- Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948–1967 by Hillil Cohen
When Israel declared independence in 1948 the new state included 156,000 Arabs who had managed to remain in their villages while the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled became refugees in neighboring countries. Israeli leaders viewed Arabs within their boundaries with suspicion and sought to control the potentially dangerous minority using a wide range of methods, including military governance until 1967. One of the most useful tools at their disposal was assistance from Arabs themselves.
In Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948–1967, Hillel Cohen continues where his previous book, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917–1948 (2008), left off. Cohen gained access to recently declassified files from the Israel Police, including intelligence, interrogation, and files detailing the workings of the Regional Committees on Arab Affairs, which managed the political relationship with the minority community and engaged with Arabs on many different levels. While the documents are clearly from an Israeli perspective, Cohen creates a nuanced picture of Palestinian Arabs who assisted the Israeli security agencies, offering a window into the complex politics of Arab Israelis’ relationship to the state. The topic is a controversial one, and Cohen is careful not [End Page 1021] to include the names of people mentioned in his sources. The risk, it seems, is accepting the argument made by both Palestinian nationalists and Israeli security personnel, which suggests there are two types of Arabs living in Israel: those who support Israel and those who do not. While the two sides disagree about who is “good” or “bad,” they each have a special category for those who assist Israel. Cohen argues that understanding Arab cooperation with Israel is much more difficult than either side would admit.
Good Arabs is organized in chapters that are increasingly theoretical. Cohen sets the stage in chapter 1 by describing the creation of a “collaborator class” among Arabs in Israel through a system of threats, punishments, rewards, and connecting with Arabs who, for a variety of reasons, were comfortable, and sometimes even excited about, supporting Israel. He introduces Arabs who firmly believed that accepting Jewish Israeli dominance was in the best interest of the Arabs; he describes others who only wanted a gun permit, a job, or reunification of their dispersed family members. Chapter 2 places these collaborators in the broader political history of the twenty-year period, focusing on conflicts between Arabs in the officially recognized Communist Party and the mainstream Mapai Labor Party. These two chapters lay the groundwork for the most important theme that runs throughout the book: Arabs who worked with the Israeli authorities did so for a number of reasons, and all of their actions need to be understood in the complicated political, social, and economic setting of the early Israeli state.
Chapters 3 and 4 are an intriguing mix of political and social history and examine how Israeli security forces used Arab collaborators in concrete ways, such as policing against “infiltrators” (Palestinian refugees who, most often for benign reasons, sought entry back into Israel) and assisting in Israeli efforts to purchase Arab land. Both of these efforts were at the heart of the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish country with ownership of as much land, and with as few Arabs, as possible. The strength of these chapters lies in the vast array of material Cohen collected. Telling a nuanced story requires many examples, and Cohen provides them with clarity and amazing detail. He recounts a story, for example, of a village leader who prevents his son’s deportation in exchange for providing the security forces with information. Another young Arab man collaborates in an effort to gain police protection for his pregnant girlfriend, while a well-known thief turns in other smugglers in order to avoid prosecution for his own crimes. Many provide evidence of the coercive relationship between...