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Internal violence: state's role and society's responses.


THIS ARTICLE FOCUSES ON the argument whether Middle Eastern Arab society is a violent, feudal one. The topic--violence in Arab society--is part of an Orientalist approach that dehumanizes the Arab world, presenting it as fractious, divided, and violent; and often describes it as paternal, traditional, underdeveloped, and tribal.

A challenge to such notions is attempted here through a specific example of how Palestinian Arab society views conflicts and violence and how it is able to manage violence, even when the state is unwilling or unable to do so. The event that the article is based on took place in 1981 in the Galilee where violence broke out after a soccer game between two Palestinian Arab villages. A few days after that incident, more violence occurred in which people were killed and injured, and much property was lost. The violence was perceived as being supported by the state, since state security did not stop it and the attackers, who were Druze, used arms issued by the Israeli military. The event occurred in the context of increasing violence involving Druze attacks on non-Druze Palestinian Arabs in Israel, using military and police arms. The Israeli state has done nothing of consequence to stop the violence.

Soon after the attacks, leaders and the communities of both villages were able to contain the violence and end the fighting even when the state was unable or unwilling to intervene. No hostilities between the two villages have taken place since. Leaders in the Palestinian Arab community relied on Sulha, a traditional indigenous conflict resolution method, which has been used successfully to contain and manage community conflicts and violence. Sulha has been used for centuries by the local Arab community and draws on traditional Arab and Islamic principles that aim at containing violence and ending hostilities among individuals, groups and villages. Sulha is led by a group of community leaders that mediate among the fighting parties to bring an end to the hostilities (for more details on this method of conflict resolution, see Elias Jabbour, Sulha Making, 1996).

The focus on the 1981 event in the Galilee provides a way of countering dominant constructions of Arab societies. That event also brings the state and, more generally, other external factors back into the discussion of communal violence that is often presented as something that only the communities themselves are guilty of producing.

In countering some of the problematic trends in the literature on violence in the Arab world, focus is on the way in which this body of work has often ignored local voices. Scholars rarely included the causes of violence or the role of the state in either initiating, allowing violence to occur or not intervening later to stop it. Thus the role of the state is absent in most analyses of communal or ethnic conflicts. What is meant here by state is the governing authority in any locality, which could include an occupying authority, such as the USA in Iraq. The state in modern times cannot be ignored and its powers, imposed on its subjects, cannot be underestimated. State intervention, or non-intervention, is something that we need to take into account when discussing violence in societies. Finally the article will briefly discuss the link between democracy and communal violence. The argument that dominates mainstream political analysis is that in democratic states (unlike non-democratic ones) such violence is less likely to occur. This argument needs to be challenged.

The article is based on fieldwork that I conducted in the summer of 2004, including interviews with eyewitnesses and research using local publications pertaining to the event.


The two villages--Kafr Yassif and Julis--have had a friendly neighborly relationship and no incident of violence or conflict occurred between them. Julis is inhabited by Druze and Kafr Yassif by Christians (55%), Muslims (40%), and Druze (5%). Arabs consider the Druze sect an offshoot of Islam. After the establishment of the state of Israel, the Druze were considered a separate religious community by the state and they were later defined as a separate ethnic group and were drafted into the Israeli army. The relationship between the Druze and non-Druze Palestinian Arabs started to shift, at times expressing itself in Druze armed attacks on non-Druze Palestinian Arabs. Any attempt by any group from the Druze community to reunite politically with the larger Palestinian Arab community was suppressed by the state (Firro, 1996). The 1981 event was the first significant instance of a Druze attack on non-Druze and was the beginning of a series of such attacks in different villages in the Galilee with no state intervention to stop them.

The narrative below is based on accounts of local witnesses and on reports issued by the Kafr Yassif local council during the event and in the first few weeks after. It includes significant details that shed light on the role of the police and the state in this incident.


