Escalation in the Middle East “It’s the First Time I Have Been Afraid of my Neighbors”

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A new Gaza war appears to be developing in the Middle East. But this one isn’t just pitting the Israeli military against the militants from Hamas. Hostilities have also erupted between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

By Alexandra Rojkov in Lod, Israel

The streets of Lod smell like cold ashes. The stench wafts over from the burned-out cars on the edge of the road. And from garbage dumpsters that are still smoldering. And from a Torah school, where metal chairs and tables melted in the blaze. There have been plenty of fires in the past few days in Lod, a town in central Israel. And not just here.

Israel and the Palestinian Territories have experienced a horrific eruption of violence since Monday. It began with the forced clearance of apartments in East Jerusalem inhabited by Palestinians, evictions which then led to violent riots on Temple Mount. Now, the situation is escalating into a new war in Gaza.

By Thursday, the radical Islamist group Hamas had fired 1,600 rockets at Israeli cities. The Israeli army responded by bombing more than 600 Hamas targets. People have died on both sides. In Israel, six civilians and one soldier were killed. By Thursday, the Palestinians had counted 87 casualties.

The military conflicts between Israel and Hamas have become something of a bloody routine over the years. Rockets and bombs were exchanged in 2008, 2012 and 2014. Thousands of Palestinians lost their lives in those conflicts, as did Israeli soldiers and civilians.

A Long and Bloody Conflict?

But this time, the attacks from Gaza are more intense than before. And the air strikes from Israel have matched that intensity. An Israeli military spokesperson says they are targeting Hamas command posts and rocket depots. At the same time, the military is preparing a possible ground offensive into Gaza – the war could turn out to be a long and bloody one.

There is, though, also another – newer – element to the conflict which began on Monday. This time, it’s not just the Israeli army and Hamas militias squaring off against each other. The fighting has also jumped to the civilian population. Including here in Lod.

The town is in Israeli no-man’s-land, between the hip metropolis of Tel Aviv and the holy city of Jerusalem. People generally only head to Lod when they have a flight to catch out of nearby Ben Gurion airport. Otherwise, most Israelis never set foot in the Biblically named town.

Lod has a population of 80,000, two-thirds of whom are Jewish and one-third Arab Israelis. The town is widely seen as a hotbed of crime. Because shootings and violence are a daily occurrence here, one Israeli newspaper even nicknamed it the “City of Murders.” In the worst case, Lod could soon get another appellation: The city where the Israeli civil war began.

On Monday, the day of the unrest in Jerusalem, a Jewish man here shot and killed an Arab-Israeli named Moussa Hassouna. The circumstances surrounding the shooting remain unclear: Jewish witnesses say that the Jewish man fired in self-defense. A judge, however, determined that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for that explanation and several men are now in investigative custody. But even if it isn’t clear what led to the attack, its consequences are obvious.

Following Hassouna’s burial the next evening, furious Arabs streamed through Lod, throwing rocks at police and setting fire to cars. And they broke into a Torah school, where they set fire to a classroom and burned prayer books.

By Wednesday, the day after the riots, most of the flames had been extinguished and the process of removing the burned-out vehicles had begun. It will be much more difficult, however, to clean up the most serious damage left behind by the rioting. Residents have been gripped by fear and anger – and the city is divided.

“We Could Hardly Breathe”

Gil Gabay’s voice cracks as she talks about the events of the previous day. She is a Jewish Israeli and lives in an apartment facing the street where hundreds of Palestinians vented their rage. The cars they set alight were parked directly in front of Gabay’s door – close enough that her apartment filled with smoke.

“We could hardly breathe,” says Gabay. As the fires burned outside, the power went out as well. A cable had apparently been destroyed.

She says that she sat in the darkness and listened to the bangs of the stun grenades used by the Israeli police. And the noise of the stones raining down on the asphalt. “I was terribly afraid,” she recalls, adding that her four children were crying and shaking in fear.

Then, an air-raid siren went off, reminding Gabay that the fighting wasn’t just limited to the street outside her front door, and that violence had also erupted in the Gaza Strip.

“It’s the first time that I have been afraid of my neighbors.”

Gil Gabay

On Tuesday night, Hamas militants and members of Islamic Jihad again launched salvos of rockets into central Israel, with the sirens going off in Lod as well – a warning to residents to seek cover. “We don’t have a shelter,” says Gabay. “Normally, we would wait out the alarm in the staircase.” But this time, afraid to go out into the hallway, the family remained in their apartment. “It’s the first time that I have been afraid of my neighbors,” she says.

Around one-fifth of Israel’s population are Arabs. Some Jews and Arabs try to stay out of each other’s way. There are places in Israel where you hardly ever see anyone wearing a headscarf, and others where the muezzin’s call to prayer can be heard every day and the supermarkets and restaurants have Arabic names.

In some cities, though, the Arab and Jewish populations are mixed. Haifa in the north of the country has long been seen as a model of coexistence. Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, is home to a large Palestinian community.

A Mixed Building

Lod, too, is a so-called “mixed city,” where Jews and Palestinians live close together. So close that they sometimes share the same staircase.

In the building where the Jewish Gabay family lives, some doorframes have a mezuzah posted on them, a capsule containing Torah verses to protect the family. Just a few doors down, Arab words are written on the wall. The four-story building is home to 16 families – nine Jewish and seven Arab.

All the neighbors used to meet in the staircase when the rocket sirens would go off. They would wait together, say several residents, for the siren to fall silent, meaning it was safe to return to their apartments. This time, though, it was different, they say. Everyone decided they would rather stay in their own apartments than run into each other in the staircase.

