Eleven days in May: 5. Riots in Israel’s ‘mixed cities’
On 20th May 2021 a ceasefire was agreed between Hamas and Israel, marking the end of an 11-day war that cost hundreds of lives. We spoke to three Palestinians and three Israelis about the brief and bloody conflict to see why it arose, how the fighting unfolded and what happened next
20th May 2021 (Taken from: #43)
This is the fifth interview in a six-part series. See the other interviews here.
As Israel and Hamas traded rockets, a different kind of conflict was breaking out on the ground. Around 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab, descendants of Palestinians who stayed after Israel was created in 1948. While Israel claims that the country’s Arabs enjoy greater civil and political rights than elsewhere in the Middle East, many Arabs say they have endured decades of discrimination. When the war broke out the mixed city of Lod descended into days of communal rioting.
Co-founder of Mosaic Multicultural Center, Lod
It was the gunfire that frightened Dror Rubin the most. Rubin had founded Mosaic – a community centre in the poor district of Ramat Eshkol in Lod, a city of 80,000 people 11 miles south-east of Tel Aviv – three years earlier to try to help bridge the gap between local Jews and Arabs. But the start of the war between Hamas and Israel sparked communal rioting in Lod and other ‘mixed cities’ across Israel, the kind of localised violence that hadn’t been seen inside Israel in 50 years.
Rubin wasn’t a stranger to gunfire. He grew up in “a religious Zionist family in Jerusalem” where the expectation was that he would join the Israeli army. He saw combat twice in Lebanon, and was later stationed in the West Bank. But, for him, gunfire was the sound of war. In Lod, it was the sound of civilians shooting at each other, a far more disturbing development. “This neighbourhood was on fire: cars, houses, parks, everything,” recalls Rubin. “There were shootings. These things do not happen in Israel, people shooting one another in the night.”
Lod, along with Acre, Haifa, Jaffa and Ramla, is one of five ‘mixed cities’ in Israel. In 1948 virtually no Jewish people lived in what Palestinians call Al Lidd. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the city was captured and most of its Arab residents were forced out, replaced by Jewish refugees who had themselves been expelled from Arab countries. The Arab populations that remained in Lod and the other mixed cities have since grown rapidly in part because of the fact that no new Arab settlements have been built since 1948. Although they are Israeli citizens, Arabs say they endure racism and discrimination in everything from housing and planning laws to employment and police treatment. In 2018 Israel’s government passed a ‘nation-state law’ that effectively downgraded the status of its non-Jewish population, as well as the status of Arabic as an official language. “They saw Netanyahu as the prime minister of the Jewish population, not the prime minister of Israel,” says Rubin.
Today around 35 percent of Lod’s population is Arab, although that figure rises to 70 percent in the district of Ramat Eshkol, where Rubin set up Mosaic. After his military service, and after spending time with Palestinians in Hebron in the West Bank, he decided to train in mediation. His early ideas didn’t come to much. “We tried many times in Ramadan to invite Jews to celebrate a meal together with Muslims. No one came,” he says. “For Hanukkah we wanted Arabs to celebrate together with the Jews. No Arabs came. We saw it wasn’t what they wanted.”
Many of the Jewish families in Ramat Eshkol come from the hard-right ‘national-religious’ community, which comprises around ten percent of Israel’s population. Members of this group mix a strict adherence to the Jewish faith with modern political Zionism. Most moved to Lod when their settlements in Gaza were dismantled as part of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and are vocal about wanting to control the demographic ratio in ‘mixed cities’ to prevent Arabs becoming a majority.
Nevertheless, Rubin felt he could operate within a narrow space of common interest. Many families live in the same poorly maintained blocks, so Mosaic focused on improving shared spaces: clearing up gardens, painting apartment buildings and raising funds for playgrounds. “We said: This is our neighbourhood, no matter what your ideology is. We live here and we all understand that this is one neighbourhood and we all want a better neighbourhood for our children.”
These things do not happen in Israel, people shooting one another in the night”
On 9th May, just before Hamas launched its first barrage of rockets, a small pro-Palestinian protest took place in the main square, near Lod’s biggest mosque. One young protester replaced the Israeli flag flying in the main square with a Palestinian one. “Very quickly everything just exploded,” says Rubin. A Jewish man was stabbed, but survived. Schools and synagogues were burned down. Armed national-religious families were threatening to shoot Arabs on sight, with little reproach from the police. On the third night of violence Rubin visited the family of a young Arab man shot dead by a Jewish neighbour. “The family told me I was one of the only Jews who came to pay their respects,” he says. Violence broke out in other ‘mixed cities’ in Israel. On 11th May Netanyahu announced a state of emergency in Lod, the first time those powers had been used since 1966. “You watched the news and it wasn’t about Gaza, it was about what was happening inside Israel,” says Rubin.
As the war came to an end so did the local violence. But the damage was done, not least to the idea of peaceful, if uneasy, Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel. “One national-religious woman called me: ‘Look, Dror, I saw my neighbour. I know her from one of the projects that you run at the community centre. We spoke about how to improve our garden. And I saw her show those extremists where we live, how they can throw their Molotov bottles into our windows.’ It was really devastating to hear that. I lost all hope.”
After May’s riots Rubin isn’t sure if he will continue with the Mosaic centre. But he’s clear that more needs to be done to tackle poverty, division and discrimination in the city. Shortly after the war Netanyahu was removed from power, replaced by a large, unstable coalition which included Ra’am, a conservative Islamist party.
It may already be too late for reconciliation, however. “My Arab friends tell me: ‘It’s like a mother who has two boys, and she loves one but not the other,’” says Rubin. “They see that in Lod, and they see that in the government. They say: ‘What do you expect from this child that doesn’t get any love and any warmth from his parents? Wouldn’t he be angry? Wouldn’t he feel alone? Wouldn’t he explode one day?”
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