Israel’s New Challenge: Violence Among Its Own Citizens

LOD, Israel—Rockets fired by Hamas flew into Israel throughout the week, slamming into towns like Lod and Bat Yam. Another complicated challenge is coming from within, with neighbor turning against neighbor in an escalation of communal violence that Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens haven’t seen for decades.

On Tuesday night, hundreds of residents of Lod, a city near the country’s main airport, came out waving Palestinian flags and set fire to cars, apartments inhabited by Jews and a synagogue in a mixed neighborhood. Israel’s president,

Reuven Rivlin,

described the events as a “pogrom.” Similar scenes occurred in the northern city of Acre, usually a tourist magnet.

The following night, a Jewish mob invaded the seaside promenade of Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv. Looking for Arabs, they dragged one man out of a passing car, severely beat him, and then vandalized an Arab-owned ice-cream parlor and a falafel restaurant.

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Since then, a series of similar incidents have spread around the country, often involving criminal gangs, according to local residents—tearing at Israel’s social fabric just as it teeters on the brink of a potential war. On Friday, the Israeli military stepped up its operation in the Gaza Strip, adding tank and artillery fire from the ground to its campaign of airstrikes. Israeli ground forces have also moved along the boundary with Gaza. A total of 126 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in the five-day operation, and eight Israelis were killed by rockets and missiles fired from Gaza.

Several people died or ended up in intensive care with life-threatening injuries from the communal violence within Israel’s borders. In many ways, the strife between Israel’s Jews and its two million Arab citizens, a fifth of its population, represents a more complicated challenge than the country’s external enemies. While Gaza and the West Bank lie behind security barriers and barbed wire, Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens are linked by myriad day-to-day connections, despite often diverging political outlooks.

Torah scrolls were removed from a synagogue that was torched in Lod this week.


ronen zvulun/Reuters

Video footage shared online that emerged Friday morning showed a band of young Arab men roaming Haifa streets at night with baseball bats and shouting “Allahu akbar,” and a similar band of Jewish men, also mostly dressed in black, going through a nearby neighborhood and shouting “Death to Arabs.”

“I’m terrified. With Hamas, there will be an understanding, and it will all end at some point. But what about us? We are staying here. We don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Issawi Freij, an Arab-Israeli lawmaker from the left-leaning Meretz party. “Tomorrow, I and my neighbor will have to meet again, in the falafel store, in the restaurant, in the hospital, at our job in the high-tech company.”

Yair Lapid,

the opposition leader who was mandated by Mr. Rivlin earlier this month to form a new government, warned that the future of Israel is at stake. “What has been happening on Israeli streets in recent days is an existential threat,” he said.

Protests are growing in the West Bank as well, with Palestinians staging demonstrations in several cities against Israel’s shelling of Gaza. At least seven Palestinians were killed as Israeli forces fired on protesters, according to the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry. An Israeli military spokesman said that 5,000 Palestinians engaged in “violent riots,” and threw molotov cocktails, set fire to tires, threw stones and shot fireworks at Israeli soldiers.


Several Israeli cities have become battlegrounds of conflict between Arab and Jewish neighbors, as the fighting continues between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israeli forces.

Several Israeli cities have become battlgrounds with Arab and Jewish neighbors fighting each other as the conflict between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israeli forces continues.

Unlike Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, Israel’s Arab citizens—Palestinian families who stayed behind when Israel was formed in 1948—on paper have full citizenship rights. Israel’s Arabs vote and receive the same social benefits as Jews, though Israeli human-rights groups say discrimination over jobs, education and housing is widespread in practice. Arabs have served as Supreme Court justices, cabinet ministers and ambassadors. Many Arab citizens live in mixed neighborhoods, and speak fluent Hebrew. In East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its undivided capital and which Palestinians seek as the capital of their future state, most Arabs are permanent residents rather than citizens.

In a reversal of the usual roles, the Palestinians in the West Bank, occupied since 1967, are worrying about their kin inside Israel. “Every Palestinian living anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is just sitting on edge, terrified of what’s going to come next,” said Fadi Quran, 33, a community organizer in Ramallah, the political center of the West Bank.

With the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly remote, the current strife shows just how difficult it would be to achieve coexistence should a single state be formed one day. Only some 44% of Israelis and 43% of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank support a two-state solution, according to a 2020 poll.

The conflagration came at a time when Israel’s Arab citizens seemed on the brink of unprecedented political power. At the end of this week, an opposition government led by Mr. Lapid was supposed to end Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu’s

12-year rule, thanks to support by lawmakers from an Islamist Arab political party. That transition now looks unlikely to happen.

In predominantly Arab Nazareth, former Israeli lawmaker Hanin Zoabi, an Arab citizen and champion of the Palestinian cause, said she used to go to the gym in the predominantly Jewish Upper Nazareth across the road. Now, she’s too afraid to cross that road—and so are the Jewish residents of Upper Nazareth, she said.

Ms. Zoabi welcomed the fear. “We should be afraid of each other,” she said. “This is the scene of a struggle, and I like it much more than a false coexistence.”

