HAIFA, Israel — I heard an upbeat male voice speaking Hebrew: “Guys, guys, you have no idea what’s going down this morning, I’m going around to see what we did to them yesterday. And you’ll be amazed to hear this, but most of the cars we smashed … were, yes, Arabs’ cars, friends.”
The speaker chuckled. “And the workers who are cleaning up here this morning — Arabs, too. And those who are going to suffer tonight — they are Arabs.”
The audio note was followed by chat responses: “Yesterday evening the Blessed Creator gave us courage and strength to stand before … the evil Arabs and stab them right in the throat fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiire.”
One person called on the group to run us over with cars. Someone responded: “Not only run over, but also slaughter.”
My husband received this WhatsApp thread from a friend on May 13. It had been intercepted from a group named “Let the Jewish people live — Haifa.”
The brutality evident there is connected to the mentality that permitted 11 days of bombarding civilians in Gaza. I am beyond relieved that Israel and Hamas implemented a cease-fire on Friday. Yet this month, a new, terrifying threshold of dehumanization has emerged, directed at Palestinians throughout the occupied territories and at Palestinian citizens of Israel, including where I live with my husband and two children in Haifa.
Starting on May 9, Palestinians inside Israel took to the streets to protest the imminent expulsion of families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, also expressing grievances about discriminatory policies and practices we face as second-class citizens in Israel. The protests were greeted with violent repression from Israeli forces; demonstrators were kicked, beaten, arrested and shot at with stun grenades and tear gas. According to a report issued by Lawyers for Defending the Uprising Detainees Haifa, Palestine, more than 700 Palestinians were arrested in Israel between May 9 and May 14, including dozens of children. Police beat detainees with batons and rifle butts, stepped on their heads and necks, and slammed their heads against the ground, walls and cars. Detainees suffered fractures and injuries throughout their bodies, including their faces and heads. Police shot a 17-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel named Muhammed Kiwan in the head on May 12. He died on May 19.
After just a few days, Jewish-Israeli extremists began organizing themselves into informal militias, unleashing premeditated violence in Palestinian neighborhoods in cities inside Israel. Sitting in my Haifa apartment, I could hear chants of “Death to the Arabs!” as a mob marauded down nearby Allenby Street. I received a voice note forwarded from a Palestinian resident of Allenby named Hala, warning that Jews were knocking on doors to ascertain whether the residents were Arab. If so, they marked the door. “Please be careful. Don’t open the doors to anyone. Don’t answer at all,” Hala implored, attaching photos of red lines on door frames. I saw cellphone videos of black-clad young men smashing cars with clubs. The mob set five cars on fire, injuring 59 people with smoke inhalation, most of them children. The videos showed police marching alongside the gang.
The WhatsApp group whose messages were sent on to us had organized — and was now celebrating — this rampage. The violence and vitriol are not surprising. They have been on the rise for years. What does surprise and alarm me this time is the extent to which the attacks were supported by the police — and inflamed by the media.
My blood chills now each time I turn on an Israeli news broadcast. I watched an Israeli Public Broadcasting announcer call on police to shoot Palestinian demonstrators. I heard artillery commanders crowing over leveling high-rise apartment buildings in Gaza as if they won a video game. It’s as though the media became a unit of the army. Four rockets were fired from Lebanon toward Israel on May 19. One of them landed near the Palestinian town Shefa’amr. “Sadly, it did not lead to many deaths there,” a Channel 20 reporter said during his coverage. It’s of little comfort that he was fired.
Merely stepping out of my home creates dissonance. I exchange pleasantries in Hebrew with a barista and think: She probably supports the ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem. My apartment is less than a mile from a military base: Which war crimes did the soldier waiting for that bus commit? I exercised at a gym last Tuesday. “We need to hit them harder!” I overheard, before I managed to get my ear buds in and shut the conversation out. My Facebook feed contains calls from Jewish Israelis to engage in Jewish-Arab dialogue to preserve Haifa’s “delicate coexistence,” but with no mention of atrocities in Gaza or of the killing of Musa Hassouna, 31, who was fatally shot by an Israeli extremist on May 10 in Lod (known in Arabic as Lydd).
I try to convince myself that if my Jewish neighbors truly knew what was happening in their name, more of them would actively work to stop it. But in my darker moments, it’s clear to me: The vast majority of Israeli Jews do know, and they are indifferent or support it. This consensus terrifies me most of all. Engaging in “dialogue” over plates of hummus will not help me coexist anymore. I need Israeli Jews to take a stand against occupation, ethnic cleansing, brutal assaults on civilians and structural discrimination.
When I was growing up, my father told me stories of what he and his family experienced in 1948, when the Haganah (a pre-state Jewish paramilitary force) marked the doors of certain houses in our village, Rama. Those whose doors were marked were then forced from their homes, part of the Nakba, our dispossession. Do those doors marked on Allenby Street this month represent an attempt to finish what began in 1948?
Unable to sleep the past week, knowing that bombs were raining down on my friends in Gaza, I scrolled through floods of unfiltered hatred on Telegram: “A good terrorist = a dead terrorist … we show the Arabs that Haifa belongs to Jews!!! … Do the work like it needs to be done, until the enemy has been expelled.”
Which enemy? Me? My 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son? People I live with wrote those messages, marked those doors, smashed those cars, chanted for my death, were carpet-bombing Gaza. They did so protected by the state, supported by the media and with the political backing and funding of the United States.
If the cease-fire sticks, life will probably go back to a thin veneer of “normality.” But how can I function knowing they may turn their weapons on me next? I knew I was bringing my children into an ethnic-supremacist state when they were born. But after these past weeks, I don’t know how I can continue to raise them here.