Almost two weeks after the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas—which ended bloody clashes in which over 250 people were killed and thousands were injured or displaced—Israel is looking to get back to normal, with a plan that includes dropping all coronavirus restrictions.
Yet, in Arab-majority neighbourhoods in Haifa, Acre, Lod, Ramle and Jaffa—so-called “mixed cities” in which Jewish people and Palestinian citizens of Israel live side by side—residents are still reeling from the unprecedented wave of interfaith violence.
As missiles flew through the night sky, groups of Israelis and Palestinians took to the streets, burning cars and synagogues, defacing a Muslim cemetery, clashing with police and engaging in gruesome acts of violence, such as the attempted lynching of an Arab person in Bat-Yam, the stoning to death of a Jewish resident of Lod, and the burning of a 12-year-old Arab boy in Jaffa.
The violence was shocking to most. For the residents of Jaffa, a historic port city just south of Tel Aviv, this cycle of brutality represented an escalation of the oppression regularly faced by the city’s Palestinian population.
“It was the perfect storm: weeks of tension surrounding eviction threats of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, police closing off the stairwell in Damascus Gate during Ramadan, and then, on Laylat al-Qadr, one of the holiest nights in Islam, Israeli police stormed al-Aqsa Mosque,” Abed Abu-Shehada, a city council member representing Jaffa, told VICE World News.
Abu-Shehada added that the four-hour raid of the mosque, in which at least 278 Palestinian worshippers were injured, was the final straw for many.
“So people took to the streets,” he said. “Many went out to protest peacefully, but the police and border patrol cracked down on everyone. You can’t expect order when Benjamin Netanyahu tells police and border patrol not to be afraid of consequences to their actions; when [Minister of Public Security] Amir Ohana tells the Jewish population to arm themselves and take the law into their own hands. The Palestinian public hears these messages loud and clear.”
“Yes, [Israel] are the landlords here—every Palestinian knows that,” Omar Siksek, a longtime activist and business owner, said. “But constantly shoving it down our throats doesn’t do any good. It makes any normal person feel they will never treat us equally. That’s why, when I took to the streets to protest this time, I didn’t want to come back home. I wanted the first bullet to go through my chest. I’ve been an activist for over 40 years, and this time I felt hopeless.”
In Israeli media, the violence was depicted as a nationalist-Palestinian uprising. However, Abu-Shehada says almost all of the people who participated were kids from the margins of society, many with police records for petty crimes who dropped out of school and later got caught up in organised crime.
“When I met with the mayor, he asked me to condemn the violence and take responsibility for these kids,” Abu-Shehada said. “I told him it was the municipality’s responsibility and that it failed these kids.”
Witnessing the anarchy on the streets, residents of Jaffa organised to stop the violence. Siksek, together with Abu-Shehada and others, formed an emergency committee.
“We formed the Jaffa Protection Committee after we realised that there was a total loss of control from the authorities, which could easily slip into bullets on the streets,” said Siksek. “We brought together council members, associations, Islamic bodies, everyone who had an open channel with people on the street. And within a few days, despite border patrol and police—who were mostly busy shielding Jewish settlers who came into Jaffa to clash with residents—we managed to get a hold of our community.”
A few days after the riots broke out, the police commissioner announced a “law and order” campaign to restore peace on the streets of mixed cities. It ultimately became a show of force, when hundreds of police motorcycles drove into Jaffa, handing out tickets for petty crimes such as unauthorised car tyres, jaywalking and idling. “I saw an officer stopping a kid riding a bike and puncturing his tyre,” a resident said.
To community members, this police campaign wasn’t about restoring “law and order”, but settling the score with residents: no-knock raids, over-ticketing of scooters and vehicles, and harassment of peaceful passersby. Videos shown to VICE World News—of police shooting a foam-tipped bullet at a resident, and a no-knock raid on a bedroom of a young design student—were presented as evidence that the police are working against the community.
“What the police and government have done is to create the next generation of Palestinians who don’t have any trust in the system,” said Siksek.
Increasing residents’ mistrust of the police are claims that officers shielded Israeli rioters but cracked down on peaceful Palestinian protesters. One video shows young Israeli men in Jaffa pelting rocks while officers stand beside them.
Residents also point to the Torah Nucleus—groups of Zionists who move to areas to promote Judaism—in the centre of Jaffa as evidence that the Palestinian community is being pushed out. Like in other mixed cities, the religious right chose to expand its settlement project into Israel proper, and since the 1990s yeshivas have opened near or in Arab-majority neighbourhoods.
Around half of the 20,000 Palestinian residents of Jaffa live in apartments which were owned by Palestinians before the foundation of Israel, and were abandoned during the 1948 War. The state expropriated these properties and used them to house Palestinians who stayed during the war and were forcibly evicted from their original homes. Most were placed in the neighbourhood of Ajami, before the state surrounded it with barbed wire.
“They don’t have rights on these houses. They can’t remodel or expand them, which doesn’t give families a way to provide their children with security for the future,” said Mourad Hassan, a Jaffa-based actor. “What can young people who were born and raised here hope for?”
Over the past few decades, private developers have built luxury apartment buildings and villas in Jaffa, attracting a new Jewish population. “What’s happening in Jaffa is similar to Sheik Jarrah, but instead of right-wing settlers moving into Palestinian houses, it’s centre-left gentrifiers,” Hassan said.
While this new Israeli population migrates into Jaffa, the Palestinian population hasn’t expanded north into historic Tel Aviv, and residents feel increasingly underrepresented in society.
“Israeli society can only accept us as individuals: I have freedom of movement, of speech, I can even vote,” said Hassan. “But society can’t accept a collective Palestinian identity, except in the educational system, which is segregated because the Jewish-Israeli public can’t accept the Palestinian narrative or language. When you degrade our identity with the Nation-State Law, you can’t expect the Palestinian society to continue embracing the Israeli illusion of co-existence.”
“Mixed cities is just code for a Jewish city with an Arab population that needs to say thank you that it’s not entirely squeezed out,” said Abu-Shehada. “As a young person who was born here, whose family has been living here for centuries, I refuse.”