Why Palestinians in Israel are “Palestinian Citizens of Israel”

Palestinian__citizens_of_Israel.pngIn their coverage of Palestine–Israel, the media will often use the terminology preferred by Israel, rather than using terminology which is respectful or cognizant of Palestinian perspectives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way most media have broadly adopted the term “Israeli Arab” – propagated by Israel – to describe “Palestinian citizens of Israel.” As described below, for a number of reasons, international media should cease describing Palestinian citizens of Israel in this way.

1. Across the board, Arab and Middle East journalist associations recommend using “Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

When media outlets uncritically repeat Government of Israel nomenclature calling Palestinian citizens of Israel “Israeli Arabs,” they bolster Israeli attempts to downplay their Palestinian identity and indigeneity. This is inappropriate and disrespectful. Across the board, Arab, Middle East, and international journalist associations all recommend “Palestinian citizens of Israel” as the appropriate term to describe Palestinians with Israeli citizenship:

  • The Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) writes: “The correct default description of Palestinians who are also Israeli citizens is ‘Palestinian citizen of Israel’ or ‘Palestinian with Israeli citizenship.’”[i]
  • In a text published by the International Journalists’ Network (IJNET), the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) adds: “Do not use the identifiers ‘Arab-Israeli’ or ‘Israeli-Arab,’ unless requested by the individuals described. Instead use ‘Palestinian citizen of Israel’ if that applies, or ‘Palestinian.’”[ii]
  • The International Press Institute (IPI) likewise recommends either “Palestinian citizen of Israel” or “Arab citizen of Israel” in its useful document, “Use with Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”[iii] The IPI also points out that Palestinian media frequently use the terms “Internal Arabs” or “’48 Arabs” in Arabic “to remind readers of the displacement of Palestinians following the 1948 war, and to emphasize the fact that they are part of Arab and Palestinian society but living within the Israeli state.”[iv]

2. Palestinian identity in Israel is in constant reassessment, and there’s certainly no consensus that they want to be called “Arab Israelis.”

The self-identification of Palestinian citizens of Israel is in constant reassessment. But despite Israeli pressure for Palestinian citizens to self-define as “Israeli Arabs,” there is no consensus support for this term. The term was developed NOT by the citizens themselves but by Israel.

A 2019 Foreign Policy magazine review of this subject asserts that, “Arab-Israeli – the official media and Israeli government term for the 20 percent of Israel’s almost 9 million citizens who are Arab-Palestinian – is increasingly unpopular among the people it’s meant to describe.”[v] That article’s author, Miriam Berger, quotes the leading Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki, to explain the persistence of Palestinian identity. Shikaki says that Palestinian citizens of Israel have reasserted the use of the term Palestinian as “a way of affirming their identity in the face of an attempt to take it away from them.”[vi]

This is consistent with a 2012 New York Times report, which found that Israel’s preferred description, “Israeli Arabs,” is increasingly unpopular. The Times observed that in Hebrew, “Israeli Arabs . . . sounds like Arabs who belong to Israel,” and “most now prefer Palestinian citizens of Israel.”[vii]

In polling, it is hard to measure Palestinian citizens’ self-identification. For a Palestinian citizen of Israel, it can be literally dangerous to identify as “Palestinian” in Israel. For example, in early 2023, Israel’s parliament started to advance a bill that would punish the mere waving of a Palestinian flag within Israel with a long prison sentence.[viii] This hostility casts a long shadow over the expression of citizens’ opinion, including as measured in polls. If Palestinians do not feel comfortable or safe in freely expressing their identity, then such contextual factors will inevitably limit the accuracy of polls.  

Yet all told, as Berger writes, “the continual reassessment of how and why people identify themselves is reflective of an ongoing reframing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a civil rights struggle, both in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.”[ix] In this context, “Arab Israeli” does not have and has never had consensus support among the people it purports to describe.

3. Polls of Palestinians in Israel show that, at any given time, a significant number of Palestinians DO NOT identify as Arab-Israeli.

Journalists need to approach polling data on this question with caution. Israeli groups with an anti-Palestinian bias sometimes try to use surveys of Palestinian citizens of Israel to advance their agenda. 

