‘We were good neighbours’: Mixed Israeli cities baffled by sudden street fighting

Lod, Israel: The Arabs and Jews of Lod, one of the most closely mixed cities in Israel, have been through many upheavals. But they had never before seen the kind of inter-community violence that unfolded here over the past three days.

Angry Arab youths rioted this week after police violence at al-Aqsa mosque in Old Jerusalem spilt over into conflict with the Gaza Strip. They began burning synagogues and cars, throwing stones and letting off sporadic rounds of gunfire. Gangs of Jewish extremist vigilantes, some called in from out of town, started a counter-attack, setting their own fires.

Not even during the intifadas — the mass Palestinian uprisings of the past — did Israelis experience this kind of mob violence. And though unrest started in Lod, it spread quickly to the mixed Israeli cities of Acre and Haifa, long proud of their intercommunal relations, and to the Arab towns of the Galilee. Jews beat a driver who was presumed to be Arab almost to death in a Tel Aviv suburb. Bedouin torched and ambushed Jewish cars with stones in the southern Negev desert.

Israeli security forces and paramedics carry a wounded Jewish man after he was shot during violent unrest in Lod on Thursday.Credit:AP

“We ran out of the house without clothes on. It was burning,” said Shirin al-Hinawi, a 33-year-old Arab resident of Lod whose house was charred by a Molotov cocktail. Her family called for police help, but no one came, she said.

“We are not living in Gaza,” she said, distraught. “I’m an Israeli citizen, and we didn’t do anything.”

The detritus of burnt-out cars, shattered glass and charred buildings on both sides bore witness to a national nightmare. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded for calm and an end of “lynchings” and went to Lod on Thursday, saying he might send troops in. Some Israelis began worrying about the possibility of a civil war breaking out.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Israeli border police in Lod, near Tel Aviv.Credit:AP

Authorities have declared a special state of emergency in the city, which has a population of about 80,000 people, and imposed a night curfew. Hundreds of paramilitary border police were brought in from the occupied West Bank and deployed across the city.

But many feared the violence would only intensify.

On Thursday morning, Israel time, a local Jewish man was stabbed and wounded on his way to synagogue. After dark, another person was shot and seriously injured, the police said. Orthodox Jewish youths came in from out of town. At least one, presumably an off-duty soldier, carried an assault rifle, another a baseball bat.

A post making the rounds on social media had called for a “civilian army” to provide backup in Lod, creating a spiralling sense of anarchy.

Hinawi’s neighbourhood, Ramat Eshkol, is one of the most mixed areas in the country. In the morning, people there seemed shocked.

Tahael Harris, a 27-year-old Jewish woman who lives in an old building with a mix of Arab and Jewish residents opposite a Jewish religious school that was burnt, said she, her husband and two children had been holed up at home behind locked doors for nights while Arab mobs were setting cars alight in the street below and throwing stones.

As the violence ramped up, the family heard gunfire.

A fire started by rioters in the middle of the street in the Hadar suburb of Haifa, Israel. Credit:Getty Images

“Before, it was quiet, not perfect, but we were good neighbours,” she said of the Arab and Jewish residents of the apartment block. “I don’t know where they were last night. I don’t want to ask because I’m scared to hear the answer.”

Residents watch from their balconies a moment before police to deal with a fire lit by rioters at the scene in Haifa, IsraelCredit:Getty Images

Many of those newer Jewish families are scattered around Ramat Eshkol, living in shared apartment buildings with Arab neighbours, Israeli flags flying outside their windows. Others live in a newly built, specially designated neighbourhood for them nearby.

“We feel it is important,” said Yehezkel Cohen, 43, the principal of the community’s elementary school, showing religious books that were burnt. “It’s our mission. Our presence has only improved the neighbourhood.”

The trouble in the city began when Arab youths protested outside a mosque in the old quarter on Monday night and raised a Palestinian flag. They were roughly dispersed by police firing stun grenades and tear gas, residents said, igniting the charged atmosphere.

Later that night, an Arab man was fatally shot during a riot, and three Jewish men were arrested. Their neighbours claimed they acted in self-defence, but the death may have set off a blood feud.

At least five synagogues have been burnt in the city, along with the religious school and an adjacent pre-military training academy.

Yousef Ezz, a 33-year-old Arab truck driver from Lod, said a gang of Jewish extremists from out of town burnt his truck on Wednesday night.

“People have lost all their faith. This is their last stop,” he said. “I will live and die here, and my children will live or die here.”

As dusk drew on Thursday, crowds of Arab youths in black T-shirts gathered on the rooftops of the mosque and buildings around the old square and set up barricades of burning tires in the surrounding streets. Border police officers closed off streets in Ramat Eshkol and sealed the entrances to the city.

Dror Rubin, 45, a conflict resolution mediator working at Ramat Eshkol’s Jewish-Arab community centre, said he has been trying for years to build relations between the Palestinian Arab residents and the ideologically motivated Jewish newcomers.

“Until a few weeks ago, I really felt that our vision was happening, that we were building a microcosm of a different future,” he said. Now, “something has changed. I felt for the first time that it may not be safe to walk the streets here.”

The New York Times

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