clock menu more-arrow no yes
A restaurant that was damaged in rioting in Israel’s Mediterranean city of Bat Yam on May 13.
Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images

Israel’s unraveling

The wave of riots sweeping Israeli cities reflects the damage done by a decade of divisive right-wing government.

Bat Yam is an Israeli seaside suburb, nestled just south of Tel Aviv. It’s primarily known for its pretty beachfront.

On Wednesday night, Bat Yam erupted in violence. A mob of Jewish extremists surrounded a man they presumed was an Arab and pummeled him mercilessly. Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, aired live footage of the unnamed man being beaten with a flagpole flying the Israeli flag.

“We are watching a lynching,” Kan reporter Daniel Elazar said during the broadcast.

What happened in Bat Yam is not an isolated incident. The current fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza has led to an eruption of violence in Israeli cities, with dueling Jewish and Arab mobs roaming the streets, destroying property and beating innocents.

In the city of Lod, the epicenter of the communal violence, an armed Arab mob torched three synagogues on Tuesday. In retaliation, Jewish mobs lit Arab buildings aflame on Wednesday. The violence has continued since, in Lod and other places like Bat Yam. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that troops may be deployed to quell the fighting, a striking threat given that Israel is currently at war in Gaza.

While fighting between Israel and Hamas is unfortunately common, this kind of street violence inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders is not. Nothing at this scale happened in the prior three Gaza wars; in fact, nothing like this has happened since a wave of ethnic rioting in October 2000. Even then, the centers of the current violence — so-called “mixed cities” like Lod, with high proportions of both Arab and Jewish citizens — were relatively calm.

“I don’t think that, since the creation of the state of Israel, we’ve seen this kind of domestic violence,” Ami Ayalon, the former director of the Shin Bet (Israel’s FBI equivalent), tells me. “We are not far from ... not a civil war, but a level of violence that I don’t know if we can control.”

Ultimately, the current violence is the result of the longstanding marginalization of Israel’s Arab minority.

Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population, have in some ways grown more integrated with their Jewish neighbors in recent years. But at the same time, the Israeli Jewish leadership has grown more right-wing and nakedly racist, with Netanyahu labeling the Arab political parties an “existential threat” in 2019 and subsequently choosing to partner with the Jewish supremacist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) in the March 2021 elections.

His government passed a law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in 2018, implicitly defining Arabs as second-class citizens. The government has largely ignored festering problems in the Arab community, including longstanding discrimination and poverty, leading to the rise of Arab organized crime and a shocking spike in murders.

And Netanyahu’s decision to allow the continued Jewish colonization of the West Bank — territory meant to be part of a future, sovereign Palestinian state — has convinced large numbers of Arabs, many of whom identify as “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” that the state is incapable of seeing them as full and equal citizens.

“If I had to sum it up in one sentence: Yes, Netanyahu is completely to blame,” said Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank.

The violence on Israeli streets during this conflict represents all of these trends coming to a head. It is the toxic intersection of the enduring problem of Arab Israelis’ marginal status and the past 12 years of rule by a hard-right government — one that has done its best to fray the ties that bind Israel’s diverse society together.

An Israeli man looks inside a synagogue after it was set on fire in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, Israel, on May 14, during clashes between Israeli far-right extremists and Arab Israelis.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

How Arabs became Israeli

Prior to Israel’s creation, communal violence between Jewish immigrants and Arabs residents was far from unheard of.

In 1921, mobs of Arabs in the city of Jaffa attacked Jews, fearing that Jewish immigration to the then-British colony of Palestine would displace them — sparking Jewish retaliation. British colonial authorities dispersed the Arab mobs with gunfire; by the end of it, about 100 people had died.

The underlying cause of this conflict, as is typically the case, was dual claims to the land. Most of the Jews coming to Palestine were European migrants looking to carve out a space free from persecution. Indigenous Arabs saw these migrants’ dream of a Jewish state as a threat to their own status.

