'I Know the Students Are Afraid, but Closing Down the School Is No Solution'

Parents in an Arab part of Lod, a mixed city just minutes away from Tel Aviv, fear sending their kids to school, and it's not because of COVID. The situation got so dire that a principal asked for classes to be held on Zoom, but authorities denied her request

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Students outside the ORT school in Lod.
Students outside the ORT school in Lod.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni

On paper, the city of Lod is a single municipal entity. In practice, however, many people would testify that the town, which is southeast of Tel Aviv, is split up into two parts with the Rakevet and Pardes Shannir neighborhoods separated from the rest of the city. The two neighborhoods, which are home to most of the city’s Arab residents, have for years suffered from neglect and a lack of governance. They are controlled by crime families.

In the last two weeks, the situation has deteriorated. An internal dispute inside the al-Turi clan has transformed every inch of the Rakevet neighborhood into a potential battleground. Day after day, the sound of gunshots echo through the streets.

Last week, in response to the situation, the principal of the neighborhood’s ORT High School for Science and Engineering decided to take an exceptional step and hold classes on Zoom. She approached the Education Ministry for permission but was refused. Ministry officials said the principal was turned down following consultations with the Lod municipality and the police, who insisted that in-person classes proceed despite the situation.

A demonstration against violence in the Arab community, in Lod, in September.

“Unless there is a police ban, classes have to take place as usual,” one of the decision makers explained to Haaretz. Deputy Mayor Yossi Harush, who is also the director of the municipal education department, also supported the decision. “It’s not acceptable,” he said about the plan to hold class on Zoom. “We’ve stepped up security there.”

Despite Harush’s claim, only a single security guard could be spotted at the school on Sunday. The principal, Shirin Hafi, was standing next to him, keeping an eye on the students leaving through the school gate.

Hafi is a prominent educator in Lod, and the school is considered a success, despite its location. It has a cooperative relationship with the Weizmann Institute, with high-tech firms and with philanthropic educational organizations in an effort to expose its students, most of whom live in the neighborhood, to broader horizons.

Hafi refused to be interviewed for this article, but she didn’t have time at that point in any case. “Take off your hood. You just look suspicious,” she told a male student before turning to another group. “Why are you standing here? Go home,” she told them. “What’s that jacket? That’s a criminal’s jacket,” she admonished another student.

The Rakevet neighborhood in Lod.

‘Studying in fear’

Last week, the Lod municipality petitioned the High Court of Justice over the government decision to exclude Lod from the list of cities in the recently approved five-year development plan for Arab communities. Meanwhile, the police have promised to establish another police station at the entrance to the Rakevet neighborhood. But personal security still seems an unfulfilled wish to the inhabitants.

Rula, the mother of a 12th-grader, said she can’t wait until her daughter finishes the school year and won’t have to walk to school. “We live two minutes away. It’s a short walk, but now it’s scary,” she said, adding that a few days ago her daughter called her from the street and told her she had heard shooting and was frightened.

A crime scene in Lod, last week.

Hanan, whose son is in 10th grade, said, “The truth is that it’s dangerous to send them to school, and I see it’s getting worse. But we can’t agree to a shut-down. The police have to have a greater presence and restore order. I know the students study in fear, but closing down the school is no solution.”

Fear is more tangible for some students than for others. Many members of the clan go to the ORT school, but since the feud, they have stopped coming, neighborhood residents say. One man whose nephews attend the school thinks it’s better that way. “Listen, we’ve seen that the crime families don’t care if they kill girls,” he says.

The ORT school in Lod.

In fact, in July, Riyan Jarushi, 16, of Ramle, was killed together with her father, who was involved in a family quarrel, and mother. A month later, Anas Wahwah, 18, of Lod, an outstanding student, was killed in a clash in which he was not involved. These incidents led the Lod educator, Hafi, to tell a friend she feared that “a teacher would leave the school for the parking lot and get a bullet in the head.”

‘Less of a citizen than you’

Hardly anyone in the Rakevet neighborhood wanted to be interviewed for this article. “Who are you, media?” a man about 40 asked. He wanted to make sure no one photographed the entrance to his house, which is near the school.

Walid (not his real name), in his 20s, who owns a business, said angrily: “I pay taxes, but I’m less of a citizen than you. They love to talk about shooting and crime, but I’m talking to you about roads, about education, about land. That’s the root of the problem. The police are dealing with small things. They follow kids who put clips with guns on TikTok. But they do it because they have nothing, do you understand?”

Another resident, who calls himself a neighborhood activist, said he believes that the feud will end, but the situation will not get better. “The problem is our culture. In every Arab city there’s a mess, here too. It starts as a regular quarrel over something small, and it develops. In the end, someone dies, and the other side has to take revenge. ‘You took my father, I’ll take yours.’ ‘You take my son, I’ll take yours.’”

But this culture is the result of despair over municipal problems that are never solved. “Even the train track [that separates the neighborhood from the rest of the city] isn’t safe,” he said. “When you give me a life like this, what do you think will happen?”

The Lod municipality responded: “Our position is the same as the Education Ministry. We oppose closing any school. Dealing with the shooting is a police matter, and criminal elements must not be allowed to disrupt the proper functioning of the school system. At the beginning of the week, the mayor made an urgent appeal to the government to immediately stop the violence and shooting in the city and is in continuous communication with officials to strengthen governance and restore order and safety.”

The ORT education system said: “In coordination with and under the direction of the Education Ministry, it was decided that the school day would be held as usual in class, with increased security to protect normal routine.”

The police chose to relate in its statement to the actions of the Border Police in the city. “The Israel Police are acting decisively against weapons offenses in the city for the safety and security of the residents, including operational, intelligence and focused interrogation work, which the police at the station are carrying out together with other forces. For example, the arrest of numerous suspects and the confiscation of various weapons recently. Moreover, a Border Police task force has recently begun operations in the city, backed up by special forces and means to uncompromisingly enforce the law regarding weapons infractions and illegal possession of weapons, and thus increase the sense of security of the residents.”

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