On 11 April 1981, a soccer game took place between teams from Kafr Yassif and Julis. The game was decisive in that the winner would advance to the next soccer league. Kafr Yassif soccer team managers asked the police to send a force as a precautionary measure. During the game, a fight between the fans of the two teams broke out and people were injured on both sides. Two individuals, one from Julis and the other from Kafr Yassif, were taken to the hospital and died there. It should be noted that fights during and about soccer games are common all over the world. The difference here was that although police were present during the fighting that took place at the soccer field and after the game, they did nothing to stop it.

When news about the fights broke, the head of the local council in Kafr Yassif, Nimer Morcos, called the head of the local council in Julis and asked for a meeting to prevent any further escalation. The head of the local council of Julis initially accepted the offer to meet but later declined, arguing that pressure from some families in Julis forced him to change his mind. However, according to Morcos and others interviewed, it was pressure from government officials that made him reject the invitation to meet. Morcos then called for a special meeting of the local council in Kafr Yassif, which met on the night of 11 April 1981.

The Kafr Yassif local council then initiated contacts with Palestinian Arab community leaders from the region who came to help in resolving the conflict between the two villages. This is a common practice in the Galilee whenever a conflict or violence in the community arises. The delegation consisted of community leaders, who were often called upon to participate in such cases, began talks with the leaders from the two villages in the hope of reaching a settlement that satisfied both parties in accordance with the Palestinian Arab traditional practice of Sulha.

The delegation initiated contacts with the leaders in Julis on Saturday night (11 April 1981) and was optimistic after making initial contacts with community leaders in Julis. However, by the end of the next day when the Sulha committee left Julis and returned to Kafr Yassif, they informed Morcos that they had failed in achieving a truce because the demand by Julis was that the Kafr Yassif council should first identify the killer of the Julis victim. However, according to the Kafr Yassif local council, this was impossible to do because the identity of the killer was unknown and it would be unfair to place such a heavy accusation on an individual without being fully confident about the killer's identity. The council also argued that a few individuals from Kafr Yassif were arrested and that it would be up to the police to identify the killer.

When the head of the Kafr Yassif local council saw that the committee for reconciliation had failed to achieve a truce, he asked them to contact the head of the regional Israeli police headquarters, David Franco, to inform him of the seriousness of the situation so that the police could take the necessary steps. Many of the committee members contacted Franco, and Morcos himself personally called him requesting the police to beef up their forces in both villages to prevent the situation from deteriorating. Despite these pleas, Franco's reply was that there were enough forces in the village police station. Morcos then called a Knesset member from the Israeli Communist Party, Mair Vilner, and asked him to intervene with the Israeli Minister of Interior in order to increase the police force in the area, which he did.

At the same time as these multiple contacts on local, regional, and state levels were being initiated, many people from Kafr Yassif continued to contact the local police whenever they saw unusual activities in the area and asked repeatedly for an increase in the police force at the village station. In addition, the local council kept contacting the truce committee requesting it to continue reconciliation efforts with the people of Julis. However, all these efforts were unsuccessful in staving off the violence that people feared.

At 2 P.M. on Tuesday, 14 April 1981, a bloody aggression started against Kafr Yassif and lasted till 3:45 P.M. Local sources from Kafr Yassif testified that hundreds of people from Julis participated in this attack. Some arrived in vehicles, but the great majority of them arrived on foot, a half-hour journey between the two villages. A number of attackers were wearing either Israeli army or border police uniforms. Arms and equipment (such as vehicles, automatic machine guns, and bombs) from the Israeli military and different security units were used in the attack. This added to the fear of the people in Kafr Yassif who realized that the state seemed to be behind this serious attack.

The general attack on the village began with an explosion in the local council building in Kafr Yassif. An armed group in a jeep threw bombs into and fired at the building. Groups of aggressors then spread throughout the village destroying property by shooting, bombing, burning houses, stores, and cars. The way this attack unfolded had all the characteristics of a military operation, suggesting that it was well planned. The destruction continued for almost two hours without any retaliation from the people in Kafr Yassif; but police present in both villages did nothing to respond to the attack.

