In the Palestinian Authority's (PA) elections that took place in January 2005, a significant percentage of Arab Jerusalemites stayed away from the polls out of concern that voting in them might jeopardize their status as residents of Israel. For example, the Associated Press quoted one Rabi Mimi, a 28-year-old truck driver, who expressed strong support for Mahmoud Abbas but said he had no plans to vote: "I can't vote. I'm afraid I'll get into trouble. I don't want to take any chances." Asked if he would vote, a taxi driver responded with indignation, "Are you kidding? To bring a corrupt [Palestinian] Authority here. This is just what we are missing."
This reluctance—as well as administrative incompetence—helped explain why, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, "at several balloting locations in the city [of Jerusalem], there were more foreign election observers, journalists, and police forces out than voters." It also explains why, in the previous PA election in 1996, a mere 10 percent of Jerusalem's eligible population voted, far lower than the proportions elsewhere.
At first blush surprising, the worry about jeopardizing Israeli residency turns out to be widespread among the Palestinians in Israel. When given a choice of living under Zionist or Palestinian rule, they decidedly prefer the former. More than that, there is a body of pro-Israel sentiments from which to draw. No opinion surveys cover this delicate subject, but a substantial record of statements and actions suggest that, despite their anti-Zionist swagger, Israel's most fervid enemies do perceive its political virtues. Even Palestinian leaders, between their fulminations, sometimes let down their guard and acknowledge Israel's virtues. This undercurrent of Palestinian love of Zion has hopeful and potentially significant implications.
Pro-Israel expressions fall into two main categories: preferring to remain under Israel rule and praising Israel as better than Arab regimes.
Palestinians already living in Israel, especially in Jerusalem and the "Galilee Triangle" area, tell, sometimes volubly, how they prefer to remain in Israel.
Jerusalem. In mid-2000, when it appeared that some Arab-majority parts of Jerusalem would be transferred to Palestinian Authority control, Muslim Jerusalemites expressed less than delight at the prospect. Peering over at Arafat's PA, they saw power monopolized by domineering and corrupt autocrats, a thug-like police force, and a stagnant economy. Arafat's bloated, nonsensical claims ("We are the one true democratic oasis in the Arab region") only exacerbated their apprehensions.
'Abd ar-Razzaq 'Abid of Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood pointed dubiously to "what's happening in Ramallah, Hebron, and the Gaza Strip" and asked if the residents there were well off. A doctor applying for Israeli papers explained:
The whole world seems to be talking about the future of the Arabs of Jerusalem, but no one has bothered asking us. The international community and the Israeli Left seem to take it for granted that we want to live under Mr. Arafat's control. We don't. Most of us despise Mr. Arafat and the cronies around him, and we want to stay in Israel. At least here I can speak my mind freely without being dumped in prison, as well as having a chance to earn an honest day's wage.
In the colorful words of one Jerusalem resident, "The hell of Israel is better than the paradise of Arafat. We know Israeli rule stinks, but sometimes we feel like Palestinian rule would be worse."
The director of the Bayt Hanina community council in northern Jerusalem, Husam Watad, found that the prospect of finding themselves living under Arafat's control had people "in a panic. More than 50 percent of east Jerusalem residents live below the poverty line, and you can imagine how the situation would look if residents did not receive [Israeli] National Insurance Institute payments." In the view of Fadal Tahabub, a member of the Palestinian National Council, an estimated 70 percent of the 200,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem preferred to remain under Israeli sovereignty. A social worker living in Ras al-'Amud, one of the areas possibly falling under PA control, said: "If a secret poll was conducted, I am sure an overwhelming majority of Jerusalem Arabs would say they would prefer to stay in Israel."
Indeed, precisely when Palestinian rule seemed most likely in 2000, the Israeli Interior Ministry reported a substantial increase in citizenship applications from Arabs in eastern Jerusalem. A Jerusalem city councilor, Roni Aloni, heard from many Arab residents about their not wanting to live under PA control. "They tell me—we are not like Gaza or the West Bank. We hold Israeli IDs. We are used to a higher standard of living. Even if Israeli rule is not so good, it is still better than that of the PA." Shalom Goldstein, an adviser on Arab affairs to the Jerusalem mayor, found likewise: "People look at what is happening inside the Palestinian-controlled areas today and say to themselves, 'Thank God we have Israeli ID cards.' In fact, most of the Arabs in the city prefer to live under Israeli rule than under a corrupt and tyrannical regime like Yasser Arafat's."
