What It’s Like to Be An Arab in Israel: Interviewing a Palestinian

The first time I was woken by a siren, it was 3AM.

Half-awake, I bolted out of bed and into the hall, one hand still clutching my pillow, quickly rousing a roommate before we all piled into the bomb shelter and shut the door. I’ve heard rocket sirens five times in my life, and all of them were in the same week. It took a while before I could sleep solidly again.

Across Israel, the past few weeks have been experienced very differently. Some people have lived in their bomb shelters for days at a time; others haven’t heard a single siren. Families have waited for their children in the IDF to come home safe, and one had to deal with the devastation of realizing that that would never happen. Parents have lost children; children have lost parents. It’s been a hard month for the Jewish people.

However, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum and how we’ve experienced these last few weeks, it’s important to realize that there is another side to all of this, another narrative. I often find it’s a good exercise to listen to others, regardless of whether I agree with their views and particularly when I haven’t heard their perspective before, and I think especially regarding such a tense and angst-ridden conflict, it’s crucial to hear and try to understand different perspectives. Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss with a Palestinian her views on Israel, particularly in regards to the recent conflict, and ponder over her answers.

Suma, 19, is a Palestinian and an Israeli citizen. She lives in an all-Arab Muslim town called Baqa El Ghrbyie (Western Baqa, in English). Western Baqa lies just within the Green Line, while Eastern Baqa is in the West Bank; after the first intifada, the city of Baqa was split down the middle by a concrete wall, making a trip from Western to Eastern Baqa 40 minutes instead of 5-10—a fact that still rankles for Baqa villagers, who have friends and family on the other side.

What do you like about Israel? What do you think they do well?

I like how it’s a unifying thing for all Jews—the Jews I’ve met from all over the world, they all have a strong connection to Israel and feel like they belong here. They’re a part of something bigger that all Jews share. 

What are you upset about with Israel? How do you think these things can be improved?

The thing that upsets me the most, and I’m talking about my everyday life now as a Palestinian living in Israel—not about what’s happening at the moment—is that I’ve never felt respected here. I want to live respected and with dignity, but in Israel that’s not the case, whether it’s from the Israeli government officials (like going to the airport and being completely humiliated by how they treat, question, and search me and my family, even though we hold Israeli citizenships) to the civilians who just always look down on you like you’re lesser than them—not even as a “second class citizen,” but less than that, like someone who is not even a human.

Improved? I think it’s systemic and very hard to improve; Jews are taught from a young age that we are a threat to them, and because the cities are segregated and we’re not exposed to one another, the other side is dehumanized. So, I think something that would help is mixing everyone together and focusing on teaching that every human is equal and worthy of respect and freedom. A big part of that would be teaching Jews about the real history of Israel, like how the Palestinians were kicked out of their homes or fled scared for their lives with the hope of returning and never got to, resulting in over 750,000 refugees, some of which are stateless until this day. The nakba (“the catastrophe”) needs to be addressed and talked about. Even for me, a Palestinian, I’ve never learned about Palestine in school, because the education system is controlled by the Israeli government and they are trying to erase what happened to our ancestors, so they teach us that the land was empty when the Jews came and they just inhabited it peacefully. Teaching the truth is essential to solve the issue, as it helps the Jews to be more understanding towards our positions as Palestinians—exactly how, when I learned about the Holocaust, it helped me understand the trauma that they went through.

What do you think of Jews’ behavior during this time of conflict? What is good about it/what can you understand about it, and what upsets you about it?

So, unlike any other time there has been an escalation of events between Gaza and Israel, this time I’ve seen that Jewish civilians more than ever are showing how much hate they hold for Palestinians; they’re not afraid to express that they “want us out,” and in a way, this shocked me? But not really, because I’ve always known and felt that I’m not welcomed here, not by people and definitely not by the Israeli government.

Also, I totally disagree with how the IDF is bombing Gaza, killing hundreds of innocent civilians claiming that they’re targeting Hamas bases or leaders. To Palestinians, the IDF is just as oppressive and terrorizing to Palestinians as Hamas is to Jewish Israelis.

What are your thoughts on the checkpoints? What are your personal experiences with them and what are some experiences of friends/family you’ve heard about?

Well, we only go the West Bank for shopping and getting KFC, haha, so I’m fortunate that I don’t need to go through checkpoints often. When I do cross them, going into the West Bank is fine, but going out we get profiled, asked a couple of questions and searched—nothing too dramatic, as I’ve gotten used to this. This is all because I hold an Israeli passport, though, because when it comes to Palestinians from the West Bank, who don’t have Israeli ID, crossing the checkpoints is much worse; they are treated very poorly by the Israeli soldiers and humiliated. It breaks my heart that they have to go through that every day coming in to work in Israel, and not to mention that they come to work here only because they’re cheaper to employ, so not only are Israelis (both Jews and Palestinians) using them, but they also have to go through that experience at the checkpoints.