The attack was costly: two fatalities, 10 people injured, and property destroyed or burned, including 85 homes, 17 stores (among them a pharmacy, and a textile factory), 31 cars, a tractor, external damage to the elementary school, the Catholic Church, the post office, and a bank. Also, private libraries were damaged or destroyed and rare books and two doctoral dissertations were lost.

Interviews with and literature produced by the local council in Kafr Yassif point to significant issues regarding the behavior of the Israeli security forces before and during the event that underline the general argument about the role of state in this case. Three minutes after the attack began, Morcos called the regional as well as local police stations asking for immediate assistance to defend the unarmed inhabitants of Kafr Yassif. He also called leaders from neighboring villages and the ambulance station in the region asking for immediate assistance.

Despite these calls, it is important to note that no additional Israeli security forces came to Kafr Yassif until after the attack ended even though the regional police station in Acre was ten minutes away. The Israeli security forces also blockaded the entrances of the two villages and established checkpoints, leaving open only the road connecting Julis with Kafr Yassif, the route through which the attackers entered and exited the village. The security forces prevented delegations from neighboring towns and villages that wanted to enter the village and stop the attack.

The village of Kafr Yassif did not seek revenge for the damage and fatalities caused by assailants from Julis, but sought a truce with the attacking village. People I interviewed from Kafr Yassif viewed the event as a plan by the Israeli government to stir up communal fighting and divide the Palestinian Arab community along religious lines. In addition to this political analysis for not resorting to revenge, the local Palestinian Arabs understood that Arab tradition was opposed to violence because it upsets the normal, peaceful, daily life of the community. They realized that revenge leads to a cycle of violence. People from Kafr Yassif that I interviewed also said that the residents of their village did not respond in a like manner because they were afraid to do so, knowing that Julis was an armed village and the government seemed to be backing them.

The fact that people in Kafr Yassif did not respond violently exhibited rational behavior beyond mere emotions and the need for revenge. It is also important to emphasize that Arab tradition does not seek "complete justice" in such cases because this may not help in ending tensions between fighting parties. Arab tradition also does not see the state justice system as sufficient for bringing harmony and peace to society, especially if disputing parties live in close proximity to each other. Thus, the Kafr Yassif response of avoiding revenge and using Sulha-peace making is actually the more common practice in most cases in which violence takes place between individuals, groups, or villages in Arab society. This case was not the exception, but the rule.


What is significant about this incident is not the violence that took place during the soccer game, but the violence that happened days after, which the state authorities did nothing to stop. Also, unlike most models of modern justice in the West, the Palestinian Arab society in Israel actually has a tradition of going beyond the state justice system to harmonize the community and reduce tensions whenever violence breaks out. This fact needs to be considered when discussing Arab civil society. This behavior shows the mature and active involvement of Palestinians in the daily affairs of their community and the ability of Palestinian civil society to surpass the state in resolving conflicts that arise. As Elias Jabbour (1996) argues, the state's justice system is not capable of bringing harmony to society, even though it might be able to bring justice, for justice alone is not sufficient to bring those who come into conflict to coexist peacefully, especially if the parties in conflict live in close proximity.

As demonstrated in this article, the Arab Palestinian society sees violence as an interruption of normal peaceful life and is able to contain, manage, and resolve violent conflicts through a long history of traditional methods of conflict resolutions (Jabbour, 1996). Thus, approaches to violence in the Arab world, such as that of Black-Michaud (1975), which suggests that the Middle East is a violent society with interminable feuds are baseless and deficient (Lang 2002, 52). The dominant approach to writing about the Middle East, which many Western and Israeli scholars share, represents the Arab Middle East in an Orientalist fashion. Zionist and American-sponsored research portrays the Middle East as a fractious collection of ethnic and religious groups (Barakat, 1993, 7). Interestingly, this is how the Israeli authorities view and treat its Palestinian subjects, and how the USA sees Iraqi society.