So many Jerusalem Arabs considered taking out Israeli papers in 2000 that the ranking Islamic official in Jerusalem issued an edict prohibiting his flock from holding Israeli citizenship (because this implies recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the holy city). Faysal al-Husayni, the Palestine Liberation Organization's man in charge of Jerusalem affairs, went further: "Taking Israeli citizenship is something that can only be defined as treason," and he threatened such people with exclusion from the Palestinian state. Finding his threat ineffective, Husayni upped the ante, announcing that Jerusalem Arabs who take Israeli citizenship would have their homes confiscated. The PA's radio station confirmed this, calling such persons "traitors" and threatening that they would be "tracked down." Many Palestinians were duly intimidated, fearing the authority's security forces.
But some spoke out. Hisham Gol of the Mount of Olives community council put it simply: "I prefer Israeli control." An affluent West Bank woman called a friend in Gaza to ask about life under the PA. She heard an ear-full: "I can only tell you to pray that the Israelis don't leave your town," because "the Jews are more human" than Palestinians. One individual willing publicly to oppose Arafat was Zohair Hamdan of Sur Bahir, a village in the south of metropolitan Jerusalem; he organized a petition of Jerusalem Arabs demanding that a referendum be held before Israel lets the Palestinian Authority take power in Jerusalem. "For 33 years, we have been part of the State of Israel. But now our rights have been forgotten." Over a year and a half, he collected more than 12,000 signatures (out of an estimated Jerusalem Arab population of 200,000). "We won't accept a situation where we are led like sheep to the slaughterhouse." Hamdan also expressed a personal preference that Sur Bahir remain part of Israel and estimated that the majority of Palestinians reject "Arafat's corrupt and tyrannical rule. Look what he's done in Lebanon, Jordan, and now in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He has brought one disaster after another on his people."
The Galilee Triangle. Nor are such pro-Israeli sentiments limited to residents of Jerusalem. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government released a trial balloon in February 2004 about giving the Palestinian Authority control over the Galilee Triangle, a predominantly Arab part of Israel, the response came strong and hard. As Mahmoud Mahajnah, 25, told Agence France-Presse, "Yasir Arafat runs a dictatorship, not a democracy. No one here would accept to live under that regime. I've done my [Israeli] national service; I am a student here and a member of the Israeli Football Association. Why would they transfer me? Is that logical or legitimate?" One resident quoted what he called a local saying, that "the 'evil' of Israel is better than the 'heaven' of the West Bank." Shu'a Sa'd, 22, explained why: "Here you can say whatever you like and do whatever you want—so long as you don't touch the security of Israel. Over there, if you talk about Arafat, they can arrest you and beat you up." Another young man, 'Isam Abu 'Alu, 29, put it differently: "Mr. Sharon seems to want us to join an unknown state that doesn't have a parliament, or a democracy, or even decent universities. We have close family ties in the West Bank, but we prefer to demand our full rights inside Israel."
The entrance to Umm al-Fahm, the largest Muslim town in Israel, sports the green flags of the Islamic Movement Party that rules the town, along with a billboard denouncing Israel's rule over Jerusalem. That said, Hashim 'Abd ar-Rahman, mayor and local leader of the Islamic Movement, has no time for Sharon's suggestion: "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." Nor does Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab member of parliament and advisor to Arafat, care for the idea of PA control, which he calls "a dangerous, antidemocratic suggestion."
Just 30 percent of Israel's Arab population, a May 2001 survey found, agree to the Galilee Triangle being annexed to a future Palestinian state, meaning that a large majority prefers to remain in Israel. By February 2004, according to the Haifa-based Arab Center for Applied Social Research, that number had jumped to 90 percent preferring to remain in Israel. No less startling, 73 percent of Triangle Arabs said they would resort to violence to prevent changes in the border. Their reasons divided fairly evenly between those claiming Israel as their homeland (43 percent) and those cherishing Israel's higher standard of living (33 percent). So intense was the Arab opposition to ceding the Galilee Triangle to the Palestinian Authority that Sharon quickly gave the idea up.
The issue arose a bit later in 2004 as Israel built its security fence. Some Palestinians, like Umm al-Fahm's Ahmed Jabrin, 67, faced a choice on which side of the fence to live. He had no doubts. "We fought [the Israeli authorities so as] to be inside of the fence, and they moved it so we are still in Israel. We have many links to Israel. What have we to do with the Palestinian Authority?" His relative, Hisham Jabrin, 31, added: "We are an integral part of Israel and will never be part of a Palestinian state. We have always lived in Israel and there is absolutely no chance that that will change."
