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Israel's unraveling

Bat Yam is an Israeli coastal suburb south of Tel Aviv. It is best known for its lovely beach.

Bat Yam broke out in violence on Wednesday evening. A crowd of Jewish extremists surrounded a man they suspected was an Arab and mercilessly beat him down. Kan, Israel's public broadcaster, broadcast live footage of the nameless man being beaten with a flagpole under the Israeli flag.

"We are watching a lynching," said Kan reporter Daniel Elazar during the broadcast.

What happened in Bat Yam is not an isolated incident. The current fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza has resulted in an outbreak of violence in Israeli cities, with Jewish and Arab mobs dueling in the streets, destroying property and beating the innocent.

In the city of Lod, the epicenter of local violence, an armed Arab mob set fire to three synagogues on Tuesday. In retaliation, Jewish mobs set fire to Arab buildings on Wednesday. The violence has since continued in Lod and other places such as Bat Yam. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that troops could be used to quell the fighting. This is a notable threat given that Israel is currently at war in Gaza.

Unfortunately, while fighting between Israel and Hamas is widespread, street violence within Israel's internationally recognized borders is not. Nothing of this magnitude had happened in the previous three Gaza wars. In fact, nothing like this has happened since a wave of ethnic unrest in October 2000. Even then, the centers of current violence – so-called "mixed cities" like Lod with a high proportion of Arab and Jewish citizens – were relatively calm.

"I don't think we've seen this type of domestic violence since the State of Israel was founded," said Ami Ayalon, the former director of Shin Bet (Israel's FBI equivalent). "We're not far from … not a civil war, but a level of violence that I don't know if we can control."

Ultimately, the current violence is the result of years of marginalization of Israel's Arab minority.

Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel's population, have in some ways become more integrated into their Jewish neighbors in recent years. At the same time, the Israeli-Jewish leadership has become more right-wing and nakedly racist. Netanyahu described the Arab political parties as an “existential threat” in 2019 and then decided to partner with the Jewish supremacist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). in the March 2021 elections.

His government passed a law in 2018 defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and implicitly defining Arabs as second-class citizens. The government has largely ignored the smoldering problems in the Arab community, including longstanding discrimination and poverty, which has led to an increase in Arab organized crime and a shocking increase in homicides.

And Netanyahu's decision to allow the continued Jewish colonization of the West Bank – an area that is to be part of a future sovereign Palestinian state – has convinced large numbers of Arabs, many of whom identify as "Palestinian citizens of Israel", that the State this is incapable of seeing them as full and equal citizens.

"If I had to sum it up in one sentence, yes, Netanyahu is completely to blame," said Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thought, an Israeli think tank.

The violence on Israeli streets during this conflict represents all of these trends that are coming to a head. It is the toxic intersection between the ongoing problem of the border status of Arab Israelis and the past 12 years of rule by a far-right government – a government that has done its best to tear the bonds that hold Israel's diverse society together.

An Israeli man looks into a synagogue after it was set on fire during clashes between Israeli right-wing extremists and Arab Israelis on May 14 in the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Lod, Israel.

Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

How Arabs became Israeli

Before Israel was founded, communal violence between Jewish immigrants and Arab residents was far from unknown.

In 1921, Arab mobs attacked Jews in the city of Jaffa, fearing that Jewish immigration to the then British colony of Palestine would displace them – which sparked Jewish retaliation. British colonial authorities dispersed the Arab mobs with gunfire; In the end, about 100 people died.

The underlying cause of this conflict was, as is typically the case, dual land claims. Most of the Jews who came to Palestine were European migrants who wanted to create a space free of persecution. Indigenous Arabs saw in these migrants' dream of a Jewish state a threat to their own status.

In theory, the creation of Israel was supposed to resolve this conflict: The 1947 UN plan for the country divided today's Israel into two equal blocks, one for Jews and one for Arabs.

The United Nations Plan for the Partition of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate shows areas designated for Jews and Palestinian Arabs from 1947 onwards.

Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty Images

But when Israel officially declared independence in 1948, the partition plan had collapsed into bloody Arab-Jewish fighting – both armed wars and communal unrest. By the end of the fighting, around 700,000 Palestinians had been displaced – a harrowing event that the Palestinians now refer to as “nakba” or catastrophe.

But over 150,000 Arabs remained on Israeli-controlled territory and asked the Israeli founders: How should a Jewish state treat non-Jews in its territory? For many years the answer was "not good": by 1966, much of Israel's Arab population was officially placed under military rule and subjected to formal legal discrimination. But that year Israel ended military rule and opened Israeli life to Arabs, who have since become a significant part of Israeli society.

