Dr. Thabet Abu Rass is one of the most prominent spokesmen for the Arab community in Israel. Abu Rass is the co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives organization and also belongs to the “A Land for All” peace initiative. Not a religiously observant person, he hadn’t visited the Al-Aqsa compound in the Old City of Jerusalem for 14 years – and then did on Saturday.
That evening he was at a meeting for “good Jews,” as he puts it, in a home in Tel Aviv when his sister called. “She was crying,” said Abu Rass. “She was on the way to the Al-Aqsa Mosque for the al-Qadr Night prayers when they hit her with sewage water [a ‘skunk scent’ solution the police spray to disperse protesters], and now she can’t pray because her clothes stink. I dropped everything and went to accompany her, to try to convince her that God would accept her prayers anyway. Now, imagine to yourself that she waited all year for Ramadan, and the height of Ramadan is this night, and then this humiliation happens. What do you think she is going to ask God for now?”
Talking with Arab citizens of Israel suggests a wide range of causes behind the protests and unprecedented violence on Monday night: economic problems, their housing crisis, their identity crisis, solidarity with their brethren in Jerusalem and Gaza, anger at the Israeli Arab political parties, anger about the activities of the hard-right Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir and the rest of the far right, and more.
But overshadowing everything is the Al-Aqsa Mosque, it seems; not necessarily as a religious symbol, but as a focus of identity and a red line.
“The religious sites are not really important to me. I don’t feel any attachment to them. As far as I’m concerned, they’re walls,” said S., a 33-year-old woman from Jaffa who came out to protest. “But they symbolize our last shred of dignity, a shred of our tradition and identity and our story. When it is touched that intensely, especially on the holidays, I understand to what it can lead religious people.”
Down the Tiktok rabbit hole
To understand the present outburst of fury, you need to dive into the rabbit hole of TikTok. The Israeli public is not aware of the shock waves that rippled out following the clashes on the Temple Mount on Monday.
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Over 300 Palestinians were injured. Social media was flooded with clips. The algorithms ensured that anybody interested in the Temple Mount would receive an endless flood of videos from the rock-and-stun grenade wars on the Temple Mount plaza. The most effective were clips in which police officers could be seen tossing stun grenades onto the mosque’s carpets.
On Monday evening, another wave of clips appeared, showing how two large cypress trees on the Temple Mount caught afire, albeit unintentionally. The trees were ignited by flares the Palestinians fired at the police during a confrontation at the Chain Gate entrance to the Temple Mount. The flames and smoke were visible from far away, and embodied the collective nightmare concerning harm to the sanctity of Al-Aqsa.
The fact that the fire broke out just as thousands of young Jews marked Jerusalem Day in the nearby Western Wall Plaza only made feelings run higher. At 23:22 p.m. on Monday the Knesset member Ayman Odeh of the Joint List tweeted a video showing the Jews dancing, on the backdrop of flames on the Temple Mount, and singing a song identified with vengeance, which ends with Samson’s words in the Book of Judges: “O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray Thee, and strengthen me, I pray Thee, only this once, O God, that I may be this once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.” Hundreds of thousands of people viewed the clip.
Of course, between the violent confrontation of worshippers and police on the Temple Mount and burning trees, another thing of major importance happened: Hamas fired barrages of rockets at Israel.
Hamas is not widely supported among Arab youth in Israel, and criticism can be heard of the damage the organization has caused with its military provocations. But the rocket fire, at the time Hamas vowed, and images of the change in route of the Flag Parade (in which religious Zionists march through East Jerusalem with Israeli flags to mark the city’s 1967 reunification), were seen as a small yet heartening victory, and fanned the flames.
‘Personally, more Israeli; collectively, more Palestinian’
The riots in the mixed Arab Jewish cities actually broke out just when the dialogue had turned to the increasing integration of Arabs in Israel’s economic and political systems, led by the medical staff in the hospitals who became cultural heroes in the time of the coronavirus; and because of the United Arab List’s unprecedented role in forming a new coalition government.
“The Arab community wants to connect and influence politics, but the Arab parties have forgotten the Israeli Palestinian conflict,” Abu Rass remarked.
Some believe that integration into daily life in Israeli society actually strengthens the Palestinian identity, and their identification with their brethren in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“No matter how much I hate the military and the government, I need to live in this society,” said Sirin Jabarin, the founder of the protest movement of young people in Umm al-Fahm. “I have no choice. There are a lot of contradictions, a lot of problems of identity. They though that the future generations would be less patriotic, but they don’t understand that until there’s a solution for the territories and Gaza, until the occupation ends, things won’t calm down.”
“The fact that Israel doesn’t have borders strengthened connections with the territories,” said Abu Rass. “We feel that we are more Israeli and more Palestinian at the same time. Personally, we are more Israeli; collectively, more Palestinian.”
The protesters on Monday were mostly young, and the generational issue has importance. “We are the third generation after the Nakba,” said S., referring to the “calamity” as the Palestinians refer to the mass emigration of Arabs from the country during the 1948 war. “My grandfather was in the Nakba. My parents grew up under the military government and we grew up with a lot less fear. We are more aware. We are less afraid to speak about our rights.”
This absence of fear repeats itself in conversations with Palestinians. For example, the protesters from Umm al-Fahm had made a name for themselves in Jerusalem circles as having lost any fear of the police.
“The integration created a generation here that is Palestinian in identity and Israeli in behavior, it is a proud generation but with chutzpah and is happy for a confrontation with the police,” said Abu Rass.
‘The police are part of the problem’
It is impossible to divorce the escalation this week from the protests by young Arabs against the police’s shortcomings in curbing violence in the Arab community. “There is no trust in this police. They do not solve problems in Umm al-Fahm, so why fear it? The police are part of the problem, not part of the solution,” said Abu Rass.
In the big picture of the events on Monday, the mixed Arab-Jewish cities, especially, Lod, Ramle, and Jaffa, stand out for the violence. The problems of the Palestinian residents in mixed cities aren’t the same as in Arab towns. Feelings of humiliation are greater; they feel they are forced to fight for their very existence there. The story of the attempt to evict Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah connects to their narrative.
“What is happening in Jerusalem corresponds directly with what happens in Jaffa and Haifa,” said S. “There is systematic expulsion of Arab society in Israel. We have reached the boiling point. We don’t feel anybody cares whether I continue to exist. Quite the opposite. There are people acting to make me leave.”
The Jewish groups that moved to the mixed cities in recent years are viewed as a spearhead for “Judaizing” Arab neighborhoods in these cities. They are considered to be a major threat.
“They are driven by idealism, to Judaize the city. That has to be at someone else’s expense,” said Abu Rass. “Yesterday Habayit Hayehudi brought four buses of young people here to celebrate Jerusalem Day. You see the hatred in their eyes. What other purpose does it have except to heat [things up]?”
“It cannot be that in Lod they are building 8,000 housing units for Jews and zero for Arabs,” he added. “The young people see the difference. They are unemployed and have no economic future, so it’s easy to involve them in these things. Unquestionably, Israeli Arab society in general has made progress, but there are a not small number of young people, especially without an education, among whom the anger and frustration is rising.”
On Wednesday morning, Abu Rass went to the synagogue that was attacked in Ramle to help repair the damage.