For example, some supporters of Israel point to a 2020 survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a pro-Israel think tank established by Israel’s quasi-state Jewish Agency for Israel and dedicated to Israeli strategic objectives.[x] The JPPI has a clear agenda to downplay the Palestinian identity of these citizens of Israel. Its 2020 claims were publicized with a bombastic headline from the staunchly anti-Palestinian Jerusalem Post, which read, “Only 7% of Israeli Arabs define themselves as ‘Palestinian.’”[xi]

Some groups have used the 2020 JPPI poll result as proof that a dwindling number of Palestinian citizens of Israel identify as “Palestinian.” Yet the JPPI exists to support a Jewish nationalism tied to Israel and “to bolster cohesion in Israel,”[xii] and even the researchers who conducted this survey reject the claim that it is a stable measure of changing identities. One of the study’s architects, the JPPI’s Shmuel Rosner, said of the 2020 results on citizen identity: “of course, this is a one-time phenomenon for now.”[xiii]

All polls of Palestinian citizens of Israel give mixed results, with the different possible responses varying widely over time, often – as discussed above – with the ebb and flow of events in Palestine–Israel. The JPPI’s leadership itself attributed their 2020 data on identity to one-off circumstances including that year’s Israeli election cycle and the COVID-19 pandemic.[xiv] It is important to note that after 2020, the JPPI stopped covering this subject in its national polls, and that even the JPPI’s published data from 2020 omit the key details concerning how this identity question was framed.[xv]

In another pair of polling examples, a 2017 survey by University of Haifa professor Sammy Smooha found that only 16 percent of this population wanted to be called “Israeli Arab.”[xvi] But in 2019 Israeli pollster Dahlia Scheindlin discussed a survey of 411 Palestinian citizens of Israel which suggested that while 32 percent chose ”Palestinian” or “Palestinian-Israeli,”  46 percent accepted the official Israeli designation, “Arab-Israeli.” As with previous polls on this question, current events were suspected of playing an important role: Scheindlin attributed the apparent change in attitudes in part to the recent prior ratification of the nationalist “Jewish Nation-State Law.”[xvii]

Regardless of the apparent year-to-year variation in poll numbers around this question, a significant number of people in this group continue to identify as Palestinian.

4. “Israeli Arab” is the term designated by the Israeli government, and it was NEVER chosen as the term preferred by the Palestinian people. Ultimately, using “Israeli Arab” is using the terminology of the victor.

The Nakba is 75 years old. Since they were children, the vast majority of Palestinians in Israel have been instructed by official Israeli institutional voices (in the government, school system and media) that they were “Israeli Arabs.” Despite this, brave displays of Palestinian identity in Israel persist.

One key date in the Palestinian national calendar, for instance, is Land Day.[xviii] Every March 30, Palestinians commemorate the self-assertion of Palestinian citizens of Israel who, in 1976, protested in massive numbers against the theft of their land in the Galilee, the Naqab, and Wadi Ara.[xix]

Such brave displays in Israel continue to this day. In 2021, for example, large numbers of Palestinian citizens of Israel protested the expulsion of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Israel met these 2021 demonstrations with police violence and arrests. Using the standard, credible language, representatives of the main rights group for Palestinian citizens of Israel, Adalah,[xx] described Israel’s response as nothing less than a “militarised war against Palestinian citizens of Israel.”[xxi]

Adalah (“Justice” in Arabic) is an independent human rights organization founded by Palestinian citizens of Israel. While the victors, in the form of Israel, wish to impose the term “Israeli Arab,” organizations like Adalah speak of “Palestinian citizens of Israel.” Wherever Palestinian citizens of Israel have the space to organize and express themselves, this tends to be the case.

5. “Israeli Arab” is institutionalized terminology to downplay the indigeneity of the Palestinians.

Israel’s preferred use of “Arab” (or “Israeli Arab”) seems intended to diminish or dismiss the Palestinian origins and/or identity of the vast majority of the members of this group. It also intentionally downplays Palestinians’ connection with their land, indirectly suggesting that they are indistinguishable from Arabs elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

These issues have all been played out before, in earlier debates about Palestinian national identity. For decades, spokespeople for the Zionist movement and the Government of Israel denied that there was any such thing as Palestinians anywhere. Their preferred myth held that Palestine was “a land without a people” waiting to be claimed by Jews, “a people without a land.”[xxii]

The West parroted this approach until the late 1960s with virtually no discussion of any Palestinians anywhere except as the sufferers of a “refugee problem.”[xxiii] Palestinians were just Arabs; and in the “Arab-Israeli” conflict, they had no right to self-representation. In the words of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, “there is no such thing as a distinct Palestinian people.”[xxiv]

So what is now said about Palestinian citizens of Israel was once said of all Palestinians. And just as Palestinian identity is now recognized elsewhere, it needs to be recognized in Israel, too.

Some supporters of Israel still deny Palestinian identity altogether. In the language of the Jewish Israeli settler movement in the West Bank, for example, there are no “Palestinians” in the occupied West Bank, just “Arabs in Judea and Samaria.” No credible journalists use this language.