In theory, the creation of Israel was supposed to resolve this conflict: The 1947 UN plan for the land partitioned what’s now Israel into two similarly sized blocs, one for Jews and one for Arabs.

The United Nations plan for the partition of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate, showing areas designated for Jews and Palestinian Arabs, from 1947.
Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty images

But by the time Israel formally declared independence in 1948, the partition plan had collapsed into bloody Arab-Jewish fighting — both armed warfare and communal rioting. By the end of the fighting, roughly 700,000 Palestinians had been displaced — a shattering event that Palestinians today refer to as the “Nakba,” or catastrophe.

But over 150,000 Arabs remained inside Israeli-controlled territory, posing a question for Israel’s founders: How should a Jewish state treat non-Jews inside its territory? For many years, the answer was “not well”: Until 1966, much of Israel’s Arab population was formally placed under military rule and subjected to formal legal discrimination. But that year, Israel ended military rule and opened up Israeli life to Arabs — who have since become a significant part of Israeli society.

Many Arab citizens of Israel still live in separate communities; as a whole, they suffer from discrimination and structural disadvantage. About 36 percent of Arabs live under the poverty line, compared with about 18 percent of Jewish Israelis. Israel has one of the highest rates of college attainment in the world, but only 9 percent of Arab Israeli men have an undergraduate degree.

Discriminatory land use laws and communally motivated development — Jews moving into heavily Arab neighborhoods like Tel Aviv’s Jaffa in a bid to change the demographics — make them feel under siege and alienated from the state. A 2020 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a nonpartisan think tank, found that only 35 percent of Arabs agreed “the regime in Israel is democratic toward Arab citizens.”

People walking on April 21 in the old Mediterranean coastal city of Jaffa, known as Yafo in Hebrew and Yafa in Arabic, in northern Israel.
Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Yet in other ways, Arab Israelis have increasingly become integrated with mainstream Israeli society. Jews and Arabs have more contact than ever before, and surveys find increasing evidence that Jews and Arabs see each other as citizens engaged in a shared endeavor. The IDI poll found that 81 percent of Arabs believe that “most Arab citizens of Israel want to integrate into Israeli society and be part of it.”

And outright communal violence between Jews and Arabs has been rare. The October 2000 riots began with pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the very beginning of the Second Intifada — the bloodiest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in modern history. For the rest of that war, and during all subsequent wars, Jewish and Arab citizens have lived together inside Israel — not in harmony, exactly, but in relative peace.

Until last week.

How the riots happened

The violence of the past week does not have one single cause. It’s the convergence of multiple trends and events at one time, a kind of perfect storm that produced the current cycle of violence.

And Netanyahu, more than anyone else, bears responsibility for this dark convergence.

First, and most obviously, the past few years of Israeli politics have seen an increase in anti-Arab incitement. During the 2015 elections, for example, Netanyahu ran a nakedly discriminatory campaign — warning his Jewish followers that Arabs were coming out “in droves.”

His governing coalitions have included anti-Arab politicians like Avigdor Lieberman, who has proposed transferring parts of the Arab population out of Israel and into a hypothetical Palestinian state. Racist organizations like Lehava, whose members were recently seen chanting “Death to Arabs” on Jerusalem’s streets, have grown in strength; far-right Jewish terrorists have been emboldened.

The rising anti-Arab incitement is reflected in legislation. Adalah, a group that focuses on Arab civil equality in Israel, counted more than 65 discriminatory Israeli laws passed between 1948 and 2020. Of these, roughly half were enacted since Netanyahu’s current stint in office began in 2009.

A billboard by the Arab Israeli political alliance the Joint List depicts Netanyahu with a caption reading in Arabic, “The father of the nation-state law, says ‘a new approach,’ who is he fooling?” on March 5, in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, Israel.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

The most high-profile of these is a new Basic Law (the rough equivalent to a constitutional amendment) defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” The law had little immediate practical upshot but immense symbolic significance, all but explicitly slotting Arabs into second-class citizenship.