Preferring Israel to the Arab Regimes
Palestinians—from the lowest level to the highest ranking—sometimes acknowledge how they prefer Israel to Arab countries. As one PLO official observed, "We no longer fear the Israelis or the Americans, regardless of their hostility, but we now fear our Arab 'brothers.'" Or, in the general observation of a Gazan, "The Arabs say they're our friends, and treat us worse than the Israelis do." Here are examples of attitudes toward three states:
Syria. Salah Khalaf (a.k.a. Abu Iyad), one of the PLO's top figures, declared in 1983 that crimes committed by the Hafiz al-Assad regime against the Palestinian people "surpassed those of the Israeli enemy." In like spirit, Yasir Arafat addressed a PLO figure murdered at Syrian instigation at his funeral: "The Zionists in the occupied territories tried to kill you, and when they failed, they deported you. However, the Arab Zionists represented by the rulers of Damascus thought this was insufficient, so you fell as a martyr."
Jordan. Victor, a Jordanian who once worked as advance man for a senior Saudi government minister, observed in 1994 that Israel was the only Middle Eastern country he admires. "I wish Israel would just take over Jordan," he said, his brother nodding in vigorous agreement. "The Israelis are the only people around here who are organized, who know how to get things done. And they're not bad people. They're straight. They keep their word. The Arabs can't do anything right. Look at this so-called democracy in Jordan. It's a complete joke."
Kuwait. Palestinians collaborated with Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait in 1990, so when the country was liberated, they came in for some rough treatment. One Palestinian newspaper found that in Kuwait, "Palestinians are receiving treatment even worse than they have had at the hands of their enemies, the Israelis." After surviving the Kuwaiti experience, another Palestinian minced no words: "Now I feel Israel is paradise. I love the Israelis now. I know they treat us like humans. The West Bank [still then under Israeli control] is better [than Kuwait]. At least before the Israelis arrest you, they bring you a paper." With less exuberance, Arafat himself concurred: "What Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories."
Many Palestinians already understood the virtues of Israeli political life decades ago. As one man from Ramallah explained, "I'll never forget that day during the Lebanon war [of 1982], when an Arab Knesset member got up and called [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin a murderer. Begin didn't do a thing [in response]. If you did that to Arafat, I don't think you'd make it home that night." Before the Palestinian Authority came into existence in 1994, most Palestinians dreamt of autonomy without worrying much about the details. After Arafat's return to Gaza, they could make a direct comparison between his rule and Israel's, something they frequently do. They have many reasons for preferring life in Israel:
Restraints on violence. After the PA police raided the house of a Hamas supporter in an after-midnight operation and roughed up both him and his 70-year-old father, the father yelled at the police, "Even the Jews did not behave like you cowards." And the son, when he came out of the PA prison, declared his experience there much worse than in the Israeli jails. An opponent of Arafat's pointed out how Israeli soldiers "would first fire tear gas, and then fire rubber bullets, and only then shoot live ammunition. They never shot at us without a direct order to shoot, and then they only shot a few bullets. But these Palestinian police started shooting immediately, and they shot everywhere."
Freedom of expression. 'Adnan Khatib, owner and editor of Al-Umma, a Jerusalem weekly whose printing plant was burned down by PA police in 1995, bemoaned the troubles he'd had since the Palestinian Authority's heavy-handed leaders got power over him: "The measures they are taking against the Palestinian media, including the arrest of journalists and the closure of newspapers, are much worse than those taken by the Israelis against the Palestinian press." In an ironic turn of events, Na'im Salama, a lawyer living in Gaza, was arrested by the PA on charges he slandered it by writing that Palestinians should adopt Israeli standards of democracy. Specifically, he referred to charges of fraud and breach of trust against then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Salama noted how the system in Israel allowed police to investigate a sitting prime minister and wondered when the same might apply to the PA chieftain. For this audacity, he spent time in jail. Hanan Ashrawi, an obsessive anti-Israel critic, acknowledged (reluctantly) that the Jewish state has something to teach the nascent Palestinian polity: "freedom would have to be mentioned although it has only been implemented in a selective way, for example, the freedom of speech." 'Iyad as-Sarraj, a prominent psychiatrist and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, confesses that "during the Israeli occupation, I was 100 times freer [than under the Palestinian Authority]."
Democracy. Israel's May 1999 elections, which Netanyahu lost, impressed many Palestinian observers. Columnists cited in a Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) study remarked on the smooth transition in Israel and wanted the same for themselves; as one put it, he envies the Israelis and wants "a similar regime in my future state." Even one of Arafat's employees, Hasan al-Kashif, director-general of the PA's Information Ministry, contrasted Netanyahu's immediate and graceful exit from office with the perpetual power of "several names in our leadership" who go on ruling in perpetuity. Nayif Hawatma, leader of the terrorist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, wished the Palestinian Authority made decisions more like Israel:
We want the PNC [Palestine National Council] to discuss the developments since 1991, particularly the Oslo accords, which were concluded behind the back of the PNC contrary to what happened in Israel, for example, where the accords were presented to the Knesset and public opinion for voting.
