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For first time in two decades, mass protests erupt among Israel’s Arab citizens

Relatives gather on May 12 at the damaged home of Nadine and Khalil Awaad, a 16-year-old girl and her father who were killed by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip. The home is in a village near the Israeli city of Lod. (Heidi Levine/AP)
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RAMLE, Israel — The escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has sparked an outbreak of increasingly volatile protests by Israel's own Arab citizens, who have taken to the streets this week in numbers unseen in two decades.

While unrest in the occupied territories is not uncommon, the outpouring of support among Arab citizens for Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza and the venting of anger in Israeli cities with large Arab populations pose a rare challenge on Israel’s home front.

In predominantly Arab cities and those with mixed Arab and Jewish populations, demonstrations on Tuesday night quickly turned into violent confrontations with Israeli police and right-wing Israelis staging counterdemonstrations. Police fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, while looting and arson attacks spread.

“It was like a war here,” said Yousef, 35, a resident of the mixed city of Ramle in central Israel, who declined to give his last name for fear of arrest. He accused Israeli police of failing to stop religious Jews from assaulting people outside his mosque and instead attacking local Arabs.

In Ramle, videos circulated of right-wing Israelis pelting cars driven by Arabs. In nearby Lod, close to Israel’s international airport, Arabs attacked several synagogues and shops. And clashes and rioting erupted in other Israeli cities, including Haifa, Acre and Sakhnin.

Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants fired rocket barrages May 12 in the region's most intense hostilities in years. (Video: Reuters)

By Wednesday night, bands of Arab residents, some with bats and rocks, had begun guarding their streets in Lod against roaming groups of Jewish Israelis, some armed with bats and guns. These right-wing Israelis, many young and from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, had come to Lod saying they wanted to protect Jewish residents.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in Lod, site of some of the worst violence after the funeral of a 25-year-old Arab Israeli who was shot dead Monday night. It was the first time a state of emergency had been declared in an Arab community since 1966, when Israel lifted restrictions on the movement of some Arabs put in place at Israel’s independence in 1948.

Israeli border police, who typically patrol the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, were deployed in Lod. Police erected roadblocks to prevent people from entering the city.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 270 people were arrested Tuesday across the country in “wide-scale disturbances and riots.” In some cases, he said, Jewish residents who had armed themselves with bats and other weapons were “walking in the streets to protect themselves.”

“We have not seen this kind of violence since October 2000,” said Israeli Police Chief Kobi Shabtai, referring to the Palestinian mass uprising that spanned five years and in which thousands of Israelis and Palestinians were killed.

The unrest came as Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza continued to exchange rocket fire and airstrikes in some of the worst cross-border violence in years. At least 65 Gazans, including 16 children, and six Israelis, including one teenage girl, have been killed, according to officials on the two sides.

Death toll climbs and Arab-Israeli protests intensify as Israel and Gaza slip toward war

The surge in violence came amid ongoing efforts by Israeli settlers to evict several Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, as well as fierce clashes between Palestinians and Israeli ­police at and around al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Hassan Jabreen, the general director of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said he had not seen this kind of “fear and concern for safety among Arab populations” in two decades.

But the unrest in Arab Israeli communities reflects longer-standing grievances about their status and security within Israel, according to analysts and Arab activists.

The protests are in part “because of the anger that’s been building up years and years,” said Rami Younes, an Arab writer and filmmaker who is originally from Lod. “It feels like there’s a new generation which is fearless and direct, which is fed up with the aggression and oppression of Arabs.”

Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population and are the descendants of Palestinians who remained inside Israel’s borders following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. They have long complained of what they say is institutionalized discrimination against them.

Jabreen said that Netanyahu, his public security minister and police share responsibility for the latest unrest because of rhetoric inciting division between Arabs and Jews. Israeli authorities reject that accusation.

On Wednesday, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana defended those “law-abiding citizens” who carry weapons to assist the police, and he criticized the arrest of three suspects in the Lod killing on Monday night.

As Lod braced for more unrest on Wednesday, Arafat Ismail prepared to lay to rest his brother-in-law Khalil Awaad and 16-year-old niece Nadine Awaad. who were killed early in the morning when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck beside their home.

A 14-story building in Gaza City known to have housed several local media outlets, including Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV, was hit in an Israeli strike on May 12. (Video: Reuters)

The family lives in an Arab village called Dahamash down an unpaved road between Ramle and Lod. Ismail said that for seven years, since the last war between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza, his village has been petitioning various authorities for bomb shelters, which none of the homes there have. Israel does not officially recognize the village, where Ismail’s family has long lived.

“We’ve requested that there be infrastructure, shelters, just like in the Jewish communities,” he said, leaning on an aging green walker. He added, “Why not me? Do missiles not target us?”

The impact of the rocket struck Awaad and his daughter, who had been sheltering beside two now-incinerated cars. While Israeli authorities urge residents to remain indoors when air raid sirens sound, Ismail said people in his community often prefer to be outside because they worry that the walls of their homes are not strong enough to survive a blast.

As an Arab citizen of Israel, he said, “you exist and are invisible at the same time.”

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