Tamer Nafer, a Palestinian rapper from Lod, the Israeli city gripped in a paroxysm of communal violence between Jews and Arabs, thought he had seen it all.
At 43, he has lived through the first and second Palestinian intifadas or uprisings, the steady rise of increasingly rightwing Israeli populism, and a cycle of wars between the country whose passport he holds and his fellow Arabs in Gaza. Never before has there been such strength of feeling in Israel’s minority Arab community, he said.
“This time it is different, a kind of reawakening born of 70 . . . years of oppression,” he said, the morning after his hometown seemed to rip itself apart — Jews and Arabs who are Israeli citizens fought on the streets, as police and special forces failed to impose order. “In this country, equality is a technicality — this is a Jewish country, and its national anthem itself ignores two million Arabs and Christians.”
This week Nafer’s own anthems — such as Innocent Criminals (“When Jews protest, the cops use clubs / when Arabs protest, the cops take their souls”) — blared out the car stereos of young Arab men driving around mixed cities such as Lod, Jaffa and East Jerusalem, the background beat to the uprising.
With Israeli Jews and the Arab Israeli minority fighting on the streets and the Israeli military bombarding Palestinian militants in Gaza and Hamas firing rockets at Israeli cities and towns, Israel has in a single week gone from seeming safe, stable and prosperous to a country struggling with internal conflict and at war with unvanquished enemies nearby.
With nearly a dozen people killed in the communal fighting and hundreds arrested, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Right now we have no greater threat than these disturbances.”
The Arab-Jewish violence has challenged the Israeli narrative of peaceful coexistence and its assertion that all citizens are treated equally. Arabs, who make up a fifth of the population, say their daily lives are circumscribed by the bureaucratic and legal discriminations ingrained into Israeli law. Israel has dozens of laws that discriminate or apply only to Arabs, according to Adalah, a group which advocates for equality for Arabs and Jews.
Human Rights Watch last month said Israel’s system of governance had crossed the threshold into apartheid, discriminating against its Arab citizens while violating the human rights of five million Palestinians in the occupied territories. B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, made that charge in January.
Both groups drew condemnation from the Israeli government, which dismissed the HRW report as “preposterous and false”. It says its policies are driven by security considerations not race.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s a rightwing or leftwing government, it’s still a Zionist government,” said Tony Copti, a documentary film-maker who worked on the awarding-winning film, Ajami, about crime and poverty in a corner of Jaffa, an Arab neighbourhood. “This fire has been simmering this entire time — it’s like a bubble that the Palestinian citizens of Israel have been told to live in, but we can’t do it any more.”
The immediate trigger for this week’s unrest was a volatile mix of issues on a crowded calendar — a court ruling due on the anniversary of Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem that would have seen Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem evicted from their homes; images of heavy-handed Israeli police beating Muslim protesters at al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan prayers and an increasingly aggressive rightwing fringe in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset.
The al-Aqsa mosque lies in a compound — known to Muslims as the Haram ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount — that is sacred to both religions.
The long list of Arab grievances — from historic injustice to restrictions around al-Aqsa — strengthened the bonds between Palestinians within the borders of Israel and those in the territories it occupies, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Within days, Hamas, the militant group that controls the blockaded Gaza Strip, fired a volley of rockets into Israel, kicking off a conflict that threatens to turn into a full-blown war. This quickly fed into communal violence in Israel.
For some in the minority Arab community, mostly descendants of Palestinians who remained within the Jewish state’s borders when Israel was born in 1948, the scenes evoke attacks by Jewish militias on their parents and grandparents.
Jews have been profoundly shaken by the violence, which some call a “pogrom” reminiscent of their suffering in 20th century Europe. Arab protesters have burnt synagogues and Jewish schools. Dozens of Jews have been assaulted, hundreds of their cars have been burnt. Arab mobs threw stones and vandalised Jewish properties. A Jew was stabbed on his way to synagogue. “Civil war has erupted,” said the Yair Revivo, mayor of Lod.
Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin said: “The sight of the pogrom in Lod and the disturbances across the country by an incited and bloodthirsty Arab mob, injuring people, damaging property and even attacking sacred Jewish spaces is unforgivable.”
For Arabs, the violence got so bad Asma spent Eid al-Fitr, the day that Muslims break their daytime Ramadan fast with a feast, hiding at home. The 48-year-old mother cajoled her two sons into granting her an Eid wish — to lock the doors, take down the Ramadan balloons from the windows and hide at home in Ajami, an Arab neighbourhood south of Tel Aviv’s glittering skyline and inviting beaches.
Outside, the streets were deserted; inside the crisis was amplified by social media. On the news, and on their phones, Asma and her family watched videos of a mob screaming “Death to Arabs”, barely five minutes from her house. In another video, masked men with a Star of David on their army surplus fatigues showed off their stun grenades and blocked the entrance to a street she vaguely recognises. “Let the world see the ugly truth,” said Asma of the videos.
She rummaged through her drawers, and brought out her Israeli passport, used only once when she flew to Istanbul for her 45th birthday. “I should throw this away,” she said. “It’s worthless.”
For Nafer, the rapper, the struggle is not over. “I don’t want to coexist, I just want to exist.”