Within just a few days in Israel, neighbors have become political opponents and civility has yielded to mistrust. What does “the other side” think of me? Am I still a fellow human being, or am I now the enemy? In House 9, many residents are currently asking themselves those questions.

“I ran into one of my Arab neighbors,” says Gil Gabay. “He had a wound on his head from an Israeli police projectile.” She thought she could see recrimination on his face. “He looked at me furiously, as if I had something to do with his injury.”

Jews are now suddenly seen as representatives of the Israeli police, while Arab Israelis are looked at as an extension of Hamas.

“We neighbors have always had a good relationship,” says Muhamed Khalili, a 36-year-old Palestinian, who lives on the second floor of House 9 with his wife and four children. “But now, I told my family: Don’t go into the staircase when the rocket siren goes off. I don’t know what the Jews think of us.” Maybe, Khalili says, they think he is responsible for the burned-out cars outside. It’s safer, he says, to stay home.

More on the Renewed Violence in Israel and Gaza

Khalili also says that he has never been afraid of his neighbors. But since this week, he would prefer to avoid them.

Escalating Violence

The events of the following night showed that his concern was justified. In Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, a Jewish-nationalist mob attacked an Arab-looking man, who was taken to the hospital with serious injuries. That same night in the city of Akko, a Jewish man was attacked and injured by Arab Israelis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned both acts. Beyond that, though, he has done little to pacify the conflict – not in cities like Lod, nor in Jerusalem or Gaza.

He has announced that the attacks on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip would be expanded. As he often does, Netanyahu chose harsh words in commenting on the fact that parts of the Israeli population are squaring off against each other. In a press release, he said he would “stop the anarchy,” regain control of Israel’s cities and use “an iron fist if needed.”

The resentment that has accumulated in Israel’s Arab community is a time bomb. Officially, Arab Israelis enjoy the same rights in the country as Jews, and are also able to vote, with the United Arab List recently winning six of 120 seats in the country’s parliament, the Knesset. Arab Israelis are allowed to work, study and live in the same places as their Jewish counterparts. At least on paper.

But their lives are frequently dictated by the fact that they don’t completely belong. In some cases, they are openly discriminated against by the Jewish state. In 2018, for example, the Knesset passed a law proclaiming Israel to be the “nation state of the Jewish people.” Israel, the law states, is the “historic homeland of the Jewish people,” in which they have an “exclusive right to national self-determination.”

The law does mention that Arabic is also spoken in Israel, giving the language a special status in the country. But not a single sentence, not a single word, mentions the Arab Israelis. Instead, the law obligates the state to “encourage and promote” Jewish settlements.

That law isn’t the only sign that Jews are favored in Israel. Many Arab neighborhoods and communities are neglected in comparison to Jewish towns. As the state and the police have increasingly pulled out of Arab-speaking communities, gangs have filled the void.

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, 95 Arab Israelis were murdered in 2020, far more than the number of Jews who were murdered. At the same time, charges are filed against suspected perpetrators in far fewer instances. That is just one example for the two-class system of which many Arabs in Israel complain.

Tamer Nafar offers several other examples. “When you call the ambulance, you have to say that a Jewish person was shot,” Nafar says. “Then, they come much faster. With Palestinians, they take their time.”

Anger at a Two-Tiered System

Nafar, 41, isn’t just famous in Israel, he is something of an authority. He is an actor and one of the best-known rappers in the country – and he is a voice that young Palestinians listen to.

For that reason, Israeli journalists have asked him frequently in recent days if he condemns the recent eruption of violence. Lod, after all, isn’t the only place where cars have been set on fire. The same has happened in towns like Akko, Tiberias and Hadera.

Nafar says he doesn’t want to say anything that justifies violence and that he wants his children to grow up in peace. But the rapper is also frustrated by the journalists.

“When Jews are affected, everyone suddenly wants to talk to me, I suddenly exist for them,” he complains. “But where are they when it comes to the problems facing Palestinians? When we can’t get a construction permit, but a Jewish family does get one?”

Nafar is from Lod. He grew up with the tensions in the city and they frequently find expression in his raps. “My friend lies dying on the ground, eleven holes in his body,” is one line from a track he made with his band, DAM.

The rapper says he has been observing the growing discontent among Arab youth for years. “The Israeli coexistence is limited to Jews eating hummus at our restaurants on Saturdays,” he says. “Nobody knocks on my door on Israeli Independence Day to ask: What was it actually like when you were driven away back then?” He says he isn’t surprised that many young Palestinians are currently venting their emotions.

On Wednesday, the Israeli police imposed a curfew in Lod, with border guard units bolstering security in town to prevent renewed rioting. But it didn’t work. Riots again broke out in numerous Jewish-Arab towns, with injuries on both sides.

“I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m afraid of a catastrophe.”

Muhamed Khalili

At the same time, the war against Hamas has escalated, with rockets continuing to rain down on Israeli cities – striking both Jews and Arab Israelis. Not far from Lod, a 52-year-old, Arab-Israeli father and his daughter were killed when a rocket from Gaza hit their car. A five-year-old Jewish boy in Sderot died when a projectile struck his family’s home.

There are, though, signs of hope: In many places, Jews and Palestinians are organizing joint marches for peace.

In Lod, though, the two sides continue avoiding each other.

“The tensions are growing worse by the day,” says Muhamed Khalili, the resident of House 9. “I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m afraid of a catastrophe.”

Gil Gabay, his neighbor, saw her worst fears come true on Thursday. When her husband came out of the synagogue in the morning, an Arab Israeli rammed a knife into his back. He survived, but was seriously injured.

Gabay says that the attack took place right in front of their building: House 9, where Jews and Palestinians had actually long lived side-by-side as good neighbors.

Der Spiegel

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