Gaza conflict: Ethnic violence rocks Israel as deep grievances surface

WARNING: Graphic content

As rockets from Gaza streaked overhead, Arabs and Jews fought each other on the streets below and rioters torched vehicles, a restaurant and a synagogue in one of the worst spasms of communal violence Israel has seen in years.

The mayor of the mixed town of Lod, which saw the worst of the violence Tuesday (local time), compared it to a civil war or a Palestinian uprising.

Arab experts and activists say the violence was fuelled by unrest in Jerusalem that has brought Israel to the brink of another Gaza war, but is rooted in deeper grievances that go back to the founding of the state.

Violence flared again Wednesday night with a wave of apparent revenge attacks.

In Bat Yam, a Tel Aviv suburb, a large crowd of ultranationalist Israelis pulled a man from a car who they thought was Arab and beat him until he lay on the ground motionless and bloodied. A hospital said he’s in serious condition without identifying him.

Earlier, a group of black-clad Israelis smashed the windows of an Arab-owned ice cream shop in Bat Yam and ultranationalists could be seen chanting, “Death to Arabs!” on live television during a standoff with Border Police.

In the northern city of Tiberias, video uploaded to social media appeared to show flag-waving Israelis attacking a car.

Israel’s Channel 13 quoted a senior police officer as saying Arabs are suspected of attacking and seriously wounding a Jewish man in the coastal city of Acre amid new clashes there.

In a late night television interview, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, whose figurehead office is meant to serve as the nation’s moral compass, said the country was gripped by civil war and urged citizens to “stop this madness”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on both Jews and Arabs to cease attacks on each other: “It doesn’t matter to me that your blood is boiling. You can’t take the law in your hands,” he said.

Police said they arrested nearly 400 people allegedly “involved in riots and disturbances” across the country Wednesday (local time).

In recent days, Arab citizens of Israel have held mass protests across the country over Israel’s policing of a flashpoint holy site in Jerusalem and plans to evict dozens of Palestinian families in the city following a legal campaign by Jewish settlers.

Adding to the tensions are increasingly powerful far-right groups in Israel that won seats in March elections and are allied with Netanyahu.

In recent days, far-right politicians have visited the tense east Jerusalem neighbourhood where the families are threatened with eviction and staged marches elsewhere in the bitterly contested city.

After police broke up a protest Monday night in Lod, a young Arab resident was shot and killed.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the man was with a group of rioters threatening Jewish homes, and that Jewish residents opened fire in a “life-threatening situation”. He said three people have been detained for questioning and police are investigating.

Arab residents of Lod disputed the account, pointing out that the slain man was unarmed.

His funeral the next day drew thousands of people and a heavy police presence.

Violence soon spread to other mixed communities across Israel. In neighbouring Ramle, ultra-nationalist Jewish demonstrators vandalised Arab cars. In Acre, protesters torched Uri Buri, a famous Jewish-owned seafood restaurant.

Rosenfeld said there were several different instances of Arabs attacking Jews, and that 12 police officers were wounded. He said 270 suspects were arrested at 40 locations across the country where vehicles were set on fire and public property was damaged.

Authorities deployed hundreds of police reinforcements to Lod and other areas, including paramilitary border police who usually operate in the occupied West Bank. They also ordered a nighttime curfew in Lod.

Arabs say the violence of the past two days was not directed at Jews, but at religious nationalists with close ties to the settlement movement who have moved into mixed areas in recent years, pushing Arab residents out.

Israel’s Arab minority makes up about 20 per cent of the population and are the descendants of Palestinians who stayed in the country after the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, when an estimated 700,000 fled or were driven from their homes in towns like Lod. They have citizenship, including the right to vote, but face widespread discrimination.

Lod’s Arabs, who make up about a third of the city’s population, are among the poorest communities in Israel.

“We’re talking about young people who have no horizon, no dreams, who are unemployed and live in a very difficult reality,” said Dr Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, the director of the Arab-Jewish relations programme at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.

She said the anger of the last two days was not directed at Lod’s longtime Jewish community but at more ideological recent arrivals.

“It’s not because of who they are. It’s because they are trying to Judaise Lod. They are trying to drive out the indigenous Arab residents,” she said. “The young people see it as a threat to their presence in the land, to their existence.”

Israeli officials often hold up the Arab minority as proof of their commitment to tolerance, frequently pointing out that Arab citizens enjoy civic rights and freedoms that many Arab states deny their own people.

Ghassan Munayyer, a Lod-based activist, says the veneer of coexistence conceals deeper disparities, including in housing and infrastructure, comparing its Arab neighbourhoods to “refugee camps”.

“The Jews love saying there’s coexistence. They go out to eat in an Arab restaurant and they call it coexistence,” he said.

“But they don’t see Arabs as equal human beings who have rights that they have to respect.”

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