The Israeli authorities have worked since, if not before, the creation of the state to divide the different religious communities and treat them as separate ethnic groups. Yet, the Drnze comprise a religious Arab Islamic sect that has only since the creation of the state of Israel been recognized as a separate religious group and later as an ethnic group by the state of Israel.

According to Ben-Dor (1979), Druze in Israel, like other Arabs, maintain their social and political structural organization mainly through the use of violence. He argues that the Druze have far to go in order to see the ultimate fruits of the Israeli state's efforts to organize, modernize, and civilize them. Thus, the Israeli state is seen by Ben-Dor as an organizing, civilizing, and pacifying agency. What is important to note is that, according to Firro (1999, 5), Ben-Dor is one of many Israeli scholars who were adopted and employed by various Israeli governments as experts on Arab affairs to advise the government on how to "deal" with the Arab population. Presumably such researchers have no "scholarly" interest other than to represent the Arabs in a way that further justifies Israeli policies of domination through the classic colonial method of divide-and-rule, based on a racist view of Arabs.

Lang (2002, 52) is critical of these reductionist representations of Arab society. She points out that according to much of the anthropological literature, violence is the key to understand Arab society and politics. Lang is critical of such functionalist analyses and anthropological approaches that portray Arab society as lacking organizing institutions and that suggest that feud functions as social ordering. She argues that functionalist analyses and similar interpretations of Middle Eastern society tend to ignore indigenous ideologies, values, and practices.

I would take Lang's argument a step further in order to explain the context in which studies such as Ben Dot's and Black-Michaud's are situated. The first point, in my view, is that these studies of conflict in the Arab Middle East are embedded within the larger political context of Orientalist scholarship (Said, 1978) and colonialist research (Fanon 1963). As Said has explained so well, many of Orientalist scholars have written about the Middle East without really living there, among the people. Also, many scholars' personal and political connections contaminated their work. They sacrificed objective research in the service of their own agenda. These studies viewed the colonized as inferior, first and foremost, and as a collection of groups, whose divisions were to be nurtured and exploited whenever possible. Such studies of Arab society that focus on social groups and their lack of solidarity or causes of friction cannot be understood other than as part of the colonial project, as Fanon explains, for they were used for the domination of Arab society by Western colonizers.

The second point to note is the lack of discussion of the state's role, or the role of the governing authority in violence that takes place within the state's borders or in areas under its rule. The larger analysis of causes of violence where external forces are possible factors in the instigation of the violence or its continuation is also lacking. Presenting violence in Arab society, even if in a positive way, without discussing its causes indirectly promotes the perception of society as violent. The non-intervention of Israeli security forces to prevent or stop violence when it occurs among the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel is a persistent phenomenon that cannot be understood other than as a promotion of internal violence within the Palestinian Arab community.

It is useful to recall that in this case, as in many others, the police did not intervene to stop the violence and the attackers used police and military arms in their attack. This is often the case when members of the Druze community attack non-Druze Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee. Yet, despite repeated incidents, the Israeli state authorities have never taken measures to prevent such occurrences (Arabs48, 2/15/2005). In fact, many community members have accused the state of instigating or promoting violence. Furthermore, it is clear from the case that I presented that the state is neither interested in preventing nor intervening to stop the violence.

Finally, studies that present Palestinian Arab society in Israel as passive and easy to control by state authorities need to be reexamined. Such works have little or no knowledge of Arab society. Lustick (1980) argues that Israeli governments were able to co-opt Palestinian leadership and control Palestinian society, thus portraying Palestinians as tribal communities who follow their leadership blindly, are weak and easily dominated, and have a leadership that is easily bribed. Similarly, Migdal and Kimmerling (1993) argue that because of the strong Israeli institutions and leadership in Israel, Palestinian Arab citizens are being co-opted and controlled by the state. Relying on Lustick's work, Migdal and Kimmerling also suggest that Palestinian citizens of Israel lack any successful tool to challenge state policy and improve their situation. In both works, Palestinian society is presented as lacking any agency, paralyzed and controlled by an efficient Israeli state apparatus. This is an inaccurate picture and a simplistic explanation of the relationship between the Israeli state and its Palestinian Arab citizens.

