Jewish and Palestinian Mobs Dueled in Israeli Towns — but the Crackdown Came for One Side

Mixed Israeli cities and towns saw the worst intercommunal violence in decades — but Israeli police raids swept up almost exclusively Palestinians.

JERUSALEM - MAY 18: Israeli forces take a Palestinian into custody as Palestinians gathered in front of Jerusalem's Damascus Gate to protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip, in East Jerusalem on May 18, 2021. Israeli forces assaulted and arrested Palestinians. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Israeli forces arrest a Palestinian in front of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate during a protest in East Jerusalem on May 18, 2021, against Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As the world fixated on the exchange of rocket fire and airstrikes over the Gaza-Israel barrier, violence was escalating inside Israel proper. Palestinian protests, in support of their kin, erupted on both sides of the Green Line that separates the occupied Palestinian territories from internationally recognized Israeli territory. In Israel’s “mixed” cities, clashes between Palestinian and Jewish citizens intensified, exposing existing internal fault lines. Mob violence and rioting spread to places like Lod, Haifa, and Yafa.

The latest round of escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen an unusual surge in intercommunal violence between Palestinians and Jews inside Israel. Videos captured groups of Palestinians in mixed Israeli cities protesting and even rioting on a scale unseen since the Second Intifada in 2000.

Israeli leaders began to fear the worst: “There is no greater threat now than these riots,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Taking the cue, right-wing Jewish Israelis, many of whom came into the Israeli cities from radical West Bank settlements, formed bands that roamed the streets looking for Palestinians.

Both sides were accused of mob violence: burning businesses and vehicles, carrying out home invasions, assaults, and even murder. Social media videos surfaced appearing to show lynch mobs. Only one side, though, boasted the support of the state: Journalists and amateur videographers showed right-wing Jewish Israelis as they engaged in various forms of rampage.

Now, with the dust beginning to settle on the worst of the violence, the very discrimination that gave rise to Palestinian discontent is again becoming apparent. Over the past several days, Israel launched a campaign of mass arrests against Palestinians in mixed cities who were accused, often without specific evidence, of rioting. No such sweeps were made to arrest Jewish Israelis accused of mob violence.

“You can see that the police campaign is political when it comes to combating crime. They’re trying to scare us from doing protests.”

“If we talk about the current campaign that they” — the police — “launched, they have arrested dozens of people, and all of them are Palestinian protesters and political activists,” said Amir Toumie, a graduate student who is a member of the Haifa Youth Movement, a Palestinian activist group. “Hardly any of them are Jewish citizens. You can see that the police campaign is political when it comes to combating crime. They’re trying to scare us from doing protests.”

Some 1,600 Palestinians have been arrested since the campaign began, according to Sami Abou Shehadeh, member of the Israeli Parliament for the Palestinian and leftist bloc, the Joint List. A police spokesperson claimed that “the majority of incidents that took place were carried out by Arab Israelis who took to the streets and attacked Jewish civilians and police officers.” Abou Shehadeh refuted the claim, saying that Palestinians were detained even while standing on the streets on the sidelines — a testament affirmed by Toumie.

“Police were standing right next to the settlers while they were on the streets of Haifa chanting ‘Death to Arabs’ and attacking everybody and every property that they saw,” Toumie said. “So we understood that the police were not going to be protecting us.”

The youth movements from Haifa and people from various Palestinian neighborhoods formed local protection committees. “The police did not take it well,” Toumie added. “They started coming into the neighborhoods and arresting people even for standing in the street and not doing anything.”

The reactions of authorities during — and now, in the aftermath of — the violence show why Palestinian citizens of Israel were fed up and protested in the first place: Though places like Haifa, the largest mixed city in Israel, where 15 percent of the city’s population is Palestinian, are often hailed for coexistence, Palestinian residents face frequent discrimination and daily indignities.

Relations between Palestinians and Jews in Israel have always been strained, at best, but when the violence spread like wildfire — rival mobs attacked people, damaged businesses, and set cars ablaze — it showed just how tenuous those relations were. In Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, a Jewish Israeli mob vandalized Palestinian-owned businesses, including a popular ice cream parlor, before turning on a Palestinian man who was trying to flee in his car.

In Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, a Palestinian man was stabbed. In Yafa, Palestinians beat a 19-year-old Jewish soldier, fracturing his skull. Yigal Yehoshua, a 56-year-old man, was hit in the head with a brick as protests swept through the country; he succumbed to his wounds at a Tel Aviv hospital. His death came following the killing of Mousa Hassouna, a 33-year-old Palestinian from Lod who was shot dead during riots while three others were wounded. The suspects in his killing, Jewish Israelis who said they had acted in self-defense, were taken into custody and then released.