What behavior from fellow Arabs/Palestinians do you disapprove of?

The main thing I disapprove of is Arabs celebrating or gloating over the death of Israelis during these times. I also strongly disapprove of people who support Hamas; I don’t agree with what and how Hamas does things. To me, they are an extremist terrorist organization, terrorizing not only civilians here but also their people. Palestinians in Gaza suffer from the oppressive leadership of Hamas every day.

What behavior from fellow Arabs/Palestinians do you understand and are upset with Israel for demonizing?

Protesting, of course. Palestinians everywhere were going out and protesting for their rights. They weren’t protesting what was going on; they were protesting against what we’ve been going through our whole lives under the Israeli government, and the Israeli police and IDF were going out to these protests arresting civilians for no reasons, throwing skunk water, tear gas bombs, and rubber coated bullets. Just recently, a few days ago in the city of Umm al Fahm, an Arab city in Israel, a 17-year-old boy was shot with a live bullet from a police officer and lost his life in the protest. A 17-year-old boy. Mohamed Kiwan. 

What good things do Arabs/Palestinians do in the conflict that are ignored?

The main good thing is that all Arabs more than ever are united and working together to let the world know of the injustice we’re going through and demand that the Israeli government change. This all started when we wanted to protect people from being forcefully removed from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, and now it seems that Israel and the international world view has shifted to only focus on Israel vs. Hamas. In between that, our real cause got buried and lost. 

Palestinians also did a strike on the 18th of May. I think more than 90% of Palestinians and Israel committed to it. They didn’t go to work, they didn’t do anything; they just went out and protested. I really liked that. That’s the first time I really felt that Palestinians in Israel were united, but it was obviously met with a lot of backlash from the Jewish side, and a lot of people lost their jobs. Even my friend—he said that he’s not going to work, and immediately he was called for a hearing. I have two friends that happened to, so, yeah. That was the first time I’ve seen Arabs that united. Also, it’s crazy that they were losing their jobs just because of this one-day strike.

In what ways do you feel like Jews/Israelis do not listen to you? What do you really wish they would do?

I’ve tried having conversations with my Jewish friends from university (Jewish Americans), and for the most part they’re very, very stubborn and refuse to change their minds. I didn’t and I still don’t have an agenda when I’m criticizing Israel; I’m simply just sharing my life and what I go through as a Palestinian. At some point I stopped talking to them about this, because even if what I’m telling them is my real life experience, they still reject what I have to say, and they are not open to new ideas and the thought of Israel not being perfect as they were taught. So I really wish they’d be more responsible in their place of power to hear what the Palestinians have to say, and be part of the movement to make change and help us become equal. 

What do you think of Hamas?

Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization and for that reason it’s one of the main ways that people use to undermine our struggles. It’s always “Hamas is targeting civilians…” and shifting the conversations to that, but what about how and why Hamas emerged? Had there been no injustice to the Palestinians, would Hamas have been established? Hamas is a resistance organization, resistance against the horrible occupation and injustices we deal with. Although I don’t agree with what they do—targeting civilians—I think it’s important for you to understand that Hamas is the only organization that is standing up for Palestinians; we don’t have an army; we don’t have anything. 

What are you scared of? What are you hopeful for?

Well, with this thing particularly, there’s a lot of lynching going on, so I’m scared of that. I never leave my city. We used to go to a kibbutz called Gan Shmuel, or Padres Hanna, which is less than ten minutes away from Baqa, where I live. I stopped going there because it’s dangerous now. You could die. I’m scared for myself, for my family, for my brother; he works with Jewish people so I’m scared for him, what might happen to him…this is, like, my fear at this moment, but in general in life, I fear that Israel is just one day going to decide to kick us out. Because they can do that, I think. They can decide, “We don’t want Arabs anymore,” and they’ll kick us out, and I’ll be left homeless, no power to do anything, I can’t move if they, you know—just helpless. So, it’s never a safe feeling living in Israel, even if I have Israeli citizenship; at any moment, they can just take it away.

I’m hopeful that, since this has gotten such a strong reaction from the international world, I think this is the first time Israel has been met with this amount of pressure to do something about what’s going on, so I’m interested and hopeful in what’s going to happen after everything calms down. I want to see what is done with people in the West Bank, and with us here, people in the green line inside of Israel, people holding citizenship. I want to see if changes are made, and I really hope they are. You know, it’s—maybe it’s crazy, but I can see it one day happening that we will all live in one state, freely and equal. That’s the ideal thing for me, I think.

