Beyond Images Challenging myths and presenting facts about Israel 

Living in Israel or in a Palestinian state:
Israeli Arabs express their view

London - updated on 21 March 2004
Beyond Images Ref: 82

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Israeli Arabs furiously reject an early-stage Israeli proposal, announced in February 2004 by Mr Sharon, that up to 200,000 of them become part of a future Palestinian state under an exchange of territory between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr Sharon withdraws the idea.

This Briefing describes this little-reported episode, and highlights fundamental lessons which can be learnt from it about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli Arabs in the ‘Triangle' and the idea of a territorial exchange

Approximately 20% of Israel 's population within its pre-1967 borders are Israeli Arabs. Around 200,000 of them live in a central Israeli region often referred to as ‘The Triangle'. The main Arab town in the Triangle is Umm el-Fahm, with a population of 38,600.

In an interview published in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv on 3 February 2004 , Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon revealed that he was considering proposals to carry out an exchange of territory with the Palestinians. Under the proposals, the territory inhabited by 200,000 Arab residents of the ‘Triangle' would be handed over to the sovereignty of a future state of Palestine as part of a negotiated peace agreement. In exchange, limited areas of West Bank territory, heavily populated by Jewish settlers, would be annexed to Israel .

This exchange of territory would have no physical effect on Israeli Arabs. They would all be able to remain in their existing homes, with their communities and property intact. However, they would no longer be Israeli citizens, but would become citizens of the new state of Palestine .

Israeli Arabs react, not with joy but with fury

How did Israeli Arabs react to these proposals? Observers might have expected a sense of joy among them: after all, Prime Minister Sharon's plans offer them a future in an independent state of Palestine , rather than in Israel . But no: they were outraged.

Below are some responses, as reported by Israeli newspapers Ma'ariv (on 3 February) and The Jerusalem Post (13 February) and by ( 7 March 2004 ).

Muhammad Mahajneh, 33, an Arab Israeli resident of Umm el-Fahm (quoted in Ma'ariv):

“It is not good. I love this country [ie Israel ], its laws and everything here. I love living here. A large percentage of the people here agree with me. I cannot envision myself living in the territories. I grew up in a democratic culture and not in Arafat's regime….”

Hashem Abdel Rahman, mayor of Umm el-Fahm and local head of the Islamic movement (quoted in Newsday):

“Despite the discrimination and injustice faced by Arab citizens, the democracy and justice in Israel is better than the democracy and justice in Arab and Islamic countries….”

Sami Jabareen, 38, an Arab Israeli resident of Umm el-Fahm (quoted in Ma'ariv):

“I will not give up my citizenship. True, I want the Palestinians to have a state, but I already have a state….”

Hussein, another resident of Umm el-Fahm (quoted in The Jerusalem Post)

“Umm el-Fahm is an inseparable part of the state of Israel ….”

Hashem Mahameed, former member of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) and former mayor of Umm el-Fahm (quoted in Maariv):

“This idea, like a bad penny, keeps turning up. You should know that there is no chance of such a thing passing, and this racist and anti-democratic decision will go down the drain…”

Ahmad Tibi, Arab Israeli member of the Knesset:

“We are talking about a dangerous, anti-democratic suggestion, which will bring about a schism between the state and its Arab citizens….”

Ghanem, a resident of the Arab village of Mualaka , near Umm el-Fahm (quoted in The Jerusalem Post):

“Give me all of Nablus , even with oil wells, and I won't give up my Israeli citizenship…”

Faris, another resident of Muakala (quoted in The Jerusalem Post):

“I want to live under the democratic law of Israel , not the law of Arafat…”

As a result of such reactions, Prime Minister Sharon backtracked. On 29 February he visited Arab communal leaders and reassured them that he would not go forward with the proposal (reported in Ha'aretz, 1 March 2004 ).


This startling episode shatters two central myths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Firstly, the myth that Israel 's Arabs have no rights. The reactions from Israeli Arabs, quoted above, demonstrate a far more complex reality. The quotes do not represent a systematic survey of Israeli Arab opinion. Nor should they be used to deny the idea, in principle, of Palestinian self-determination. But what they do reveal is the appeal of Israeli democracy to Israeli Arab citizens.

The second myth which this episode shatters is the myth that it is Israel which denies the national rights of the Palestinians. When offered the opportunity to enjoy those national rights, these Arabs rejected the opportunity. The episode illustrates that it is the the current, undemocratic Palestinian leadership which is the key obstacle to the aspirations of Palestinian Arabs.