In mixed Israel cities proud of good relations, a sudden, explosive division

Rockets light up the night sky as they are fired towards Israel from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, on May 14, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

LOD, Israel - The Arabs and Jews of Lod, one of the most closely mixed cities in Israel, have been through many upheavals.

But they had never before seen the kind of intercommunity violence that unfolded here over the past three days.

Angry Arab youths rioted this week after police violence in Jerusalem spilled over into conflict with the Gaza Strip. They began burning synagogues and cars, throwing stones and letting off sporadic rounds of gunfire.

Gangs of Jewish extremist vigilantes, some called in from out of town, started a counterattack, setting their own fires. Other groups sought out Arab targets in other cities.

Not even during the intifadas, the mass Palestinian uprisings of the past, did Israelis experience this kind of mob violence. And though unrest started in Lod, it spread quickly to the mixed Israeli cities of Acre and Haifa, long proud of their intercommunal relations, and to the Arab towns of the Galilee.

Jews beat a driver who was presumed to be Arab almost to death in a Tel Aviv suburb Wednesday. Bedouin torched and ambushed Jewish cars with stones in the southern Negev desert.

"We ran out of the house without clothes on. It was burning," said Shirin al-Hinawi, a 33-year-old Arab resident of Lod whose house was charred by a Molotov cocktail Wednesday (May 12) night. Her family called for police help, but no one came, she said.

"We are not living in Gaza," she said, distraught. "I'm an Israeli citizen, and we didn't do anything."

The detritus of burned-out cars, shattered glass and charred buildings on both sides bore witness to a national nightmare.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded for calm and an end of "lynchings" and went to Lod on Thursday, saying he might send troops in. Some Israelis began worrying about the possibility of a civil war breaking out.

Authorities have declared a special state of emergency in the city, which has a population of about 80,000 people, and imposed a night curfew. Hundreds of paramilitary border police were brought in from the occupied West Bank and deployed across the city.

But many feared the violence would only intensify.

On Thursday morning, a local Jewish man was stabbed and wounded on his way to synagogue.

After dark, another person was shot and seriously injured, the police said. Orthodox Jewish youths came in from out of town. At least one, presumably an off-duty soldier, carried an assault rifle, another a baseball bat.

A post making the rounds on social media had called for a "civilian army" to provide backup in Lod, creating a spiraling sense of anarchy.

An Israeli man looks on at a residential building after a rocket launched overnight from the Gaza Strip hit the building in Ashkelon, Israel, on May 14, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

The neighbourhood al-Hinawi's house was burned in, Ramat Eshkol, is one of the most mixed areas in the country. On Thursday morning, people there seemed shocked.

Tahael Harris, a 27-year-old Jewish woman who lives in an old building with a mix of Arab and Jewish residents opposite a Jewish religious school that was burned, said she, her husband and two children had been holed up at home behind locked doors for nights while Arab mobs were setting cars alight in the street below and throwing stones.

As the violence ramped up, the family heard gunfire.

"Before, it was quiet, not perfect, but we were good neighbours," she said of the Arab and Jewish residents of the apartment bloc. "I don't know where they were last night. I don't want to ask because I'm scared to hear the answer."

The new fear and distrust in Lod has old roots in duelling nationalism. The neighbourhood of Ramat Eshkol lies at the center of Palestinian trauma surrounding what Arabs call the Nakba, the "catastrophe" of 1948, referring to the hostilities surrounding the establishment of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis.

Most of the original Palestinian residents of Lod, known as Lydda in Arabic, were expelled and moved east, never to return. Bedouins from the Negev arrived in the following decades, as did families of Palestinians from the West Bank who had collaborated with Israel, seeking safe refuge.

The rage of the Arab youths now is steeped in a smarting sense of inequality born of decades of discrimination and a lingering fear of displacement. Many Palestinian residents of Lod expressed frustration Thursday over government neglect.

Weeks ago, a couple of homes that lacked building permits were demolished by authorities.

The anger has been stoked in recent years by a process of internal Jewish settlement in Israel. Instead of settling in the already well-populated Jewish communities of the West Bank, organised groups of young, ideological Orthodox families are now moving into economically weak and mixed cities like Lod, perceiving a religious calling to strengthen the Jewish presence there.

Many of those newer Jewish families are scattered around Ramat Eshkol, living in shared apartment buildings with Arab neighbours, Israeli flags flying outside their windows. Others live in a newly built, specially designated neighbourhood for them nearby.

"We feel it is important," said Yehezkel Cohen, 43, the principal of the community's elementary school, showing religious books that were burned. "It's our mission. Our presence has only improved the neighbourhood."

The trouble in the city began when Arab youths protested outside a mosque in the old quarter Monday night and raised a Palestinian flag. They were roughly dispersed by police firing stun grenades and tear gas, residents said, igniting the charged atmosphere.

Later that night, an Arab man was fatally shot during a riot, and three Jewish men were arrested. Their neighbors claimed they acted in self-defense, but the death may have set off a blood feud.

An explosion lights the sky following an Israeli air strike on Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, on May 14, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

At least five synagogues have been burned in the city, along with the religious school and an adjacent premilitary training academy.

Yousef Ezz, a 33-year-old Arab truck driver from Lod, said a gang of Jewish extremists from out of town burned his truck Wednesday night.

"People have lost all their faith. This is their last stop," he said. "I will live and die here, and my children will live or die here."

As dusk drew in Thursday, crowds of Arab youths in black T-shirts gathered on the rooftops of the mosque and buildings around the old square and set up barricades of burning tires in the streets around. Border police officers closed off streets in Ramat Eshkol and sealed the entrances to the city.

Dror Rubin, 45 a conflict resolution mediator working at Ramat Eshkol's Jewish-Arab community center, said he has been trying for years to build relations between the Palestinian Arab residents and the ideologically motivated Jewish newcomers.

"Until a few weeks ago, I really felt that our vision was happening, that we were building a microcosm of a different future," he said. Now, he said, "something has changed. I felt for the first time that it may not be safe to walk the streets here." Isabel Kershner.

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