Netanyahu is more responsible than anyone for this dark convergence

Many of Israel's Arab citizens still live in separate communities. Overall, they suffer from discrimination and structural disadvantages. About 36 percent of Arabs live below the poverty line compared to about 18 percent of Jewish Israelis. Israel has one of the highest degrees in the world, but only 9 percent of Arab-Israeli men have a bachelor's degree.

Discriminatory land use laws and community-driven development – Jews moving to heavily Arab neighborhoods like Tel Aviv's Jaffa to change demographics – feel besieged and alienated from the state. A 2020 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a non-partisan think tank, found that only 35 percent of Arabs agreed that "the regime in Israel is democratic towards Arab citizens."

People walk in the ancient Mediterranean coastal city of Jaffa, known as Yafo in Hebrew and Yafa in Arabic, in northern Israel on April 21.

Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

In other ways, Arab Israelis have increasingly integrated into mainstream Israeli society. Jews and Arabs have more contact than ever before, and polls increasingly show that Jews and Arabs see each other as citizens who strive together. The IDI poll found that 81 percent of Arabs believe that "most of Israel's Arab citizens want to integrate and be part of Israeli society".

And downright communal violence between Jews and Arabs was rare. The riots in October 2000 began with pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the start of the Second Intifada – the bloodiest Israeli-Palestinian conflict in modern history. For the remainder of this war and all subsequent wars, Jewish and Arab citizens have lived together in Israel – not in harmony, but in relative peace.

Until last week.

How the riots happened

Last week's violence has no single cause. It is the convergence of several trends and events at the same time, a kind of perfect storm that has spawned the current cycle of violence.

And Netanyahu, more than anyone else, is responsible for this dark convergence.

First, and most obviously, anti-Arab incitement has increased in Israeli politics in recent years. For example, during the 2015 election, Netanyahu ran a nude discriminatory campaign warning his Jewish supporters that Arabs would come out “in droves”.

His ruling coalitions included anti-Arab politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman, who proposed that parts of the Arab population be transferred from Israel to a hypothetical Palestinian state. Racist organizations like Lehava, whose members were recently seen singing "Death to the Arabs" on the streets of Jerusalem, have grown in strength. extreme right-wing Jewish terrorists were encouraged.

The increasing anti-Arab incitement is reflected in the legislation. Adalah, a group focused on equality for Arab citizens in Israel, counted more than 65 discriminatory Israeli laws passed between 1948 and 2020. Of these, roughly half have been enacted since Netanyahu's current term began in 2009.

A billboard for the Arab-Israeli Alliance, the Joint List, shows Netanyahu with an Arabic heading: "The father of nation-state law says" a new approach ", who is he deceiving?" on March 5th in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, Israel.

Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

The best known of these is a new Basic Law (the rough equivalent of a constitutional amendment) that defines Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”. The law had little immediate practical result, but it had immense symbolic meaning that almost explicitly gave Arabs second class citizenship.

"The (nation-state) law says very clearly that a Jewish American has a better position in the State of Israel than I do," said Aida Touma-Suleiman, an Arab member of the Knesset (Israel's parliament) from the Joint List, an Arab political group, told me last year. “We are not second degree citizens. We're maybe fifth or sixth degree. "

The Netanyahu government's anti-Arab government agenda has radicalized elements of both the Jewish and Arab populations.

A 2017 article by Sammy Smooha, a professor at the University of Haifa who studies Jewish-Arab relations, compared the original opinion polls of Jews and Arabs in 2015 and 2017. In 54 of 154 questions asked by Arab respondents, their attitude towards living together had darkened (they only improved to 20). Similarly, out of 94 questions asked of Jewish respondents, 36 indicated a decrease (only four indicated an improvement).

Smooha's conclusion was clear: "The government's policy of democratization and widening the gap between Arabs and Jews has succeeded."

In conditions of worsening suspicion, Jewish and Arab extremists alike will feel empowered to use violence against the other group. It is no accident that this happened at the same time as the Arabs were becoming more integrated into the Jewish mainstream.

Jewish right-wing protesters wave Israeli flags amid a night curfew on May 12 in the mixed Israeli-Arab city of Lod, Israel.

Oren Ziv / Image Alliance / Getty Images

"The attacks on Palestinian citizens in Israel are in part a racist backlash against their accelerated economic integration, a stronger political, cultural and media presence," writes Yair Wallach, lecturer in Israeli studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. "Palestinians are more visible than they were ten years ago, and that scares the racists."

Second, the Arab community has been particularly unsettled in recent years by an explosion of violent crime – a problem the Netanyahu government has done little to address.

After crackdown on Jewish organized crime in the early 2000s, Arab syndicates took over most of the illegal trade in Israel. The result has been an escalation of violence in Arab communities that has reached epidemic proportions in recent years. In 2019, Arabs were the victims of 71 percent of all murders in Israel.

