A Year After Nationwide Riots, Israeli Arabs Expect Reprise

The violence of recent weeks has not escalated into nationwide clashes and war with Gaza like the events of May 2021, but Arab society in Israel is still ripe for renewed conflict

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Palestinian protesters confront Israeli troops at the Hawara checkpoint south of Nablus city in the occupied West Bank in 2021.
Palestinian protesters confront Israeli troops at the Hawara checkpoint south of Nablus city in the occupied West Bank in 2021.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP
Deiaa Haj Yahia
Deiaa Haj Yahia
Deiaa Haj Yahia
Deiaa Haj Yahia

On the eve of the Eid al-Fitr festival last year, with the muezzin’s call to the holiday, young people begin to congregate beneath the bridge junction in the city of Taibeh. The atmosphere had been tense, and the ground was ripe for an explosion. Very soon the situation escalated, hours after Lod residents were wounded by the shooting of a Jewish resident. The main road in Taibeh was blocked, tires were burned, and every police van that passed was stoned.

Very soon the clashes expanded and the tension increased – confrontations and the closing of roads at demonstrations are not unusual in Arab society, but during May 2021, something unusual happened – a confrontation that escalated continually for a month.

“I felt obligated to go out and express the anger inside me, Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa are under attack, I didn’t think about the outcome, it was emotions running high,” says Omar (not his real name), a young man who participated in violent demonstrations in the city of Taibe.

The main streets in the Arab cities became a battlefield. Torched tires and vehicles, stones on the sides of the road, traffic signs and traffic lights were destroyed, and the heart of the cities the streets remained almost empty of visitors, customers didn’t enter, and the economy was on the verge of collapse after suffering a serious blow during the period of the coronavirus.

Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound, May 2021. Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP

“We’ll continue to demonstrate, and to close roads, as long as the government is damaging the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” said Omar. “The Al-Aqsa Mosque is a red line. If we damaged the city’s property it was out of anger, and a message to the establishment, there are people who died, who were murdered in Jerusalem, in Lod and in Gaza, what is that worth compared to a traffic light that was broken?” said Omar. According to the claim, the closing of the roads and the fights came to prevent Jewish extremists from entering Arab cities. “They wanted to harm us, we saw what they did in Sheikh Jarrah and Lod, will we sit and keep quiet? It’s better to set fire to the area rather than having someone from my family be harmed,” said Omar.

Many security studies have discussed the events of May 2021, and most of them expected another round this year, but the violence of recent weeks has not escalated into nationwide clashes and war with Gaza. Nevertheless, Arab society is still ripe for a new conflagration.

“The government didn’t fix the things that led to the confrontation in May ‘21, it only dealt specifically with those who participated in the riots,” said Mahmoud Farij, a social activist from Kafr Qasem.

In Omar’s view, a resumption of widespread clashes is just a matter of time: “If the situation doesn’t change, and they continue to harm men and women in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, we’ll demonstrate and close roads. It’s a legitimate right, it’s an emotional response and I think that it will be the same as last year.”

Researchers and politicians claim say conflagration of May 2021 resulted from prolonged neglect of Arab society, rising crime, high unemployment the poverty that afflicts about half of Arab families. “Nothing has changed since last May, crime continues, as does unemployment. The infrastructure in the Arab cities is still in ruins,” says Farij.

Years of neglect, Farij said, have given young Arabs a feeling that they aren’t considered citizens with equal rights and that the government doesn’t support them. “They felt that the government is pushing them into a corner. They felt persecuted everywhere, without a glimmer of hope. What happened is the responsibility of the establishment, do you expect me to fight these young people with everything they’re feeling inside?” said Farij.

Omar recalls the moments when the demonstrations escalated in Taibeh at the same time as in Arab communities, and the lack of fear among those young people who threw stones at the police, burned tires and blocked roads. “We weren’t afraid, we saw detention ahead of us, and they fired sponge-tipped bullets and stun and smoke grenades at us, but we saw that something bigger was happening, so the fear disappeared, and when you’re next to a group of your friends, you’re not afraid either.”

On the other hand, Razi Souki, from the village of Jaljulya, who was detained by undercover counterterror troops during clashes there, won’t take part in a violent demonstration. “They beat me cruelly,” said Souki. “What I experienced wasn’t easy, although I didn’t participate in closing the road, I only stood at the side. I still suffer from a certain trauma.”

Police forces in Jaffa last week.Credit: Moti Milrod

For a week the confrontations continued and even ramped up. It was almost 2 A.M., Border Police and the police special reconnaissance Yasam unit were confronting masked men on the main road near Moshav Shaar Ephraim-Kalansuwa, and then the sound of a volley of shots near the police broke the silence, and the officers looked frightened.

