The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Arab-Jewish violence erupts inside Israeli towns, a divided country may never be the same

Israeli border police on guard in the evening outside an apartment complex in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod on May 24, 2021. (Heidi Levine/for The Washington Post)

LOD, Israel -- Musa Hassouna’s family lived in Lod long before the creation of Israel, when it was an overwhelmingly Palestinian Arab town known as Lydda. But lately, Hassouna had been thinking of leaving, his wife, Marwa, recalled, “for a safe place to raise the kids, not in violence and not with all the racism that happens here.”

Right-wing Jews, with the mayor’s encouragement, had been moving into the Arab neighborhoods of Lod, which is today a blue-collar town in the heart of Israel with a mixed population of Arab and Jewish citizens. Musa felt squeezed. He was fed up with the underfunding of schools in his community and the way the government denied building permits to Arabs while Jewish neighborhoods thrived, and he was weary of the potholed streets and the unaddressed crime. The police, Marwa said, “guard them and not us.”

When Arabs took to the nighttime streets of Lod and other Israeli towns this month to protest the Israeli air assault on the Gaza Strip and the treatment of fellow Palestinians in Jerusalem, Musa’s anger had been building for a while, and now a fuse was lit.

The protests soon turned violent. Arabs and Jews in Lod and elsewhere turned on one another with a rage that shocked many Israelis and left them fearful that the country’s intercommunal relations had been permanently altered, if not sundered.

It was the worst communal violence Israel had seen in decades. In Lod, multiple people were shot in clashes among Arab residents, far-right Jews and police. At least five synagogues were torched or otherwise vandalized in the city, as were Arab shops, a mosque, a Muslim cemetery and at least one Jewish school.

Unrest rocked other Israeli cities as well. Near Tel Aviv, right-wing Jews who had organized via WhatsApp groups marched through the streets and attacked an Arab driver in what Israeli media dubbed an attempted lynching. In Acre, a Jewish man was attacked and hospitalized after driving into an Arab area.

Long-simmering grievances among Arabs — including over government surveillance, heavy-handed policing and widespread pressure not to display their Palestinian identity — erupted just as thousands of Hamas rockets fired from Gaza were starting to stir Israeli cries for retaliation.

While fighting between Hamas and Israel captured the world’s attention for 11 days before a cease-fire was reached, the rupture within Israel could prove more fateful. It has revealed an angry sense of alienation and a potential peril that many Israelis had wished away.

For Marwa, the peaceful relations she’d long experienced in Lod had masked the frustration of unmet demands.

“It’s his right to have gone to protest,” Marwa said of her husband. “How can we give our opinion to the state these days? By protesting.”

As the hours passed during that first night of unrest, Marwa didn’t hear from Musa, a 32-year-old trucker affectionately called Chico. Marwa frantically sent him WhatsApp messages. He wasn’t responding.

At 1 a.m., she typed out yet another message in Arabic words using Hebrew letters, the way they often communicated. “Chico. Answer,” she wrote. “Where are you? For God’s sake.”

In the early hours of May 11, Musa had been gunned down. Police arrested four Jewish residents of Lod who said they had acted in self-defense when a mob attacked them. A court has released them.

Marwa said Musa had been shot in cold blood. Although he had participated in the protest, she said, Musa had been unarmed and uninvolved as the demonstration turned into a riot. He had been heading home from her brother’s house when he was killed, she said.

Fate shaped by war

Under the U.N. partition plan for Palestine in 1947, Lydda was to lie outside the borders of Israel. But after Arab armies attacked the new Jewish state in 1948, Israeli forces set their sights on the town. It lay between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Israel wanted to secure the territory that connected them and populate it with Jews.

Fighting erupted at Lydda, and when it was over, according to Israeli accounts, more than 200 Palestinian civilians had been killed. Some historians put the number much higher. Israeli troops expelled thousands of the residents, almost the entire population. Only a few thousand remained when the war ended.

Musa’s grandfather and great-uncle, both young men at the time, were among those who remained. They had sneaked back in, reclaimed the family home — though most of their land was confiscated — and ultimately gained Israeli citizenship, said Musa’s father, Malik. Much of the extended family remains scattered across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Persian Gulf countries.

“We live generation after generation remembering that we are Palestinian, just with Israeli citizenship,” said Abu Muhammad Darwish Hassouna, a cousin of Malik’s.