For the same reason, it is time for Western journalists to set the term “Israeli Arab” aside. Palestinians in the Galilee or elsewhere in Israel are as Palestinian as those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or in exile. The terminology that international journalists use should reflect this fact.

[i] Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), “Guidance for Reporting on Palestine/Israel” (December 7, 2021), https://imeu.org/article/guidance-for-reporting-on-palestine-israel.

[ii] The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA), “Tips and Resources for Covering Issues Related to Israel and Palestine” (May 24, 2021), https://ijnet.org/en/story/tips-and-resources-covering-issues-related-israel-and-palestine.

[iii] International Press Institute (IPI), “Use with Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” https://ipi.media/use-with-care-reporters-glossary-of-loaded-language-in-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict.

[iv] IPI, “Use with Care,” p. 26.

[v] Miriam Berger, “Palestinian in Israel,” Foreign Policy (January 18, 2019),   https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/18/palestinian-in-israel.

[vi] Berger, “Palestinian in Israel.”

[vii] Jodi Rudoren, “Service to Israel Tugs at Identity of Arab Citizens,” New York Times (July 12, 2012),  https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/13/world/middleeast/service-to-israel-tugs-at-arab-citizens-identity.html.

[viii] Noa Shpigel, “Israel Advances Law Imposing One-Year Jail Term for Public Displays of Palestinian Flags,” Ha’aretz (May 18, 2023), https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-05-18/ty-article/.premium/israel-advances-law-barring-public-display-of-palestinian-flags/00000188-2b59-d6e4-ab9d-ebf965230000.

[ix] Berger, “Palestinian in Israel.”

[x] For information about the Jewish Agency’s quasi-state status in Israel, see the standard political Zionist guide, Daniel J. Elazar and Alysa M. Dortort, Understanding the Jewish Agency: A Handbook (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 1984). For information about the JPPI’s relationship with the Jewish Agency, see any JPPI material, including the “About” section on their website: https://jppi.org.il/en/about/.

[xi] Idan Zonshine, “Only 7% of Israeli Arabs Define Themselves as ‘Palestinian,’” Jerusalem Post (April 21, 2020), https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/only-7-percent-of-israeli-arabs-define-themselves-as-palestinian-625285.

[xii] Once again, refer to the JPPI website: https://jppi.org.il/en/about/.

[xiii] Shmuel Rosner in “JPPI Pluralism Index 2020,” YouTube (April 26, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc9UTXJyVsg.

[xiv] See Rosner, “JPPI Pluralism Index 2020,” YouTube, and Zonshine, “Only 7% of Israeli Arabs Define Themselves as ‘Palestinian,’” Jerusalem Post.

[xv] The JPPI’s fullest published data for 2020 are available on the organization’s website. See Noah Slepkov, Camil Fuchs, and Shmuel Rosner, “2020 Pluralism Index” (April 23, 2020), https://jppi.org.il/en/index2020/. For direct access to the available data, click here.

[xvi] Berger, “Palestinian in Israel.”

[xvii] Dahlia Scheindlin, “Poll: Jews, Arabs Much Less Divided than Israeli Politics Let On,” +972 Magazine (April 3, 2019), https://www.972mag.com/poll-israelis-positive-view-jewish-arab-relations/.

[xviii] “March 30 – On this day,” Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, https://www.cjpme.org/otd_march_30.

[xix] See Nabih Bashir for the Interactive Encylopedia of the Palestine Question, “Land Day, 1976: A Turning Point in the Defense of Palestinian Lands in Israel” (undated), https://www.palquest.org/en/highlight/14509/land-day-1976.

[xx] “The October 2000 Killings (October Uprising),” Adalah, (Sept. 30, 2020), https://www.adalah.org/en/content/view/10127.

[xxi] Farah Najjar, “‘A War Declaration’: Palestinians in Israel Decry Mass Arrests” (May 24, 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/24/a-war-declaration-palestinians-in-israel-decry-mass-arrests.

[xxii] Two classical sources on this are Nur Masalha’s two books Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882–1948 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992) and A Land Without a People: Israel, Transfer, and the Palestinians, 1949–96 (London: Fabert and Faber, 1997).

[xxiii] For details on this earlier phase of debates on the “Arab refugee problem,” see Walid Khalidi, “Why Did the Palestinians Leave, Revisited,” Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 24, No. 1 (2005), https://www.palestine-studies.org/sites/default/files/attachments/jps-articles/why%20did%20the%20palestinians%20leave.pdf.

[xxiv] You can find the source materials for this notorious quote reviewed on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_was_no_such_thing_as_Palestinians.