On the news it was reported that live weapons were fired near security forces during the clashes in many cities. There were also fireworks fired at the police, followed by stone throwing. It looked as though chaos was raging across the country. “We saw what was happening in Jerusalem, Umm al-Fahm, Lod and Jaffa. Why shouldn’t we demonstrate in our own way, we saw that waving slogans on signs and chanting don’t bring results, closing roads is the right way to convey a message, when you want something to move,” said Omar.

A broken economy

Almost a year and a half after the outbreak of the coronavirus, which led to an economic disaster for Arab business, hundreds of businesses collapsed and many owners went into debt. “We’re a year after the events and there’s still something in the air, there are customers who to this day ask about the situation before entering the store,” says Abd Abu Khit, owner of a computer products store in Tira. “The continuation of the incidents after the end of the war gave us no opportunity to fully rehabilitate business relationships,” he added.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City earlier todayCredit: Mahmoud Ilean / AP

Amir Masarwa, owner of a food store in Kafr Kara, feels the same way – that to this day the fabric of relationships that was harmed has not been fully repaired. “I think that because of the attacks in the Al-Aqsa Mosque that continued after the end of the war, we haven’t fully returned to routine.” He says that over time the tension between Jews and Arabs in most places has diminshed, but it is still felt.

Masarwa says that it took time to even begin to repair the business relationships that were harmed. “It has to end, it’s all in our hands, there are politicians on both sides who don’t want quiet, due to political interests. We live here and we’ll continue to live here together.”

Adham Masri, a resident of Taibeh, believes that the events of last May are likely to be repeated if the economic, social and political situation in Arab society doesn’t improve. “The friction next time will be more difficult, if things don’t get better,” says Masri. He is joined by Mahmoud Farij, who says, “The situation will only get worse next time, the right is rising on the political map, and the extremist views against Arab society are only getting worse.”

“We hear about plans for rehabilitation, but on the ground we don’t feel anything yet,” says Masri. “What led to the serious incidents is the bad situation that was caused as a result of years of neglect of young Arabs.”

A car in Lod set on fire during mass civil unrest in May.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Feeling that his hands were tied a year ago, Masri was overcome by fear when he was at home. “There was nothing to be done, no one to approach or talk to, all the incidents got out of control, even for the political activists and the leadership itself, nobody knew what to do, because the future was unclear. Some people saw the young men who threw stones at the police and burned tires as the defenders of the city, there were differences of opinion about that behavior, but definitely, everything that leads to violence should have been stopped.”

When Masri was asked about the silent majority, he replied that this is a weakened group, living the daily routine. “Most people just want to make a living and return home in dignity, and they aren’t really interested in what happens outside their house,” he said.

Sami Tualba, who lives in Haifa, says the silence of a large part of the Arab public during the May 2021 clashes stemmed from two things: fear of the Jewish extremists who came to the mixed cities to attack Arabs in their homes, and the young Arab men who participated in the riots themselves. “You can’t talk to masked men, some of them were really violent,” Tualba says. “There are some who demonstrated properly, there were many people with nationalist views at the demonstrations, and that’s legitimate. They expressed their opinion in a nonviolent way. But the events that spilled over into serious incidents, attacks against civilians, were impossible to prevent as an ordinary person, and I hope they won’t return.”

A barrage of stones

Journalist Mohammad Khatib, who was attacked by a group of young Jewish men, told Haaretz that the police were negligent in their investigations of his case. “The case was closed a month after the incident witout even my testimony, and that caused me to despair of the police,” he said.

Israeli security forces take position during clashes with Palestinians demonstrators in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City in April.Credit: AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File

Khatib reconstructs the incident. It was the last day of Ramadan, on the eve of Eid al-Fitr. Khatib broke the fast with his family and then went out to work. On Hakrayot Road near Haifa he noticed a growing traffic jam and didn’t know what was happening. “I couldn’t go back then, I saw two groups of young men, they were looking for Arabs to attack, the first group didn’t notice me, but the second did.” It was a cascade of stones, some of them very big, adds Khatib. “I made a U-turn while the stones continued to hit me, everything was spontaneous and I didn’t know how I really managed to escape.

“It was very frightening, everything happened in seconds, but it felt like several hours,” he recalls. “You don’t know how it will end, I’m still in trauma to this day, the sounds of the shattering of the windows still echo.”

Cars set ablaze in Lod, overnight

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