With Thousands Left Homeless, Gaza Reconstruction Faces Familiar Obstacle: Israeli Siege

Various events fueled the latest rounds of unrest, recriminations, and violence. The crisis was kindled by Israeli authorities installing barriers at Damascus Gate, an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City that had become a popular area for Palestinians to meet and mingle. Protests then spread when Israeli police attacked worshippers inside Al Aqsa Mosque, throwing stun grenades and gas bombs. Looming evictions of families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah also fanned the flames of violence.

The underlying issue, however, has always been the same: Palestinians are simply not treated equally to their Jewish compatriots.

The mob violence meted out by Jews and Palestinians against one another in Israel’s mixed cities was shocking to some. Yet the strife is taking place against a backdrop of inequity, deep social marginalization, and active efforts by groups aligned with the state to rid these cities of their Palestinian citizenry.

“We are in a terrifying space,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer from Haifa and a mother of a 7-year-old boy. “We’ve seen certain houses being marked by mobs by day, only to be attacked by night. This is terrifying because they are aided by the police directly, or indirectly when they turn a blind eye.”

Palestinians make up about 21 percent of Israel’s population and, in theory, have equal social and political rights. In reality, they are treated as second-class citizens, facing rampant discrimination at the municipal and governmental level as well as widespread legal and social barriers. Despite living in a country with a quality of life on par with Western Europe, the reality for Palestinians in Israel is fraught with indignities and marginalization at the hands of their fellow Jewish citizens.

Anti-Arab hate speech is largely normalized in Israel’s mainstream press and political parties, with a “Jewish supremacist” party called Jewish Power, joining the most recent governing coalition. “Israel’s rightwing parties have campaigned for far greater Jewish dominance in Israel,” Israeli American pollster and political strategist Dahlia Scheindlin recently wrote in The Guardian. “The nationalist right wing has led and legitimized rage against Arabs, left wingers, migrants and the media,” said Scheindlin, chronicling the context that Palestinian citizens of Israel endure at the hands of the state.


Israeli Police Target Palestinian Journalists at Al Aqsa Mosque

Palestinians inside Israel, sometimes called Israeli Arabs or Arab Israelis in an effort to separate them from their Palestinian identity, are formally marginalized by the state in a range of often codified discriminatory policies. The most notorious of these is the Jewish Nation-State Law passed in 2018, which made Hebrew the country’s national language — downgrading Arabic from its official designation as a second language — and defined the establishment of Jewish communities as being in the national interest.

Palestinian citizens are often confined to small neighborhoods within cities or villages in specific areas of the country. These locales are usually constrained in civil planning and expansion due to nearby Jewish settlements, many of which were established after the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee en masse.

“The reason that these mobs are happening is because they didn’t finish us off in 1948 and they’re seeing this as their chance. This has all been done with the state’s approval,” Buttu said. “This is the culmination of years of anti-Palestinian hatred, of years of politicians making statements about Palestinians.”

“The reason that these mobs are happening is because they didn’t finish us off in 1948 and they’re seeing this as their chance. This has all been done with the state’s approval.”

Buttu said the rise of the Kahanist movement, a fascist political outlook that helped propel a broader religious Zionism, has only made things worse for Palestinians. The ideologues of the movement — which, despite the banning of explicit Kahanist political groups, has gained a foothold in Israeli power politics — frequently make explicit calls for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

It’s against this backdrop of discrimination that anger erupted. In mixed cities like Lod, an eerie calm is usually predominant, but Palestinian neighborhoods are rife with violence and drugs, a situation Israeli police often turn a blind eye to, in line with other forms of state neglect, in areas ranging from garbage collection to law enforcement.

When intra-Arab crime erupts, the police barely take interest, said Toumie, the graduate student and activist. “We have been asking for the police to intervene for years and start collecting the illegal weapons in the Palestinian villages and towns and to organize law and order campaigns to rid them of criminals and organized crime,” Toumie said. But action was not forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Haifa is often hailed as an oasis of coexistence, but Abou Shehadeh, the member of Israeli Parliament, said this is a myth that bolsters Israel’s narrative of inclusivity or liberalism in response to international condemnation of its policies. While both Jews and Palestinians share public resources, the city itself is racially segregated and divided, with Palestinians bearing the brunt of systematic discrimination.

“Jewish-Palestinian relations were never great. Just because people didn’t regularly shoot at each other doesn’t mean they were fine,” Abou Shehadeh said. “It doesn’t mean there was equality. Even in apartheid, there was co-existence, but there is a racist dimension that does not allow for equality. Inside the mixed cities you see the most images of apartheid.”

Abou Shehadeh said there is a current movement to ask for international protection for Palestinians inside Israel. “The police are against you. The media is against you,” he said. “We have lost any basic feeling of security. We have started to think of an international dimension — to ask for international protection as a minority. We are asking for an investigative team to look into attacks on both sides of the Green Line.”

Join The Conversation