The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs

    April 2010            
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Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967

Reviewed by Jay Levinson

by Hillel Cohen
Berkley: University of California Press (to be published in 2010)
ISBN: 978-0-520-25767-2

This well researched book explores the sensitive position of Arabs in Israel during 1948-1967, as they tried to cope with their minority status and co-operation (or collaboration) with the State. As declassified police files indicate very clearly, the relationship was complex, both for Arabs and Israelis.

Certain realities cannot be denied. In confronting defeat in 1948 and the subsequent annexation of the Triangle, Arabs in Israel had to tackle a new reality which balanced traditions of Arab nationalism hawked by the war-mongering Mufti with Israeli conquest and occupation. It no longer mattered if the Partition Plan should be accepted, or if one should follow Arab armies to war. The battle had been lost for all.

For Israel there were the celebrations of survival and victory, complicated by the presence of a formerly hostile population now to be kept in check, sometimes by more pragmatic than democratic procedures. Refugees fled through porous borders, many later trying to return via the same route. Other Arabs were relocated from their homes to new sites within the country, with the government simultaneously expecting loyalty by all to the new Jewish State. The city of Carmiel, for example, is built on land from which many of the former Arab occupants were forcibly transferred by Israel.

Through this historical maze arose the collaborator --- the Arab who sought to cooperate with the Jews for a variety of reasons. The relationship is not new. There were those Arabs who passed information to the Yishuv and sold land to Keren Kayemet during the British Mandate. Ironically, if a Jew had done “favors” for Arabs it might well have been called treason, but in the world of espionage and under-the-table dealings, it was the “Good Arabs” who cooperated.

Arab motives to cooperate with Israel were rarely idealistic. They ranged from perceived prestige … to “good for the village or clan” … to crass financial gain. Another motive was the feeling of impotence and lack of option after viewing the 1948 rout of the combined Arab armies.

The book describes in the detail of police reports an atmosphere in Israeli Arab society of squealing (more politely “reporting”) on friends and co-workers, and monitoring of teachers’ lessons and even songs sung at weddings. This “Big Brother” atmosphere was predominate at least through 1966, when the Military administration overseeing Arabs was finally dismantled.

Was the “hard hand” of Israeli rule combined with Arab collaboration successful? Again, there is no clear answer. The ubiquitous cries for Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism have been muffled, perhaps more due to the death of Egypt’s Nasser and his ranting than to Israeli policies, an easy escape from a very hard question. The rise of Palestinian identity is outside the time frame of this book. In the initial years of the state dealing with Israel Independence Day was problematic; there still is controversy in the Arab sector regarding how to relate to Israel and its national holiday, from polite adherence to cries of Naqba (Catastrophe). The current efforts to ban “Naqba” celebrations by Knesset law might stifle some voices, but it certainly will not change very many attitudes.

Yet, there have been successes. The Druze have moved from draft evasion to disproportionate volunteerism and career military / para-military service. Many Arabs have also come to identify with the State, not as “Israelis,” but with the qualified term, “Israeli Arabs.” There has, however, been little learnt. The successes (or at least partial successes) of 1948-1967 were not duplicated in the Occupied Territories of the Six Day War. A network of collaborators was established, but the feeling of “Israeli” never took root. If there never was a concentrated effort to “Israel-ify” the West Bank and Gaza, there certainly was such a program in place for Jerusalem, and by-and-large it has failed.

This book is tedious to read, given a plethora of details and names, but it is absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking. The book demands a re-examination of our relationship with the Arabs in Israel. Halachic questions can also not be ignored. To what extent does a conquering army have the right to enforce population transfer and property confiscation? What rights should conquered civilians enjoy? How does one differentiate between passive opposition and non-compliance? These are difficult questions. The role of collaborating with the “other side” only complicates matters.

After reading this book it is clear that we have to come to better comprehension of the Israeli population, its needs, and its aspirations. Information was once gathered by informants and eavesdroppers and channeled for security purposes. We must move ahead and use information to further mutual understanding.


from the April 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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