Bayan: A Whirlpool of Confusion and Cover-ups: The Political Discourse of Arabs in Israel Five Years into the Syrian Uprising

In this article from the April 2016 issue of Bayan, Dr. Yusri Khaizran analyzes the repercussions on the Arab public in Israel of the five year uprising in Syria.
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Raed Salah, head of the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement

Raed Salah, head of the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement

The upheavals and popular uprisings, erroneously and misleadingly called the “Arab Spring,” sparked the enthusiasm of the intellectual and political Arab elite in Israel — at least initially — even though the Palestinian cause and the struggle against Israel were markedly absent from the agendas of these revolutions. This enthusiasm stemmed mainly from the historical fact that Arab nations took a stand en masse against all the ideologies that had promised revolutionary change, reforms, equality, and economic prosperity, and instead instated repressive, unscrupulous totalitarian regimes that created a hybrid model of government combining political-ideological totalitarianism and institutionalized corruption. In some respects, these popular uprisings amplified the discourse of civic equality among the Arab minority in Israel, but at the same time, they heightened their confusion and their disappointment with the Arab sphere, especially after 2012.

The popular revolutions that erupted in Tunisia and Egypt and led to the fall of two corrupt, pro-West, dictatorships, triggered great expectations among the Arab public in Israel. This was not only because the events were considered a historical opportunity to promote democratization and liberalization in the Arab world, but also because the revolutions led to the collapse of pro-West governments that perpetuated the Arabs’ weakness vis a vis Israel. After all, masses of Arab nations finally broke the barrier of fear and helplessness that had constrained them for decades. Through an authentic popular protest movement, they managed to topple dictatorships and disprove pervasive assumptions about Arab submissiveness. As the revolutionary wave spilled over to other countries, these hopes and expectations gradually diminished as initial reservations regarding the Arab Spring appeared following the revolution in Libya, NATO’s intervention in the war against Gaddafi’s regime, and the brutal, horrific extermination of the Libyan tyrant.[1]

It was, however, the revolution in Syria that divided Arab society in Israel in an unprecedented manner.  The rift grew wider as the revolution there sank deeper into violence and increasingly brutal civil war. This revealed the fragility, not only of the Arab political fabric in Syria, but also of the Arab social fabric in the entire region that extended beyond Syrian borders. The militarization of the Syrian revolution and the civil war generated a genuine sense of confusion among the Arab public in Israel, and divided it into two dichotomous camps: one camp identified with the Syrian regime and viewed the revolution as a plot to overthrow the last pluralistic Arab country remaining in the Arab world and eliminate the last remaining government that supports a struggle against Israel, and the other camp, which viewed Assad’s regime as a sectarian totalitarian regime that massacres its own citizens.

It would be incorrect to argue that the Arab society in Israel split along religious, sectarian, or political lines, because opinions on the Syrian crisis cut through the length and breadth of the Arab public in general. With this, the Druze and Christians have shown a tendency to support Assad’s regime or express grave concerns about the Islamist alternatives, especially since the rise of the Jihadist organizations in Syria in 2013, most prominently Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. The growth of the Jihadist organizations sharpened the already existing divide and confusion in the Arab public in Israel, and triggered new directions in its political discourse, including attempts to adopt models that draw parallels between these organizations and with Israel or with the Syrian regime. Raja Za'atra, Hadash spokesperson in the Haifa region, argues that “ISIS found a role model for itself in the Zionist crimes of the war of 1948,” so that “all acts of murder, slaughter, rape, and theft by the ISIS are repetitions of the Zionist crimes of seventy years ago.”[2] MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad) made a similar comparison between Israeli Air Force pilots and ISIS, when she stated, “ISIS and the IDF are armies of killers who have no red lines.”[3] In an interview with Palestinian Television, Former MK Muhammad Barakeh, Chairperson of the Supreme Follow-Up Committee of the Arab public in Israel, stated that “the government of Israel is the organization that is most similar to ISIS,” and that “it has a vested interest in this phenomenon.”[4] Moreover, the sudden rise of these two organizations — ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra — and their horrific acts of killing revived the conspiracy discourse that ties these organizations to western interests or even to Assad’s own regime, which supposedly cultivated them to demonstrate that all available alternatives are worse than his own rule. In a speech at the Al-Aqsa Convention of the Islamic Movement in Umm al-Fahm, in September 2014, Muhammad Zaydan, former chairperson of the Supreme Follow-Up Committee, stated, “The Israeli General Security Service [Shabak] and the USA are the ones who invented ISIS in order to achieve a new division of the Arab world and the region, to serve their interests.”[5]

