mourned Druze families was left to be taken at the personal level, where any member who would decide to do so, would represent only him/her self rather than the whole Follow-Up Committee. Haneen Zoabi, an MK from Balad party wrote on her Facebook page on July 19, 2017: “Offering condolences to those who fight within the ranks of the occupier is a blow to the obvious national understanding of the people. It’s a blow to the true meaning of our National Unity. It is the loss of a compass with regard to Israel’s export of its tyranny.”[1]

In the past, the Follow-UP Committee set a rule of refraining from taking part in any such event and discouraging and even condemning Israeli-Arabs who serve in any of Israel’s security agencies. The killing of the two Israeli-Druze policemen created a major controversy, while a refusal to participate in the two funerals would deepen the mistrust not only between the Druze community as a whole, and the rest of Israeli-Arabs, but also within the Arab ranks in general among those who tacitly sympathized with the perpetrators and those who condemned them, given that this incident also brought to the fore the question of co-existence between Jews and Arabs within Israel. The Head of the Islamic Movement, Northern Wing, Raed Salah, and members of Balad Party, especially MK Haneen Zoabi, were among these who spearheaded the campaign that forbid paying condolences to the families of the policemen, but also ones who claimed that the attack was a legitimate response to the Israeli occupation. Opposing this position within the Follow-Up Committee was Muhammad Baraky, the head the committee and a resident of the Arab multi-sectarian town of Shafa’amr, where Muslims, Christians and Druzes live peacefully in mixed neighborhood. Baraky visited the two mourned Druze families and spoke about the unity of the Palestinian people, emphasizing that the Palestinian-Druze community is an integral part of the unified Palestinian people. It should be noted that Baraky too refrained from condemning the attack on the Temple Mount, but simply refused to alienate the Druze community as a whole, especially that all top Israeli politicians, including the Prime Minster and the President visited the two Druze mourned families. Baraky most likely hoped to contain further inter-sectarian violence, given that one concussion grenade was thrown into a masque in the mixed village of Mghar, the same village of one of the Druze fallen policemen.

The debate over the social media networks became overheated when Ms. Zoabi claimed on her Facebook page that the Druze community as a whole should not be treated as a special case under conditions like this. In her view, treating the Druzes as a special case indicates that the Druzes are plagued with underdeveloped national consciousness that is manifested in their willingness to serve in the Israeli military and security services, while she asserts that there were many Druze Refusniks who opposed serving in the “occupation” army and were thrown into jail. In her view, a true Arab is someone who resists the Israeli occupation and certainly someone who is unwilling to serve in Israeli military ranks: “Because we implement the national unity on the Druze-Arabs, we demanded them not to serve in the Israeli army that killed our people.”[2] All in all, she asserts that visiting the two mourned Druze families would totally contradict the policy line of the Follow-Up Committee.

These accusations pissed off many mainstream Druzes who are well known for their pride in their communal identity. Many Druzes attempted to expose Ms. Zoabi’s hypocrisy, contending that while she is serving in the Knesset, the epicenter of Israeli and Zionist politics, and enjoys all the benefits of an Israeli MK, she keeps criticizing other Arabs who are serving in the state’s security institutions. They claim that there is not much difference between an Arab security personnel serving in the Israeli police or army, an Arab MK serving in the Israeli Knesset, or an Arab judge working in the Israeli judiciary system, as each position requires allegiance to the state of Israel.

Other Druze intellectuals interpreted her posting as claiming that Druzes who served in the Israeli army are plagued with an underdeveloped political consciousness and took these accusation as a direct insult, especially that it comes from a politician, who possesses firsthand understanding of the complexity of the political, economic and social circumstances of Arabs within Israel. In general, the bulk of the Druzes and many Israeli-Arabs perceive Israel as their own state. Further, given the sheer dependency of Israeli-Arabs on the Israeli economy, working for any government agency has become part of the normal routine of many Israeli-Arabs. Thus, Druzes who responded to Zoabi’s and other alike postings reminded their fellow Arab-Israelis of the persecution of the Druze minority as a whole during the Palestinian rebellion of 1936-39 by Palestinian rebellions, simply because the Druzes took a neural position during this uprising.

Other Druze intellectuals who participated in this debate over Facebook pursued a sectarian line accusing the Israeli-Arab-Muslims in general of turning a blind eye on the atrocities that minorities, such as the Yezidis, Druzes and Christians have endured not only in Syrian and Iraq, but in other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Turkey by Islamist movements, while the Druzes in Israel enjoy religious and political freedom and economic prosperity. Indeed, many Druzes are vigilant about their vulnerable situation as a minority in the new reality of the Middle East that was unfolded in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. They see the maltreatment of their fellow Druzes in Syria, where the isolated Druze villages in the Idlib district in north Syria were forced in 2014 by ISIS to either convert into Islam or be exterminated. They also see how their brothers in Southern Syria are targeted on a daily basis by both the regime who wants to conscript them into its ranks, on the one hand, and Jubhat-al-Nusra, on the other, that seeks to annihilate them. These Israeli-Druzes compare themselves to the miserable situation of their brothers across the borders and come to what seems to them as an obvious conclusion: that despite all the discrimination against Arabs inside Israel, Israel is a much safer place for minorities than any of the surrounding Arab states.

[1] (MK Haneen Zoabi, posted on July 19, 2017 at 1:39 PM) (accessed on August 7, 2017).

[2] (MK Haneen Zoabi, July 18, 2017, at 8:19 PM).

About the Author
Yakub Halabi teaches International Relations and Middle East politics at the University of Haifa and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
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