The upsurge of communal violence between Arabs and Jews in a string of mixed cities across Israel came as an ugly surprise to many Israelis.
Arab rioters burnt down at least one synagogue, and another was reportedly on fire, in Lod. Jewish extremist and settler mobs marched through Haifa and Tiberias chanting “death to Arabs”.
As Israeli forces traded air and artillery strikes for rockets fired by the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, called for “force, a lot of force” to put down rioters and close this menacing second front.
What lit this powder trail from the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem?
The flames of religious unrest were fanned when Israeli far-right extremists chose the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to escalate provocations in areas of East Jerusalem they are trying to clear of Palestinian families. They also intensified pressure on the Noble Sanctuary or Haram ash-Sharif, which houses the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, as well as the Western Wall sacred to Jews. Israeli riot police have conducted three violent raids on the mosque and its compound, bringing Arab citizens of Israel pouring into the streets.
There has been nothing like this level of unrest among Arab Israelis since October 2000. That followed Ariel Sharon, the late prime minister and settlers’ champion, marching under armed guard from al-Aqsa to Temple Mount, triggering the second “al-Aqsa” intifada. This time Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power party and a Netanyahu ally, tweeted: “it is time to liberate the Temple Mount and Jerusalem, and show them who owns the house once and for all”.
Conflict with Hamas, erupting into war in 2009, 2012 and 2014, speaks to a familiar if deadly Israeli-Palestinian playbook. But an uprising of Israel’s 1.9m Arab citizens opens wounds that add a dangerous dimension to existential problems about which Netanyahu and his allies have been complacent.
Netanyahu himself struck many of the sparks that lit this fire, with scorched earth tactics to help him cling ever more desperately on to power. On trial for corruption since last May, he has openly embraced the religious and radical irredentist right, promising to annex Palestinian land settled by Jews.
Less recently, he used social media in 2015 elections to sound the alarm that “Arabs” were “voting in droves”. The dog-whistle insinuation was that Israel’s citizens of Palestinian origin, although a fifth of the population, were a fifth-columnist threat to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu followed this in July 2018 by getting a so-called nation-state law through the Knesset, declaring that Jews alone have an exclusive right to self-determination in Israel. Ayman Odeh, leader of a coalition of mainly Arab leftwing parties, said at the time that Israel had “passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens”.
That law, and Netanyahu’s opportunist embrace of overtly racist anti-Arab groups such as Ben-Gvir’s, convinced many Arab citizens to fight for equal rights with Israeli Jews. Palestinians under occupation and the lack of a path to a viable independent state, are reaching similar conclusions.
While Arab Israelis enjoy rights their neighbours downtrodden by Arab despots can only dream of, they are nevertheless second-class citizens. Israel oppresses their third-class Palestinian brethren in the occupied territories, dispossessing them incrementally by expanding Jewish settlement.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel says: “There are glaring socio-economic differences between Jewish and Arab population groups, particularly with regard to land, urban planning, housing, infrastructure, economic development and education”.
Arab Israelis were also shaken by the suggestion buried in former US president Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” that around 350,000 of them might be transferred to the Palestinian Authority as part of a land-swap — depriving them of Israeli citizenship.
In 73 years of statehood no government of Israel has included an Arab party. Arab governments that have “normalised” relations with Israel in what looked to be a new wave of regional detente may now well feel it is time for Israeli leaders to start normalising at home.