If such arguments and representations were true, i.e., if Israeli authorities were able to intimidate, control, and co-opt Palestinian citizens, then how could one explain the many instances where the Palestinian community challenged the state? It appears that such studies construct representations of Palestinian Arab society either because they were conducted without close familiarity with local history and the dynamics of the Palestinians in Israel or because they relied too much on secondary sources and generally ignored the input of local indigenous Palestinian Arab sources. If the Palestinian Arab community was, in fact, weak (traditional, tribal, vulnerable to co-optation and intimidation or corrupt), as the above authors suggest, then we would have seen greater success in the Israeli state policy of divide and rule, and in the intended alienation and division of Arab Palestinian citizens. In other words, the state would have by now succeeded in creating communal wars between different Arab religious groups; but this is not the case as Firro (1999) argues and as my own case study demonstrates.

The case study partially shows that the Palestinian community saw that further violence between the two villages was in the interest of the state and made every effort to counter Israeli policy and succeeded in ending the violence. Despite the losses and humiliation that Kafr Yassif suffered, it did not seek revenge or fall into the government trap. Instead, they sought reconciliation with the people of Julis through traditional conflict management methods (Sulha). It is important to reiterate that violence between the two villages has not happened since. The case study also shows that Palestinian Arab society in Israel is resilient and capable of controlling internal violence even when the state is unable or unwilling to intervene.

According to the mainstream view in the literature on Arab societies, the two Arab villages are prone to violence and, therefore, should have been in a violent relationship for a long time. Yet, the history of the relationship between the two villages, as many of those interviewed have vouched, had been peaceful for many decades. Change in the relationship between the villages is due to a change in political circumstances. Individuals I interviewed note that this change in relationship took place after the creation of the state of Israel. The Israeli government intentionally implemented policies to separate the Druze from the larger Arab community. Many of the interviewees stressed that the timing of the violence coincided with the Likud government's preparations for its war against the PLO in Lebanon. According to those interviewees, the Israeli government wanted to create communal conflict in the Galilee hoping that it would spillover into Lebanon, where Druze, Christian, and Muslim Arabs also live. This Israeli strategy did not succeed in the Galilee, and, in the end, failed in Lebanon.

The findings of the government commission of inquiry into the events in Kafr Yassif state that the police did their best considering that they did not anticipate the violence. Yet the phenomenon of Druze who serve in the Israeli army and who use army weapons in intimidating and fighting with non-Druze Arabs is widespread, especially since the 1980s. Questions arise: Would the government remain silent and not punish Druze soldiers if they used their weapons against Jews? Is the state really that powerless? Why does the government not punish its soldiers for the illegal use of their arms while off duty?

The commission of inquiry claimed that the police did not want to intervene to stop the attack because they feared escalating the situation and causing more casualties; this claim is not persuasive, considering the many instances when Israeli security forces were very brutal in their treatment of Palestinian Arab citizens. As recently as October 2000, when Palestinian citizens demonstrated against the government's oppressive policies in the Occupied Territories, the security forces did not hesitate to kill 13 Arab Palestinian citizens and injure many more.

Police from neighboring stations did not come to help the local police to stop the attack even though the Israeli state is very centralized and its territory tiny. Many police stations are only minutes away from these villages. Officials in the government were warned of possible violence and were also asked to send more security personnel to the villages, but no serious attempts were made to prevent the attack on Kafr Yassif or to stop it when it started. Members of the Arab community argue that the Israeli authorities are swift in their response to any collective Arab Palestinian initiatives and are brutal towards them as happened in the demonstrations of October 2000. However, when Jewish right wing demonstrators do the same they are met with "silk sticks." (Arabs48, 5/17/2005).

