Israeli Religious Extremists Are Driving Jewish-Arab Street Violence

An expert’s point of view on a current event.

Israeli Religious Extremists Are Driving Jewish-Arab Street Violence

During recent unrest in Israel-Palestine, one city was in all the headlines—especially in Israeli media. That city was Lyd (or Lod in Hebrew)—a city that used to be Palestinian before 1948, and nowadays is called a “mixed city” by the Israeli establishment as it is home to both Jews and Arabs. “Binational cities” is another phrase that could accurately describe these complex places.

Before war in Gaza erupted, Lyd saw a wave of mass demonstrations in support of Palestinian Jerusalem families facing expulsion and dispossession in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. These protests were led by young people, and the spontaneous and unpredicted uprising took Israel by surprise and was almost instantly met with police brutality.

Lyd’s youth, much like other youngsters in Haifa, Acre, Jerusalem, and Jaffa (other binational cities in Israel), were not intimidated. Protests turned into violent clashes not just with police but with the city’s Jewish population—to be more precise, with its Jewish settlers. Indeed, much of the city’s Jewish population is made up of relocated settlers who were evacuated from Gaza in 2005 and resettled by the Israeli government in Lyd, dramatically changing the character and politics of the city, which was already haunted by a history of violence and dispossession.

To understand why Lyd’s Palestinians reacted as angrily as they did, we need to go back to 1948. Mainstream Israeli media outlets like to pretend the story began only recently and these so-called riots don’t have any context or background. But all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And without understanding the beginning, the ending won’t be a happy one.

Lyd’s occupation and expulsion were accompanied by horrific massacres carried out by Israeli militia groups during the war that led to Israel’s independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba—or catastrophe. From a major economic hub with a population of 50,000 people, according to various historians, only 500 to 1,000 Palestinians were allowed to remain in the city. This was the case with other Palestinian cities like Haifa and Jaffa, places that embodied the urbanization process Palestinian society was going through—a process put to a complete halt by Jewish brigades working to ethnically cleanse the urban space and weaken Palestinian society, which became mainly rural.

The main square in the city is called “Palmach Square” after the brigades who commenced the expulsions. Across the street from that square lies Dahmash mosque. There’s actual writing on that wall: “Here, occupation forces committed a gruesome massacre in 1948.” That massacre resulted in the deaths of an estimated 300 Palestinian men, women, and children. Just to illustrate how traumatic that event was, Palestinians in the city refuse to call the square by its official name, having unofficially named it “Martyrs Square.”

Much of the city’s Jewish population is made up of relocated settlers who were evacuated from Gaza in 2005 and resettled by the Israeli government.

From a city that once connected Palestine to the world (it once had Palestine’s international airport, which is now Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport), it is now a city infested with crime and poverty. In the early 1950s, the young state of Israel decided to demolish most of the emptied city’s houses to prevent future refugees from returning. Nowadays, the old city has a lot of empty lots where once beautiful stone houses used to stand.

During the 1990s, crime in the city reached unbearable levels. One Israeli police official even called it “the drug capital of the Middle East.” The city became infested with drug addicts. I still remember as a child how we used to play soccer while jumping around needles. In one instance, my friends and I needed two posts so we could fashion a goal. We put a bag on one side and a sleeping drug addict on the other.

The fact the city had a struggling population of Arabs and Jews—who were also obvious victims of government disinvestments and neglect—made the authorities come up with the worst possible “solution” as they put it. They came up with a plan to “Judaize” the city. Instead of empowering the city’s Jewish and Arab residents, they opted for demographic engineering.

This was during the Second Intifada, when Ariel Sharon became prime minister of Israel. The establishment began encouraging the migration of idealistic, nationalistic, and religious Jewish groups known in Hebrew as “Garin Torani” (literally “Torah nucleus” or “seed of Torah”). First, these people started moving into mainly Jewish neighborhoods and were not met with any resistance from the Palestinian community, but they later became a part of a concerted municipal policy of Judaizing the city.

Judaizing is a term freely used by Israeli officials, who fail to see its innate racism and similarity to Han Chinese settlement policies in places like Tibet and Xinjiang. In the 1950s, the Israeli government began the process of Judaizing the northern Galilee region by confiscating private Palestinian lands to settle Jewish people there. Further confiscations in the 1970s were met with fierce demonstrations, resulting in deaths of Palestinian protesters and one of the most important Palestinian annual events commemorating the loss of their land: “Land Day.”

Nearly 50 years later, nobody in Israel finds it unusual to openly talk about Jewish supremacy in the form of settling as many Jews as possible while pushing away Arabs or situating them on as little land as possible. There’s an actual saying in Hebrew for it: “Maximum Arabs on minimum land.”

When Sharon decided to evacuate the Gaza settlements in 2005, the government decided to house the evicted settlers in Lyd. Palestinians started seeing these newcomers building their own neighborhoods while they suffered from being unable to expand their already existing areas as well as an increased number of home demolition.

Activists from the city estimate around 80 percent of houses were built “illegally” in Israeli parlance—they were built on private lands in the absence of approved infrastructure plans due to the authorities’ unwillingness to issue building permits—so Israeli authorities could issue demolition orders whenever they pleased. This led to around 10 to 15 houses being demolished annually whereas the Garin Torani Jewish neighborhoods were officially allowed to expand.

Around 10 years ago, Israeli officials finished building Ramat Elyashiv, the first Garin Torani settlement in the city. It was built in the middle of the old city, where there once were Palestinian homes. The clean roads, tall buildings, parks, and school of the closed neighborhood stood out like a sore thumb to many Palestinians, and the contrast between its modernism and cleanliness to the Palestinian poverty around it felt like an insult to the city’s established Palestinian residents.

“Judaizing” is a term freely used by Israeli officials, who fail to see its innate racism.

But Jewish supremacists rose to power officially in 2013 to further cement their hold over the city, with the election of Yair Revivo from the Likud party as mayor. Revivo, who takes pride in his close relationship with Jewish supremacists with many documented statements against Arabs, appointed Aharon Atias—the head of the Garin Torani in Lyd—to be the city manager. From here on, the Garin Torani community became the acting managers of the city, with more facilities—like day-care centers and schools—built just for them while the Arab community became even more marginalized.

Although the trigger for the recent unrest was the prospect of evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, what fueled the Arab youths was the pent-up anger they’ve been feeling toward the city, the police, and Jewish extremists who are now openly talking about ethnic cleansing under the guise of “protecting the Jewish population.” If their rage keeps simmering while Jewish supremacists are allowed to solidify their dominance, what happened in Lyd will be just a preview of the horrors to come.

Desk Team