Ostensibly, the political leadership of Arab society in Israel concurred in condemning the brutality and horrific acts of ISIS, but occasionally these condemnations were public lip service demanded by the pluralistic character of the Arab public in Israel, and demanded by the anti-establishment discourse that hones in on the contradiction between Israeli democracy and the prejudice to the national and civil rights of its Arab minority. For example, Sheikh Kamel Khatib, Deputy Head of the Northern Faction of the Islamic Movement, saw no problem in declaring that Jerusalem is designated to be not only the capital of the state of Palestine but also the capital of the righteous Islamic Caliphate. This declaration was perceived by many as an expression of support for ISIS’s declaration on the establishment of a Caliphate.[6]    

On the other hand, the official spokespersons of the Islamic Movement denounced ISIS’s actions, especially the killing of Muslims, and called members of the Movement to renounce their tendency toward takfir (declaring rivals to be infidels) — but at the same time condemned the “coalition of evil” led by the US against the Jihadist organizations, which was described as a “Crusader-Zionist-heterodox-reactionary [coalition].” The statement did not condemn the horrific acts perpetrated against Muslim and non-Muslim minorities such as the Yazidis and the Christians.[7] Moreover, a close reading of the statement shows that, more than an explicit denunciation, it instead expressed guarded reservations. Indeed,  the emergence of ISIS and the military might that it amassed in its campaign against the Syrian and Iraqi armies undeniably encouraged Islamist hopes for a powerful Islamist state in the region.

The discourse in Arab society in Israel surrounding the war in Syria and the emergence of the jihadist organizations clearly reflects confusion, embarrassment, and some degree of defensiveness in view of the collapse of the Arab social fabric in the Syrian expanse (of which Israel was once considered a part), and the moral deterioration of the organizations that operate in the name of Islam but yet recall the darkest regimes in the history of humankind. Arab society in Israel pinned high hopes on the popular revolutions and rebellions that materialized in the Arab world, but it became entangled in unprecedented confusion, coupled with growing alienation from Israel, on the one hand, and deep disappointment with their natural environment on the other. Balad Chairperson Jamal Zahalka may have offered a faithful description of this confusion in his speech in which he describes the establishment of the Joint List as an exceptional, commendable action in the regional Arab sphere. He stated, “We are going through a rough period. Look at what is happening around us: The Arab world is being destroyed, is falling apart, is fighting against itself and killing itself in Yemen, in Syria, everywhere, in Libya, and in the Palestinian arena, too; a government in Gaza and a government in the West Bank…We have swum against the current, we accomplished something, we did not ride this wave; so, there is a wave of unity and we united, but there is [also] a wave of fragmentation and we united against this wave of fragmentation.”[8]

Dr. Yusri Khaizran is a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and teaches at the Open University of Israel.


[1] Interview with Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi, al-Masdar, 9 September. 2013. Also see Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi, “The Arab Spring and the Palestinians in the State of Israel,” Mitvim (September 2013), pp. 2-3.

[2] See Raja Za'atra, al-Ittihad, 13 March, 2015.

[3] Yehonatan Liss, “MK Zoabi: IDF pilots are no less terrorists than ISIS head-choppers”, Haaretz, 19 October 2014.

[4] Muhammad Barakeh (possibly stated in September 2014) is quoted in:

[5] Muhammad Zaydan is quoted in Hasan Sha'alan, “Convention of the Islamic Movement, Israel supports ISIS.” 12 September 2014.,7340,L-4570347,00.html

[6] See Sheikh Kamel Khatib’s declaration in

[7], 7 November 2014

[8] See speech of Jamal Zahalka at the election convention in Umm el-Fahm.