Arab-Jewish mixed city remains on edge after violence


Israeli security forces guard the streets of Lod, weeks after rioters torched patrol cars, synagogues and homes. The attackers who killed an Arab and a Jewish resident are still at large. And a mayor who some accuse of paving the way for some of the worst civil strife in Israel’s history remains in office.

Israel and Hamas struck a truce two weeks ago to end 11 days of fighting in the Gaza Strip. But the roots of the upheavals that rocked Israel’s mixed Judeo-Arab towns during the war have not been addressed, leaving these communities on edge.

“It’s hard for me to say what tomorrow will look like. To say that I will have the same confidence is hard to say,” said Rivi Abramowitz, a Jewish resident of the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol in Lod.

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A worker walks past burnt-out cars piled up during clashes between Arabs, police and Jews in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, central Israel, on Tuesday, May 25, 2021 (AP Photo / David Goldman)

A worker walks past burnt-out cars piled up during clashes between Arabs, police and Jews in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, central Israel, on Tuesday, May 25, 2021 (AP Photo / David Goldman)

Lod, about 16 kilometers 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, next to the main international airport, is home to 77,000 people. About a third are Arabs – many of whom are descendants of Palestinians who made up the majority of the city before a mass expulsion amid the 1948 war around the creation of Israel.

A cityscape of low-rise housing projects from the 1950s and 1960s, the working-class town is also a stronghold of harsh Jewish politics. In the March 23 elections, staunchly nationalist parties, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, won over 60 percent of the vote in Lod.

Much of the tension was below the surface – until last month.

Clashes between Jerusalem police and Palestinian protesters inside and near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, and the planned eviction of Palestinians from homes in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem pushed some Arab residents of Lod into the streets in protest.

The night the war began between Israel and Hamas, the shooting of an Arab man by a Jewish resident of Lod sparked more than a week of violence and the city was placed under a state of emergency.

Similar unrest, fueled by long-standing Arab grievances over discrimination and lack of opportunity, quickly spread to other mixed areas across the country.

In Lod, two residents were killed: Musa Hassuna, 32, by a suspected Jewish gunman, and Yigal Yehoshua, 56, by a suspected group of Arab attackers. No charges were laid in either case, and police said investigations were underway.

Some Arab residents see the election of Mayor Yair Revivo eight years ago as a turning point. Revivo has strong ties to a religious nationalist movement known as the “Torah Nucleus”, which promotes what it calls Jewish values ​​in poor cities.

Critics say Likud member Revivo incited hatred against Arabs, advanced discriminatory policies and detrimentally strengthened the core of the Torah. The group’s presence in Lod dates back about 25 years, but its number has grown from two founding families to over 1,000 families today.

Before the riots, Revivo denounced the “Arab crime” in his city, calling it an “existential threat to the State of Israel”.

“Jewish criminals have a drop of compassion. Arab criminals, you don’t understand, have no inhibitions, ”he told Radio 103 in December.

In April, he urged the government to launch a military-style operation to quell the “nightmare of unnaturally magnified gunshots, explosions, fireworks and calls to prayer at 4 a.m.”

In a letter to the Israeli police chief and public security minister, Revivo described “an atmosphere of terror, a Wild West” perpetrated by the Arab residents.

Days before the May 10 riots, Revivo visited Lod with Itamar Ben Gvir, an ultra-nationalist lawmaker with anti-Arab views, scandalizing Arab residents.

Ruth Lewin-Chen of Abraham Initiatives, a Lod-based non-profit group that promotes coexistence, said her Arab population was increasingly frustrated.

She cited socio-economic disparities between Jews and Arabs, violent crime and the lack of effective policing, planning and housing policies. She also highlighted the growing influence of the Torah core.

Many Lod Arabs view the group with suspicion due to its links to the West Bank settler movement. Some Arab residents collectively refer to them as “settlers”.

During the unrest, the Arabs targeted property belonging to the religious-nationalist community. In response, armed West Bank settlers and other ultra-nationalists mobilized in Lod, fanning the flames.

“We are practitioners of the Zionist religious community. I don’t see why we are put under the rubric of ‘settlers’,” said Abramowitz, who has lived in Lod for six years with her husband, who was born in the city. and whose parents were among the founders of the core of the Torah. “No one came to throw anyone away.”

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Arab politician Mohammed Abu Shikri said that in his decades on Lod City Council, “I have never seen a mayor of a mixed Arab-Jewish town who incites against Arabs, brings in settlers.

“I have known eight mayors of Lod,” he said. Until Revivo, “mayors have always had good relations with Arabs”.

Arabs make up about 20% of Israel’s population and are citizens with the right to vote. But they have long suffered from discrimination and their communities are often plagued by crime, violence and poverty. They largely identify with the Palestinian cause, leading many Israelis to view them with suspicion.

A 2018 report from the Israel Democracy Institute noted disparities in Arab representation in mixed municipalities.

Although Arabs make up 30% of Lod’s population, only 14% of municipal employees are Arabs, with only four members of the 19-member city council. The city has not had an Arab deputy mayor for four decades, according to the report.

“What does that say about the place of the Arabs in the city?” Lewin-Chen asked. Lod lacks almost all the facilities for a “shared community life,” she said, and the town hall does little to bring Jews and Arabs together.

A rare exception appears to be the Maccabi Lod Boxing Club, where Jewish and Arab athletes trained together. “We are like family here,” coach Yaacov Wallach said.

But signs of division are widespread. The town’s community center offers separate exercise and music classes for Arabs and Jews.

In the tense Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, members of the Torah Nucleus community held a circumcision ceremony for a newborn baby recently. The next day, an Arab family celebrated the birth of their boy. Although the events were only a block away, there was no sign that the communities were celebrating together.

Abramowitz, for his part, says he has cordial relations with his Arab neighbors. But she thinks there are limits to how things can go, saying she wants to “live together, but separately”.

“There are extracurricular activities for Arabs, there are extracurricular activities for Jews,” she said. “We are not interested in mixing – assimilation.”

The Revivo office declined interview requests. But he rejected the allegations of discrimination, saying he had worked “to improve the quality of life in the Arab community, which has not been recalled since the founding of the city”. He added that “all over the city Jews and Arabs live as good neighbors.”

Samah Salaimeh, founder of Arab Women in the Center, an advocacy group based in Lod, said she was optimistic the unrest would be a “wake-up call that we cannot continue this way.”

Malek Hassuna, the father of the Arab killed in the unrest, stood near his son’s grave, which stands next to those of several generations of the deeply rooted Lod family.

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“If it’s Jewish or Arab, it’s one blood,” he said, expressing hope that his grandchildren will live in peace with their Jewish neighbors. “I want Lod to go back to what it was 40 or 50 years ago, to what it was with coexistence with the Jews.”

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