What future do you imagine for Israel/Palestine?

It’s very hard to imagine what the future holds for this place and there are many suggestions to what should be done; for me personally, the ideal thing would be to have a one-state solution. However, it wouldn’t be a Jewish state, but a secular Palestine where all people live together in peace, equality, and freedom. I don’t know how realistic of a solution that is; I think the two-state solution is the more popular and preferred one, but I don’t think that solution would ever play out in a fair way. Palestinians have already lost so much of our lands and have very little left, so I don’t see us agreeing on building the state of Palestine with only what the Israeli government offers, and I don’t think the Israeli government would agree to offer more land. There are many more complications and downfalls that make the two-state solution impossible, or extremely unfair to Palestinians.

You said you want Israel to be a secular state. However, Jews want Israel to be a Jewish state. This is an inherent conflict of interest; what are your thoughts on that?

If it’s a Jewish state, it’s inherently racist toward anyone who isn’t Jewish, and that’s the main problem with it. I think it’s necessary that it’s not a Jewish or any religious state, in order to be a real democracy, in order for it to be a place where people actually live equally.

How do you view your identity as a Palestinian/Arab? How do you think you personally fit into the conflict?

I think Palestinians are people who have historically lived on the land of Palestine, whether it be the Palestine under the Ottoman Empire or the British Mandate (what is called Israel today)—so, the people who lived there and either fled or were kicked out, the refugees, and then the people who stayed. Palestinians also have no connection to religion; you can be any religion as a Palestinian, even Jewish.

Growing up with an Israeli citizenship, I’ve always had backlash from the people in the West Bank. There’s tension between Palestinians in the West Bank and the Palestinians in Israel who hold citizenship. We’re often referred to as “the Arabs of Israel.” People in the West Bank didn’t think Palestinians in Israel were “real Palestinians,” but after this thing happened in the past 3 weeks, this is one of the first times that the mass majority of Palestinians are referring to us—Palestinians of ‘48, Palestinians with an Israeli citizenship—as Palestinians. So, that’s nice, if I can make something positive out of what happened. Because we have an Israeli citizenship, we’ve always had to prove ourselves if we’ve wanted to call ourselves Palestinians, and I think that’s gone now.

Growing up, I didn’t know about the Palestinian identity, so I never identified as Palestinian. Palestinians with an Israeli citizenship were taught in schools that we were Israeli, because our curriculums are controlled by the Israeli government, so from elementary school, if I was travelling and people asked me where I was from, I’d just say I was Israeli. But when you face discrimination from a nation and start to question things, or when you start to look into what it means to be an Israeli, I realized that’s not who I am, and I don’t think Israel defines me as one of its citizens or its, I don’t know, vision. But looking at the Palestinian identity—we practice and live as Palestinians; we eat the Palestinian food, my mom dresses in the cultural Palestinian dress, we share the same history, culture, everything. So, I guess I was Palestinian, but just without the name—but then I started labeling it as Palestinian and identifying with it around high school, probably the most when I started to learn about these things.

I took away two main things from interviewing Suma:

The first is that there are certain things we may be able to do that increase the chances of improving relations with Palestinians and creating a constructive dialogue with them. Many aspects of the conflict may have simple solutions if we view the other side as humans and learn to trust them as such. A lot of things Palestinians and Jews are upset about—for example, how Palestinians are viewed and treated by Jews and Israelis, or how Jews are demonized by Palestinians—may be improved by integrating Arabs and Jews and reintroducing ourselves to each other as humans. I like Suma’s idea of seeking more opportunities to interact as people; it’s easy to hate someone who’s dehumanized, but much harder when your children play together after school.

The second is that, even if we can build trust and dialogue, there are going to be points where Jews and Palestinians simply see things very differently and have opposing goals. While there is no simple way of solving this, by working on the first step of seeing humanity in everyone, I think there’s a chance that we can get to a point where we can have meaningful conversations about our hopes and desires. If we listen to each other and build trust, perhaps we can begin breaking down the hard issues and working together to come up with solutions.

I would like to conclude by explaining that there were some things Suma said during the interview that I disagree with. The purpose of this article is to give Suma a platform to speak to Jews as a Palestinian and represent her viewpoint and experiences; my job as an interviewer was to accurately represent her viewpoint, regardless of my personal feelings on the matter. I found the interview thought-provoking and informative and thought she brought up a lot of things that need to be addressed, and I feel privileged that I was able to interview her and work together with her on producing this piece.

About the Author
Brooke Schwartz is a Modern Orthodox Jew from New Jersey and a student at midreshet Amudim in Modi'in, Israel.
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