His facts might not be completely accurate, but they do make his point.
Rule of law. As the intifada of 1987 degenerated into fratricidal murder and became known as the "intrafada," PLO leaders increasingly appreciated Israeli fairness. Haydar 'Abd ash-Shafi', head of the Palestinian delegation to the Washington peace talks, made a remarkable observation in 1992 according to a transcript published in a Beirut newspaper: "Can anyone imagine that a family would be happy to hear a knock at the door in the middle of the night from the Israeli army?" He continued: "When the infighting began in Gaza, the people were happy because the Israeli army imposed a curfew." Likewise, Musa Abu Marzouk, a high-ranking Hamas official, scored points against Arafat in 2000 by comparing him unfavorably with the Jewish state: "We saw representatives of the Israeli opposition criticize [Israeli prime minister Ehud] Barak and they were not arrested ... but in our case, the Palestinian Authority arrests people as the first order of business."
Protection of minorities. Christians and secular Muslims particularly appreciate Israel's protection at a time when Palestinian politics has taken an increasingly Islamist cast. The French weekly L'Express quotes a Christian Palestinian to the effect that when the Palestinian state comes into existence, "the sacred union against the Zionist enemy will die. It will be time to settle accounts. We will undergo the same as our Lebanese brothers or the Copts in Egypt. It saddens me to say so, but Israeli laws protect us." His fear is in many ways too late, as the Palestinian Christian population has precipitously declined in recent decades, to the point that one analyst asks if Christian life is "to be reduced to empty church buildings and a congregation-less hierarchy with no flock in the birthplace of Christianity?"
Economic benefits. Palestinians who live in Israel (including Jerusalem) appreciate Israel's economic success, social services, and many benefits. Salaries in Israel are about five times higher than in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Israel's social security system has no parallel on the Palestinian side. Palestinians living outside of Israel want economically in; when the Israeli government announced the completion of an 85-mile-long section of a security fence to protect the country from Palestinian terrorists, one resident of Qalqiliya, a West Bank border town, reacted with a revealing outrage: "We are living in a big prison."
Tolerance of homosexuals. In the West Bank and Gaza, conviction for sodomy brings a three- to ten-year jail term, and gay men tell of being tortured by the PA police. Some of them head for Israel where one estimate finds 300 mostly male gay Palestinians living. Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International comments, "Going to Israel is a one-way ticket, and once there their biggest problem is possibly being sent back."
Palestinians living in the West who visit the Palestinian Authority are vividly aware of its drawbacks compared to Israel. "There is a difference between the Israeli and the PA occupation," wrote Daoud Abu Naim, a medical researcher in Philadelphia, while visiting family in Shuafat:
The Israelis whom I met with over the years have been diverse. Some have been insensitive to our needs, and some have not been. On the other hand, the Arafat/Rajoub regime is more than simply "corrupt." It is exclusively interested in setting up a dictatorship in which Palestinian citizens will have no civil liberties whatsoever.
Rewadah Edais, a high school student who lives most of the year in San Francisco and visits Jerusalem regularly, added, "The Israelis took our land, but when it comes to governing, they know what they're doing."
Several themes emerge from this history. First, for all the overheated rhetoric about Israel's "vicious" and "brutal" occupation, Palestinians are alive to the benefits of its liberal democracy. They appreciate the elections, rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, minority rights, orderly political structures, and the other benefits of a decent polity. There is, in short, a constituency for normality among the Palestinians, difficult as that may be to perceive in the hate-filled crowds that so dominate news coverage. Second, many of those who have tasted Israel's economic benefits are loathe to forego them; however impervious Palestinians may seem to economics, they know a good deal when they have one. Third, the percentage of Palestinians who would prefer to live under Israeli control cited in the estimates noted above—an overwhelming majority of 70 to 90 percent—point to this being more than a rarity among Palestinians. This has obvious implications for Israeli concessions on the "right to return," suggesting that Palestinians will move to Israel in large numbers. Fourth, it implies that some of the more imaginative final status solutions that involve the redrawing of borders will be hard to implement; Palestinians appear no more eager to live under Palestinian Authority rule than are Israelis.
In word and deed, then, even Palestinians acknowledge Israel as the most civilized state in the Middle East. Amid the gloom of today's political extremism and terrorism, this fact offers wisps of hope.
Apr. 13, 2005 update: For many more examples of Palestinians praising Israel, see the follow-up weblog entry at "Hamas is Worse than Israel, Worse than Sharon."
July 6, 2005 update: I summarize this article at "Palestinians Who Cling to Israel."
Jan. 2, 2008 update: For my related writings on this topic, including updates, see "Bibliography - My Writings on Arabs Appreciating Israel."