Four generations of Hassounas now live in a family compound centered on a 120-year-old house that was once like “a palace” surrounded by their vast expanse of farmland, Malik said.

They’ve built a life inside a country that often treats them like second-class citizens — a status further codified in 2018 by the nation-state law, which deemed Israel to be a homeland for Jews, put a priority on Jewish-only communities and elevated Hebrew above Arabic.

And they’ve watched Lod continue to change. It is now a city of 80,000 and home to Israel’s main international airport. The population is about 70 percent Jewish, and Israeli nationalists, likened by local Arabs to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, have been trying over the past decade to increase the Jewish majority by buying or renting apartments in run-down blocks beside Arab neighborhoods. Israeli flags now drape those buildings.

In some cases, the city has funded construction and renovation and allocated land for Jewish projects, according to Israeli media accounts, while Arab residents complain their neighborhoods remain neglected.

Keren Eshchar, 33, a Jew from Jerusalem, moved to Lod three years ago and found the Arabs to be “good neighbors.”

“My kids never played with an Arab kid. It wasn’t like an ideal situation,” she said. “We had separate lives. This is what we wanted, the Arabs and the Jews.”

Noam Dreyfus, a West Bank settler who works in Lod for a foundation expanding the city’s Jewish population, said that until the violence this month, he was sure intercommunal relations were fine.

“I was convinced that I was doing the best [for] coexistence, not one with the other, but one next to the other,” he said.

Another family mourns

Hours after Musa was killed and rioting spread, Yigal Yehoshua, 56, a well-known Jewish electrician in Lod, was driving home from a nearby community when his car was pelted with rocks. He was struck in the head and did not regain consciousness before his death six days later.

Police say they suspect that the assailants were Arabs, though no arrests have been made.

Yehoshua’s family said that if people on the street had recognized him, they would not have attacked him. Even after he saw the news of riots that night, he was willing to drive home, because “he didn’t think for a moment they would hurt him,” said his brother Efi Yehoshua.

Efi said the unrest this month began because the Arabs reject Israel’s authority and turned to violence. “They have to understand that for anyone who lives in Israel, it’s a country of laws, a democratic country. There’s a framework, and those who don’t want to be in the framework can’t live in” the country, he said.

Like many Israeli Jews, the Yehoshuas say they find Arab grievances hard to understand.

“They are neighbors, literally neighbors,” said Efi’s daughter, Reut Yehoshua, 30, who has volunteered with Lod’s mixed Arab-Jewish emergency services for 15 years.

She said she doubts that discriminatory treatment had prompted the violence as some Arabs say. “I think it’s very hypocritical,” she said. “Because they live regularly. Nobody said, ‘No, he’s an Arab. Don’t come into my shop.’ ”

Repairing visible damage

Two weeks after Musa Hassouna’s death, the burned cars that littered Lod’s streets have been towed away and looted synagogues and schools are being repaired. Some in Lod are hoping that ties between the communities also can be mended.

“We have to return to the good relations. There’s no other solution,” Efi Yehoshua said. “Seventy years it was good. It will be good again.”

But many in the city say it is hard to see how life can return to what it was.

Yehezkel Cohen, the founder of a school associated with recent Jewish arrivals, said the onus is on the Arabs. “They need to apologize, and the people that did these things need to go to the police and the courts. After that we’ll talk,” he said.

The Hassouna family, however, says it’s past that. Something has snapped.

“Today, there’s no security,” said Malik, Musa’s father. “Like I’m an Arab, you’re a Jew. I could be sitting with you and someone could come from outside and shoot me and say it was self-defense.”

Malik said he still has Jewish friends who want to live peacefully with Arabs. It is extremist Jews who want the Arabs out of Lod who are making life in the city untenable, he said. Marwa noted, however, that even relations with her Jewish friends have eroded.

“Now, even the normal Jews that were our friends and we liked each other, all of their racism is clear . . . on Instagram and social media,” she said.

One of her closest friends is Jewish, she said. They worked together at a pharmacy chain before she left to have children. Since her husband’s death, Marwa avoids her calls.

“My son holds a stick and says, ‘I want to hit the Jews that killed my father,’ ” she said. “How can I raise him on peace, against racism, that we are the same as them?”

Sufian Taha contributed to this report.

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