The Arabs in Northern Israel – Demographic Trends Shaping the Galilee’s Future

By: Brigadier General (IDF Reserves) Erez David Maisel.

The following three reports will present the current demographic status of the Arab population (Moslems, predominantly Sunnis, and Christians) in northern Israel (specifically focusing on the west – upper and lower Galilee), highlight potential influencing shapers, and point out two emerging hi-impact trends in the Arab community. Hopefully, this will serve as a basis for enhancing a better understanding of a major issue in the lives of all Galileans, the question of good neighborly relations.

At the macro–level, the Arab-speaking population in the state of Israel (including the Druze and Circassian population)[1] currently number approximately 1.9 million people which amounts to approximately 21% of the total Israeli population (amounting to over  9.2 million)[2]. Based on Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) report (2020), excluding the Druze and Circassian population, Moslem Arabs total about 18% of the Israeli population residing in four main areas; in the southern Negev (17%), the central Sharon and Tel Aviv – Jaffa (~11%), Jerusalem (22%) with the majority residing in northern Israel, of which 35% live in the Galilee (officially known in Israel as the northern district) and 13.6% in the district of Haifa[3] (adjacent to the northern district). Concurrently, the Christian Arab minority in Israel (population of 146,800)[4] live mainly in the northern (70.4%) and Haifa (13.4%) districts[5]. In essence, the Arab population constitutes the biggest social element in northern Israel, approximately 53% of all Galileans[6].

The northern district of Israel (Galilee) is a wonderful ethno-geographic quilt, layered and colorful, complicated, geographically channeled, and congested. The result of a fractured topography and sophisticated and nuanced local politics played out between constituencies, maternal identities, and personal aspirations. All this was amplified by decades of exploiting competing external players interests, local feuds, and political machinations, and competing interests of local elites. The outcome is a clutch of complex particularism and tenuous loyalties framed by family, land, and labored existence. Factors that unfortunately have also led to occasions of internecine and intracommunity violence sustaining fears and shaping the Galilee’s present environment and future options for all its residents – Jews, Moslems, Druze, Christians, and Circassians.

The current Galilean demographic mosaic, captive to its communal past, especially the events encompassing the 1949-1947 conflict and the comparative narratives surrounding the creation of the State of Israel, frame the complicated and sensitive co-existence between Moslem, Christian, Druze, Circassian, and Jewish residents. A complexity highlighted in the relationships and delimitation between Arab Moslem and Christian towns and hamlets, aged old Druze villages, mixed and diverse urban communities (such as historical Zfat, Acre, Tiberias, and Shfar’am), and latter-day Jewish communities established since the late 19th century through post-1948.     

Growing Mass and Rising Moslem Arab Political Clout: Key Factors in a Galilean Future

Quantitatively – growing Mass and rising Moslem Arab political clout appear to be the two main shapers of any future social contour and emerging human terrain of northern Israel. The northern social and political landscape is expected to transform as the result of an estimated near doubling of the Galilean population by 2040 (from around 1.5 today, to approximately 2.5 million residents)[7], continued country-wide rise in the size of the Moslem Arab population (over 80% compared to only 7% Christian Arabs)[8] and the maintenance of an Arab majority in the Galilee of approximately 53%, (a constant ratio and currently amounts to over 800,000 Arabs and expected to increase to over 1.5 million by 2040). The Arab Moslem youth bulge (0-14 age group account for 32.9% of all Moslem Arabs in Israel, 549,000)[9] and within it the negative impact of the large number of idle young Arabs (estimated in 2021 at around 50% of the demographic)[10] inflaming rising criminal delinquency and local violence. A critical environmental bounding feature that requires urgent addressing.

