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How the struggle with the Palestinians sparked ethnic violence in Israel

May 13, 2021, 11:14 a.m.

TEL AVIV, Israel – Among the scenes of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in recent days, many are familiar with their other recent outbreaks: Israeli security forces facing Palestinian protesters, Hamas militants firing rockets at Israeli cities, and Israeli fighter jets, throwing huge payloads on the Gaza Strip.

But something different, and in some ways more alarming, has come to characterize this round of combat. Intercommunal violence has broken out in several mixed Jewish-Arab cities across Israel, with neighbors against neighbors and Arab citizens of Israel against Jews.

The most violent of these clashes took place in downtown Lod, where officials imposed a night curfew after young Arabs burned several cars and synagogues and attacked some Jewish Israelis in their homes on Tuesday evening.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described the unrest as a "pogrom" by an "excited and bloodthirsty Arab mob". Nine Israeli border police companies have been transferred from the West Bank to Lod and other mixed cities in an attempt to quell the unrest. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to restore order “with an iron hand during a night visit to the city. ”

On Wednesday evening, young Jewish ultra-nationalists joined the fight and began attacking Arab passers-by and Arab-owned shops in several cities across the country. Live televised footage showed Jewish men beating an Arab driver with fists and iron bars in the coastal town of Bat Yam. According to reports, a pregnant Arab woman was seriously injured in Lod and a Jewish man was seriously injured by a group of Arabs in the northern city of Acre.

After several hours of silence, Netanyahu made a video statement suggesting that armed forces could be used to help the overwhelmed police "clean up" the anarchy.

“You can't grab an ordinary Arab citizen and try to lynch them – just as we cannot watch Arab citizens do this to Jewish citizens. That won't happen, ”he added.

Arab-Jewish violence in Israel is taking place amid the bloodiest fighting in years between Israelgovernment and militant factions in Gaza, led by Hamas. More than 80 Palestinians were killed and at least 400 Palestinians injured in Israeli air strikes. The Israeli military said roughly half of these victims were terrorists, although Palestinians said the majority were civilians.

On the Israeli side, at least six civilians and one soldier were killed in rocket and rocket fire and dozen other civilians were injured.

This escalation followed weeks of mounting tensions in Jerusalem and clashes between Palestinian believers and Israeli riot police near the city's Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Although the rockets and air strikes caused most of the deaths, sectarian clashes between Arab and Jewish citizens within Israel dominate Israeli media coverage.

"We are experiencing a situation that we have never seen in mixed cities," said Israeli National Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai on Tuesday, calling it the worst intermunicipal violence in decades.

Arab Israelis, who make up around 20 percent of the population, are citizens of Israel – unlike their Palestinian brothers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Israel has largely treated them as second-class citizens over the years, withholding vital resources and underfunding their communities.

Political parties representing the community tended to wield little power in Israeli politics, were reluctant to join Jewish-led governments in the Jewish state, and were never invited to do so.

This trend seemed to be changing in the past few months.

In particular, one Islamist faction, the United Arab List (UAL), ran an entire campaign ahead of the March parliamentary elections, pledging to participate in Israeli coalition politics to secure much-needed budget support, housing permits and infrastructure improvements. UAL chairman Mansour Abbas even supported a right-wing government led by Netanyahu – but the prime minister's far-right allies refused to collaborate with any Arab-led party.

Abbas then shifted his support to the anti-Netanyahu camp, a mix of right, center and left parties united almost entirely by their common goal of overthrowing the long-time incumbent. Coalition talks between Abbas and opposition leaders were ongoing until hostilities broke out that week.

Abbas has suspended negotiations despite saying it is only temporary.

"It is inevitable that we will return to political talks on forming a government after the end of the fire," Abbas told Israeli Kan broadcaster on Wednesday. "We have a real chance to play an important role in Israeli politics in the interests of our society."

But not all Israeli Arabs were happy with Abbas' approach, and particularly flirting with Netanyahu and the Israeli right. Most Arab-Israeli politicians and analysts blamed Netanyahu for the heightened tensions in the Al-Aqsa mosque during the holy month of Ramadan and the escalation in the Gaza Strip as well as the intercommunal violence in Israel.

"Arabs want to integrate, but we want real communal equality before integration," Mohammad Darawshe, an expert on Arab-Jewish relations at a peace education institute in northern Israel, told foreign policy. “We see the repression (from the Israeli authorities). … It is a sign of the failure of Abbas' approach. "

Abbas urged the Arab Israelis not to use violence and said the protests were "moving in a very dangerous direction". Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint List group and is a political rival to Abbas, said the violence was "a grave mistake" and encouraged his community to "continue to protest against the occupation and siege, without the property and with security not to harm human life. " ”

Issawi Frej, an Arab lawmaker from the left-wing Meretz party and a lonely early voice calling for an end to the unrest, called on community leaders to help end sectarian violence.

“Leadership is put to the test in times of crisis – all leaders of the Arab community must speak up. … The silent majority can no longer remain silent, "he told Israeli TV station Channel 12 on Wednesday." The war with Hamas will end, but what about us? We'll still meet in the supermarket in the hospitals. "

Hamas officials had urged Arab Israelis to take part in confrontations against Israel. That some members of the community did so was generally viewed as a victory for the group.

"Your sacrifice is the fuel for the revolution for our people and the liberation of our country," Hamas spokesman Abu Ubaida said in a recorded statement on Wednesday.

Right-wing commentators quickly used the timing of intercommunal violence to score political points and rhetorically asked how it was possible to set up a government with the support of such “traitors”. Left commentators suggested that the timing of this latest confrontation was propitious for Netanyahu – just as his opponents in parliament were about to seal a coalition agreement that would have ended his long term as prime minister.

Among those affected by sectarian violence’S Crossfire was Uri Jeremias, a Jewish Israeli cook and business owner in the predominantly Arab old town of Acre. Last week Jeremias hosted an interfaith iftar dinner for a few hundred Muslims, Jews, Baha'is and Christians. On Tuesday evening, young men threw gasoline bombs into his hotel and the well-known fish restaurant and burned it down.

"It was two young, frustrated rioters who were incited from outside," Jeremias told foreign policy. "You just need two idiots and a match."

He said the violence in Acre and across the country took him by surprise.

“There have been riots in the past. I wouldn't be surprised if they happened in the future, but nothing like this has ever happened before. "

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