Arab Israelis say they are fearful of voicing solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza—under deadly attack by the Israeli military—and say their loyalty has been tested for 60 years in light of Israel's recent ban on two of their parties from next month's elections.
Although Sakhnin, which has an Arab population of 25,000, was the site of a demonstration of around 100,000 people to protest the Israeli assault on Gaza, people say they are worried their support for Gaza may have a negative impact on their lives.
"We identify with the people in Gaza, but we don't want to endanger ourselves," said the Arab Israeli. "We want to stand in our land. We're scared. Right wing Jews see us as enemies," said the leader of the Greek Orthodox community in Sakhnin, father Salah Khoury, who has organized a campaign to send food and clothes to Gaza.
As the death toll has spiraled, spontaneous protests against the war have multiplied in Galilee -- home to around half of the 1.4 million-strong Arab Israeli community, which makes up about 20 percent of Israel's population.
"Our state is at war with our Palestinian nation," said Gazal Abu Raya, an Arab Israeli and head of the Jewish-Arab Institute for Peace in Sakhnin, in the northern Galilee region.
"For 60 years, we've been under a test of loyalty," said Abu Raya.
Adding to the fear is Monday's decision by Israel's election panel to disqualify two Arab parties from running in the Feb. 10 elections based on a motion filed by two far-right parties which claimed they did not recognize the Jewish state's right to exist.
"Obviously, the right wing is stronger with the war. The Israelis are selling more cheap popularity in the streets," said Jamal Zahalqa, head of the parliamentary group of one of the two parties, the National Democratic Assembly.
"In general, Arabs in Israel feel they are not wanted as citizens in the state," Khalil Nakhleh, a Palestinian researcher into conflicts and based in the West Bank, said.
The Supreme Court is to rule on the ban next week.
Arab Israelis are descended from the 160,000 Palestinians who remained in Israel when it was created in 1948.
If the ban is confirmed, Zahalqa warned of an Arab boycott of the elections and a "crisis" that would deepen the friction with the Jewish population.
"If we can't participate in the electoral process, and work under political legitimacy we will reconsider our strategy. More and more people will demand an Arab parliament," he said.
"There will be a crisis between the Palestinian minority and (Israel's) majority."
The election panel's decision is "an act of racism, an intimidation," said Sakhnin's deputy mayor, Mahmud Abu Raya, who has no party affiliation. "We will boycott the elections as a protest."
Gazal Abu Raya, who belongs to the same Arab clan as Mahmud, conceded that these are difficult times for the community's fragile relations with Jews in north Israel.
He said his institute tries "to be a bridge, mediators between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. It's not easy when you see the pictures of children and women dying in Gaza."