Qualitatively – an expanding Arab public awareness of the limitations of regional narratives in improving local circumstances (accelerated by social media and the expanded exposure to Israeli society). This coupled with the rising independence of Moslem Arab politicians and their inclination to lever their electoral influence in improving their constituency’s lives are resulting in an intensifying Arab demand for a higher quality of life and solutions to their community’s problems. Specifically, the younger generation’s demand for accessible housing and professional employment options raises a potential opportunity to offset decades-long destabilizing memes and narratives (trumped by self-serving marginal populist politicians). Conversely, personal setbacks, fueled by past disappointments, could lead to reinforcing historic baggage, boding even more waves of violence – circumstances that self-maintaining Arab elites are bound to exploit.  

A Changing Israeli Society: The northern district’s past and Arab demographics

The dynamic growth in the size of the Israeli society in the last seven decades (from around a million residents in 1950 to over nine million in 2021) and the expanding challenge of celebrating and containing cultural diversity stands at the center of current Israeli discourse. A theme President Reuven Rivlin reflected on in his keynote speech in 2015 on the emerging “Four Tribes” of Israel, and his call for a new all-inclusive common narrative (“Israeli Hope”), one recognizing the needs and unique requirements of the Arab population in Israel:

Shfar’am, northern birds-eye view (Courtesy: Shmuel Magal)

“The demographic processes that are redesigning the face of the Israeli society have in fact created a “new Israeli composition”. A reality in which there is no longer a clear majority, no clear minority groups, a reality in which the Israeli society is comprised of four communities, or if you will, four principal “tribes” (Secular, Religious, Ultra-Orthodox and Arab), essentially different from each other and steadily growing closer in size.”[11]

The question of creating a common all-inclusive national narrative is especially vexing for the Galilee due to its unique history, distribution, composition, and physical distance from the Israeli center (“out of sight, out of mind”). The changing Israeli demographic and the social challenge it presents coupled with the economic dominance and the demographic pull of the center of Israel (Metropolitan Tel Aviv or even Haifa) impacted greatly both the northern and southern peripherally areas. Specifically, minimal national attention to the economic development of the north and the limited organized cross-community political influence of the Galilee region due to its maternal diversity, heightened local sensitivity, and competition over resources (especially, land), only served to stunt regional development or opportunities for a Galilean lobby – one to promote the interests of all the northern population. Internal northern Arab tensions coupled with an Arab elite political focused on secular and regional themes only served to multiply Galilean frictions, generating personal frustrations and suspicion. Circumstances levered by politicians from all sides to proselytize and gain traction for particular and divisive agendas.  In order to understand the current emerging situation, it’s helpful to recall the common past.

The modern historical forces (imperial competition between Britain and France) that carved out of the Ottoman era sanjak of Acre (then subordinated to Beirut) the current northern district of Israel (and its British mandate predecessor named the Galilee district) led the British mandate in 1937 to suggest partition of Palestine. The proposal forwarded by the Palestine Royal Commission (known as the “Peel commission), followed another bout of “troubles” or “disturbances” (terms used by the British Mandatory police officers, many of who previously served in Ireland). The suggestion, calling for partitioning Palestine, allocated the predominantly Arab Galilee (hinterland to the port of Haifa) to the Jewish proposed state was rejected by the Arabs. While recognizing the inherent difficulties of their suggestion, an Arab majority in the Jewish state, the commission believed that the Galilee (until then basically, sedentary) could economically contain the proposed scheme (Peel commission, 1937, 384-385). Moreover, they were convinced that the current situation was untenable due to the unbearable and the expected relentless economic price to Britain of maintaining the mandate in the face of continuing Arab refusal to compromise,

“The more numerous and prosperous and better-educated the Arabs become, the more insistent will be their demand for national independence and the more bitter their hatred of the obstacle that bars the way to it” (Peel, 1937, 371)

Traveling in Palestine in 1938 during the “disturbances”, Douglas Valder Duff, ex-senior mandatory police officer who’d also served in Ireland, described the prosperous western – upper Galilee countryside and mandatory development efforts. In less unsavory terms he commented on the negative influence of Italian Fascist incitement (Radio Bari), the raw opportunism voiced by the rising contemporary educated Arab elites in Palestine who hardened by their sheer suspicion of British intentions were empowered to believe there was no room for any settlement,

