Commentary by Kyle Shideler is the Director of Research and Communications for the Endowment for Middle East Truth. This is the second part in a two-part series. See the first part here.
In Part I of this report on a recent fact-finding trip to Israel, I discussed how setting foot on the ground in Israel establishes in the mind of the traveler the importance of strategic terrain. The Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley, and the Hills of Samaria are strategic territories that, if held by enemies of the Jewish state, represent an immediate, existential threat. To stand in these locations is to immediately understand how Israel’s security needs are tied directly to the topography of the land in a way that cannot be expressed by maps and lectures.
There is another kind of strategic geography that can only be understood by spending time on the ground as well, and that is the human terrain. Being present on the grounds enables one to take a reading of the subtle shifts in the behaviors and allegiances of populations. Here the situation was, for a first time visitor to Israel, very worrisome.
The road to Umm Al-Fahm, an Arab Israeli city, and the center of the Northern Islamic Movement which agitates against Israel. Photo Courtesy of Author.
While Israel remains rightfully proud of its successes in incorporating Arab Israelis into the fabric of Israeli society, in some areas that fabric is stretched thin.
Umm Al Fahm is one such area. From its position in Northern Israel, Umm Al Fahm is an Israeli Arab city with a restive population. It is the home of the Northern Islamic Movement, which routinely agitates against Israeli rule, and is capable of orchestrating rallies in the tens of thousands in favor of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Several of its leaders have been arrested on charges of supporting Hamas.
Because of its reputation for potential trouble we did not enter the streets of Umm Al-Fahm, even though at other times on the trip we travelled on the same roads as Palestinian Authority-licensed vehicles with a near certainty of security.
In a recent rally in Umm-Al-Fahm, protestors swore to “sacrifice [their] lives for Al-Aqsa,” referring to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits upon the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. The Arab preoccupation with the fate of Al-Aqsa (allegedly under threat by the perfidious Zionists) becomes a curious thing when you travel there yourself, and see the hundreds of Arab men and women, of all ages, sitting atop the Temple Mount in the middle of the day, nearly all of them positioned near the tourist’s entrance -Muslims may enter the Temple Mount through any of several gates, while all others are relegated to a single entrance - where they send the message that the area is under Islamic control.
Israeli police are also heavily present, both to protect Jews who are assaulted by stone-throwing “youth”, but also to arrest any Jew who threatens to pray. It is considered incitement for Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
The Dome of the Rock dominates the Temple Mount and the Jerusalem skyline. Photo Courtesy of Author.
As displayed in the Temple Mount, and elsewhere, it’s clear that for elements of Israel’s Muslim Arab population, they know that more than 50 percent of success is just showing up.
The politics of demography is ever present in Israel, as is the power in asserting, or disputing, historical claims. In the city of Nazareth, the home of the historical Jesus, Christians are fleeing in droves. One Arab Christian seeking to form a Christian political party for Nazarene elections warns that something must be done, before “all the city’s Christians leave because of the gangs demanding protection money.”
On our trip, we overlooked Nazareth from a nearby hilltop, because to descend into the city on a Friday would have meant being surrounded by Muslim worshippers recently out of the city’s numerous mosques. It is no coincidence, as one of our speakers told us, that riots and disorders occur most often on Fridays (as they do throughout the Middle East), as radical messages are disseminated by imams. Thanks to numbers, and with confidence and aggression, a Christian town in Israel is expected to suffer the same fate as its counterpart, Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority controlled-territories, where Christians are no longer welcome.
The history of the land of Israel is one where competing civilizations have repeatedly struggled to supplant each other’s physical presence. One can see the historical role of Islamic supremacism, where mosques and Muslim cemeteries have been built to dominate or replace Jewish and Christian holy sites.
It is comforting to know, as former Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ettinger often explains, that there is no “demographic” threat to the democratic character of the Jewish state thanksto strong Jewish birthrates and plateauing Muslim birthrates. But when it comes to the human terrain, struggles are “fought” not nationwide, but city by city, and block by block. One Jewish resident of Jerusalem explained how his children faced intimidation from Arab youth who took over a playground in a neighborhood which was almost entirely Jewish. Despite ample quality playgrounds closer to their own homes, they too were sending a message.
This sign, hanging not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, informs onlookers that Jesus was a "slave of Allah." Photo Courtesy of Author.
Unlike in Part I, where it was easy to conclude that while the Israelis control, de facto, the necessary key strategic terrain to insure their security (provided they do not succumb to pressure to surrender it), the question of the their success on the human terrain front is potentially more worrisome. The Jewish state must be as assertive in establishing the rights of Jews (such as the freedom to pray), and the rights of at-risk minorities, like Arab Christians, as they are in asserting their security needs.
One positive take away from time on the ground is that this imperative seems well understood by both many Israeli politicians, and the general public, and that they will do what it takes to insure a Jewish state remains in the land of Israel.
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