There seems to be a need for a better examination of issues relating to ethnic/communal conflict and nationalism in the context of international relations. It is critical to examine the role of exogenous factors that create, exaggerate, or prolong violence. As Samir Khalaf (2002) has shown, the communal conflict and violence in Lebanon was the making of external forces (in this case, European powers) who exploited religious differences and pitted various religious, social, and political groups against one another. Ignoring external factors when discussing group violence in different parts of the world, especially the so-called developing world, helps only to take external forces or actors off the hook and portrays indigenous groups as "primitive" and innately violent.

Finally, it is especially important to consider the role of the state in ethnic and religious violence at a time when the USA (and the West) speaks of "spreading democracy" to all comers of the globe. The argument here is that spreading democracy will lead to, among other things, peaceful societies and states that are less likely to engage in internal or external violence. For one, it is important to scrutinize and contest the assigning of names and categories to non-Western regimes by Western politicians and academics. Israel, for instance, is considered a democracy by Western observers, because it has a parliamentary system where all citizens have the right to vote. Others define Israel as a democracy for its Jewish population, because it puts restrictions on the rights of its Arab citizens such as the right to own property. In my view, Israel may be considered, in the best case, an ethnic democracy or a theo-democracy, because it is so only for its Jewish citizens, and because Jews from all over the world have more rights (such as the right of return or citizenship) in Israel than its Arab citizens.

But for the moment let us put aside the issue of Israel or whether Israel can be called a democracy. The question regarding democracy and internal violence is important in the case of Israel, in order to explore the contradiction between them. In many countries that are considered democratic, state authorities are complicit at times in igniting or allowing violence to take place between different religious and ethnic groups if that benefits the state. Thus, ethnic- or theo-democracy in multi-ethnic and multi-religious states is no guarantee of peace and most likely promotes conflict.

Categorizing the state, as either democratic or authoritarian is not sufficient if one were to study the production of violence and its relation to the state. There are many cases that prove this thesis. Authoritarian states have promoted policies that tried to downplay religious differences among their citizens. Syria, for example, is considered an authoritarian state by Western scholars, politicians, and the media, yet since its independence it has worked to downplay or counter religious divisions that were encouraged by the French colonial system. Consequently, Syria has not witnessed religious/communal violence. Thus, Syrian Druze are not engaged in violence against other religious communities.


The case study shows that the Arab Palestinian community in Israel is neither passive nor weak. On the contrary, it is proactive and on many occasions has gone beyond the state's ability to control violence and resolve disputes. It challenges state policies that aim at creating sectarian violence. Palestinian Arab society sees violence as a disruption of normal life.

The article argues that the discussion of violence must be placed in a context that includes the external causes of violence. In this manner, one could go beyond the framework established by the colonialist/Orientalist scholarly structure that aims at dehumanizing those in the so-called developing world and blaming them for their own misfortune. When studying causes of religious or ethnic violence, one realizes that violence is neither random nor chaotic. Rather, it is calculated and often initiated or exacerbated by external factors that cannot be ignored. The role of states or governing authorities in internal violence must be taken into consideration in the discussion of causes for ethnic or communal violence. States and governing authorities are to guarantee order and peace. States must be investigated whenever violence breaks out.

Finally, the argument linking democracies to internally peaceful societies needs to be seriously qualified and examined. Democracies--in this case Israel--whether considered ethnic- or theo-democracies, pose a challenge to such a thesis. Israel has not created a peaceful relationship among its different religious or ethnic communities. Instead, it worked at highlighting and sharpening differences among them.


Primary sources

Interviews with local leaders from both villages, with locals who witnessed these events and with members of the reconciliation committee, conducted in the June-July 2004.

Kafr Yassif local councils' reports on the event published on several occasions as updates on the events and their aftermath from April to November 1981.

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Magid Shihade is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.
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Title Annotation:Middle Eastern Arab society
Author:Shihade, Magid
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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