Police in Haifa on Thursday.


Daniel Rolider/Getty Images

In northern Israel’s main city of Haifa, long touted as a model of coexistence, self-defense groups started to form in the mostly Arab neighborhoods Thursday as community leaders warned that they faced the worst danger since most of Haifa’s Palestinian residents became refugees in 1948.

“The Arabs don’t trust the police. They see the settlers and the police as the same: Both refer to the Arabs as an enemy,” said Hassan Jabareen, whose Adalah legal center for Arab rights in Haifa was attacked by a group of Jewish rioters Wednesday night.

Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said it was “absolutely incorrect and misleading” that the country’s law enforcement was biased against Arab citizens. Some 750 people have been detained so far because of alleged participation in this week’s unrest, the large majority of them Arab, he said.

In Lod, the city worst hit by communal violence, unrest escalated following Tuesday’s funeral of a local Arab man who had been shot dead the night earlier by a Jewish resident. A video of that incident posted on social media shows a group of Arab men moving toward the shooter with rocks and a firebomb just before he pulled the trigger. The shooter has been arrested and remains in custody pending investigation, according to Israel Police. Several Jewish politicians described the killing as legitimate self-defense.

Arab Israelis at the funeral of Mousa Hassouna in Lod on Tuesday.


Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Some in the city’s Arab minority see parallels with Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, whose pending eviction by Jewish settlers helped spark the current crisis.

“The story of Jerusalem is like Lod. We feel that they also want to remove us from our homes,” said Maha al-Naqib, a former Lod city council member.

Though few Arabs in Lod admire Hamas, she added, some felt relief when the Islamist movement’s rockets—which killed two local Arab residents—began falling on Israel: “When you feel that you’re weak all the time and that you’re being discriminated against, you don’t care who’ll come to your defense, even if it’s rockets that can actually kill you.”

During a visit to Lod on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu said that Arab politicians aren’t doing enough to stop the communal strife, and that they—like him—must be clear that all violence of Arabs against Jews and Jews against Arabs must stop.


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Tensions in Lod centered on a relatively new 70-family Jewish community called Garin Torani. Established in a mostly Arab neighborhood, and attracting many settlers from the West Bank, it includes an academy where young men study Torah and prepare physically for their military draft. The building was firebombed by rioters Tuesday, and a group of men and women were already working to repaint the ashen walls and fix the electrical wiring.

“We’re going to keep on living here, and we’re going to make it work again,” said Taha’el Harris, a 27-year-old teacher. “They’re not my enemies,” she said of the Arabs living nearby. “But it’s very disturbing that I don’t know where my neighbors were last night and if they’re part of the whole thing.”

“They want to get rid of us and all the Jews from this country,” added Aviel Cohen, a 19-year-old student at the academy.

The Uri Buri restaurant in Acre was torched Tuesday night.


jalaa marey/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Not all Jews in Lod feel the same. Nisim Dahan, 72, who moved to the city from Morocco when he was 2 years old, recalled decades of peaceful coexistence: playing together, eating together and living next to one another. Now, three husks of burned-out cars serve as a reminder of recent violence in front of his home. Mr. Dahan said he feared his home would have been burned, too, if his lifelong Arab friends hadn’t protected him.

“Jews and Arabs are destined to live with each other,” he said, adding a popular phrase in Arabic, “Your neighbor that is close is better than your brother far away.”

Across the country, in the northern town of Acre—a picturesque former Crusader capital—streets that are typically buzzing during the Muslim holiday of Eid were mostly deserted. One of the most popular restaurants, Uri Buri, owned by a Jewish entrepreneur and employing a staff of Arabs and Jews, was torched by masked Arab rioters Tuesday night, according to witnesses. Since then, in an attack whose footage quickly spread on social media, assailants dragged a Jewish man out of his car and beat him with rocks and rods. Several other violent incidents followed.

“This was the nicest city in all of Israel,” said carpenter Essam Khelaili, 60, as he was working on rebuilding Uri Buri. “I live in a building, and a Jew lives a floor above. We have never had any problems. And then they came and made problems. Why?”

Farther in the warren of the Acre Old City, theater actor Ehab Khaskiye sat outside a rare open shop. “I have a broken heart,” he said. “I don’t even know how to explain this feeling. So sad.”

“In Acre, we and the Jews, we’re not just neighbors, we are friends. I just can’t understand,” added the shop’s owner, Maher Zkoor, shaking his head.

Jewish neighbors and friends showed up on Thursday outside another vandalized restaurant, the Victory ice cream parlor in Bat Yam, owned by Arab entrepreneur Henry Sassin, 43.

Asked whether Arabs and Jews can continue living together, he pointed to the crowds of Jewish well-wishers that flocked to the parlor all day. “It’s not about whether we can fix this,” he said. “There is no other option: We must fix this.”

The Victory ice cream parlor, owned by Henry Sassin, left, was vandalized on Wednesday.


Yaroslav Trofimov/The Wall Street Journal

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at [email protected]

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