“The student did most of the talking so far as I was concerned…he was neither one thing nor the either – neither Arab nor European – but, mentally a foul mixture of the two. He seemed to have lost all the charm and native downrightness of his own people, and to have imbibed a queer philosophy all jumbled of Fascism, Communism, and a strange perverted Nationalism…He told me the road over which we were speeding, and a very good road it was too,…I could see how it must help the local farmers to get the produce of their fertile fields and orchards down to the markets, but the student saw nothing in it save the hand of Imperial Militarism. The road had been constructed, he maintained, so that troops and police might be the more easily brought into the hill-country (Duff, 1938, 80-81).[12]

Arab rejection of the commission’s report, the continued Arab Revolt (until 1939), and the subsequent outbreak of World War II shelved the Peel proposal. Only to be tabled again in late 1947, then suggested by the United Nations that the Galilee district be part of the Arab State (The Jewish state to include the Mediterranean coast only south of Acre and southward towards Haifa). The second Arab rejection of an internationally sanctioned proposed partition and their decision to initiate armed conflict against the Jewish Yishuv in late 1947 ended in the IDF successfully establishing the State of Israel’s northern border along the mandate era demarcation line with Lebanon. The intense yearlong fighting in the Galilee between the two antagonists drastically reduced the size of the Arab population, from approximately 200,000 Arabs in late 1947 to less than 100,000 in early 1949. The months of trauma for both sides in the Galilee were especially pronounced in the more combative Arab hamlets such as Tarshiha (from over 2000 to around 600 residents) and Sha’ab (1500 to around 100 residents). Conversely, several Arab communities grew due to their reception of internally displaced people (IDPs) such as Sakhnin (from 2000 to over 3000 people), Deir Hanna (from 600 to 900 people), the Druze village of Yarka (absorbing hundreds of Arab IDPs from Acre and hamlets in the western Galilee) and the reception of many civilians into the diversified (“mixed”) cities of Nazareth (16,000 to 22,000 people) and Shfar’am (from over 3000 to over 4000 people)[13].

The aftermath of the yearlong heavy fighting created a severe crisis for the northern Arabs. Dealing concurrently with internal dislocation, supply of population basic needs, engaging with the new Israeli authorities (the recent wartime antagonist), and the containment of internal tensions, resulted in the creation of a double class stratification of the Arab northern society:

Native or semi-permanent residents of Arab communities. These included those who’d migrated during the 30s and WWII to the Haifa and Galilee mandatory districts) and the IDPs (usually Moslem Arabs) who either joined existing communities or moved into uninhabited Arab hamlets.

The continued political hegemony of the Christian Arabs (over the Arab Moslems). A minority previously favored by the mandate, who were better postured professionally to engage with the modern Israeli state.

Brigadier General (IDF Reserves) Erez David Maisel has vast experience in strategic planning, international relations, and security diplomacy and is a hands-on practitioner in international conflict prevention and boundary management. A native of northern Israel he is co-founder of the Technion Institute in Haifa’s research center BRDG (Boundary Research and Deconfliction Group). 

[1] This paper frames Arabs as Moslem and Christians – excluding the Druze and Circassic societies in Israel. Noted – that Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) register Arabs to include Druze and Circassian. 






[7] State CBS assessments for 2065, tally total Israeli population at over 20 million, of which over 3 million are estimated to reside in northern Israel –

[8] (CBS. 2017).

[9] (CBS. 2021).

[10] The Term used to categorize this group is NEET – Not engaged in Education, Employment or Training and usually brackets the two-age groups, 15-19 and 20-24.


[12] Douglas Valder Duff, Palestine unveiled (1938, London). Pg. 80-81. (Duff).

[13] IDF Archives. Documents from 20.9. 1948 (1950/2384/8), 23.11.1948 (1950/121/223). 

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Erez David Maisel BG (IDF Res)

Erez David Maisel BG (IDF Res)

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