The crime wave has deepened the alienation of a section of Arabs from the Israeli state, which has not adequately addressed it. At the same time it has accustomed some Arabs – especially some young men – to violence and better equipped them to acquire weapons. The unrest in places like Lod was a depressingly predictable result.

“The deepest problem in the Arab sector is the problem of crime and violence. And there was no clear and specific government policy to solve this problem, ”says Arik Rudnitzky, an expert on Jewish-Arab relations at IDI. "To a certain extent, we have reached Judgment Day when the illegal weapons were turned against Jewish citizens."

Third, and finally, the events that sparked the current round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip – the conflict over Jerusalem – were a dangerous series of conflicts that escalated Netanyahu. And the very things that Palestinian citizens of Israel would provoke.

In April, Israeli police blocked the Damascus Gate, a popular meeting place for Arabs during Ramadan, in Jerusalem and sparked protests. An attempt by Jewish settlers to evict longtime Arab residents from Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, sparked tension and led to violent clashes with Israeli police. Arab youth attacked ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city and Jewish extremists attacked Arab residents. All of this culminated in a violent attack by Israeli police on al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem's holiest site for Muslims on the Temple Mount (the world's holiest site for Jews).

The Arabs in East Jerusalem are different from the Arabs in the rest of Israel in many ways – for one thing, most of them are not Israeli citizens. But Jerusalem is important to everyone, the religious and nationalist center of the Palestinian imagination. The fighting in the city sparked the Arab mood in Israel, which, coupled with a growing identification with the Palestinian cause – what Palestinian policy expert Khaled Elgindy calls the "new Pan-Palestinian" – angered the Arab population.

In short, there is no single reason why the calm between Israeli Jews and Arabs has broken in such a terrible way. But Netanyahu has been Israel's prime minister since 2009. Through overt acts and selective inaction, he pushed Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens apart – which made the violence of the past week possible.

The decryption of Israel

Firefighters put out a fire started by rioters in the Hadar neighborhood of Haifa, Israel, on May 13.

Daniel Rolider / Getty Images

It is not clear how long the violence on Israeli streets will last or how it will end. However, experts are already warning that the consequences, even if they end quickly, could linger for years.

In recent months, the willingness of Israeli-Arab political parties to be part of the political mainstream has increased. Ra & # 39; am, an Islamist Arab party led by Mansour Abbas, has negotiated with Netanyahu and his leading rival – centrist Yair Lapid – over the formation of Israel's next government.

Mathematically, both men need Abbas to form a majority government in the Knesset. As a result, even right-wing parties like Netanyahu's Likud embraced the idea of ​​formally partnering with an Arab party as part of a ruling coalition – an extraordinary and unprecedented development in Israeli politics. It was a sign that, given the worsening problems in Jewish-Arab relations, some things could get better.

But local violence on Israel's streets may have shaken that consensus. Naftali Bennett, a far-right political leader and a swing vote in the current Knesset negotiations, recently ruled out joining a coalition with Abbas, claiming his party could not take the measures (presumably military and police operations) necessary to restore order support the streets.

The outbreak of local civil unrest represents a political failure – an inability or unwillingness of the state to promote civil trust and hold back violent extremists

At a time when Arab-Jewish cooperation at the highest levels of Israeli politics seems more necessary than ever, Arabs are once again being excluded from the Israeli government – a reversal of fragile advances that could extend beyond the current struggles.

"There has been seven decades of distrust and discrimination against Israeli Arabs, and we have finally seen these green shoots of progress," said Michael Koplow, political director of the Israel Policy Forum. "I'm worried that this will be eradicated."

This is ultimately the situation that Netanyahu created.

Even when he tries to reach out to Arabs, for example by trying to get Abbas into his coalition, events set in motion by his divisive style of government conspire to block him. His populist "de-democratization" of Israeli society, as Smooha puts it, aimed at pitting Israelis against one another – making the Arabs and the Jewish left the scapegoat for the country's problems.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the city of Lod in Israel on May 12 after the unrest.

Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

It was an effective way of attracting right and center-right voters to his political cause and helping him stay in office for over a decade. But it has generated enormous costs: an attack on the civil law agreements that underpin Israeli society, the basic norms of mutual tolerance and respect necessary for democratic coexistence.

The outbreak of municipal unrest represents a political failure – an inability or unwillingness of the state to promote civil trust and hold back violent extremists. The rioters are morally responsible for their own actions, but these actions are a symptom of deeper fault lines in Israeli society.

The Israeli political system already suffers from a profound contradiction: it is a democracy for Israeli citizens and a military dictatorship for Palestinians. This double identity puts a considerable strain on the stability of the entire system. By driving the social fault lines within Israel, Netanyahu has exacerbated communal tensions in precisely the area where the Occupation is most under pressure – Jewish-Arab relations.

As a result, the country's social business is disintegrating. And innocent Jews and Arabs suffer alike.

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