“The [nation-state] law says very clearly that a Jewish American has a better position in the state of Israel than me,” Aida Touma-Suleiman, an Arab member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) from the Joint List, an Arab political faction, told me last year. “We are not second-degree citizens. We are maybe fifth- or sixth-degree.”

The Netanyahu government’s anti-Arab governing agenda has radicalized elements of both the Jewish and Arab populations.

A 2017 paper by Sammy Smooha, a professor at the University of Haifa who studies Jewish-Arab relations, compared original opinion polling of Jews and Arabs in 2015 and 2017. On 54 out of 154 questions posed to Arab respondents, their attitudes toward coexistence had darkened (they only improved on 20). Similarly, 36 out of 94 questions posed to Jewish respondents indicated declines (with only four indicating improvement).

Smooha’s conclusion was clear: “The government policy of de-democratization and widening the divide [between] Arabs and Jews has succeeded.”

Under conditions of worsening mistrust, Jewish and Arab extremists alike are going to feel more empowered to engage in violence against the other group. That this happened at the same time as Arabs became more integrated into the Jewish mainstream is not entirely an accident.

Jewish right-wing protesters are seen waving Israeli flags amid a night curfew in the mixed Israeli-Arab city of Lod, Israel, on May 12.
Oren Ziv/picture alliance/Getty Images

“The attacks on Palestinian citizens in Israel are, in part, a racist pushback against their accelerated economic integration, greater political, cultural and media presence,” writes Yair Wallach, a senior lecturer in Israeli studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “Palestinians are more visible than they were ten years ago, and this scares the racists.”

Second, the Arab community has been especially unsettled in recent years by an explosion in violent crime — a problem the Netanyahu government has done little about.

After a crackdown on Jewish organized crime in the early 2000s, Arab syndicates took over the bulk of illicit trade in Israel. The result has been escalating violence in Arab communities that, in recent years, has reached epidemic proportions. In 2019, Arabs were the victims of 71 percent of all murders in Israel.

The crime wave has deepened the alienation of a section of Arabs from the Israeli state, which has failed to adequately address it. At the same time, it has made some Arabs — particularly a subsection of young men — more accustomed to violence and better equipped to acquire weapons. The riots in places like Lod were a depressingly predictable result.

“The deepest problem of the Arab sector is the problem of crime and violence. And there was no clear and particular government policy in order to solve this problem,” says Arik Rudnitzky, an expert on Jewish-Arab relations at IDI. “To some extent, we’ve reached this Judgment Day when the illegal weapons were directed against Jewish citizens.”

Third, and finally, the events that kicked off the current round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza — clashing over Jerusalem — were a dangerous series of conflicts that Netanyahu permitted to escalate. And exactly the sorts of things that would provoke Palestinian citizens of Israel.

In April, Israeli police in Jerusalem blocked off the Damascus Gate, a popular gathering place for Arabs during Ramadan, sparking protests. An attempt by Jewish settlers to evict longtime Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, inflamed tensions, leading to violent clashes with Israeli police. Arab youth attacked ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city, and Jewish extremists assailed Arab residents. All of this culminated in a violent Israeli police raid on the al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem’s holiest site for Muslims, located on the Temple Mount (the holiest site in the world for Jews).

The Arabs in East Jerusalem are, in many ways, distinct from the Arabs in the rest of Israel — for one thing, most aren’t Israeli citizens. But Jerusalem is important to all, the religious and nationalist center of the Palestinian imagination. The fighting in the city inflamed Arab sentiment inside Israel, which combined with a growing identification with the Palestinian cause — what Palestinian politics expert Khaled Elgindy calls “a new pan-Palestinianism” — to enrage the Arab population.

In short, there’s no single reason that the calm between Israeli Jews and Arabs has broken in such horrible fashion. But Netanyahu has been Israel’s prime minister since 2009; through overt acts and selective inaction, he pushed Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens apart — making the violence of the past week possible.

The unraveling of Israel

Firefighters put out a fire lit by rioters in the Hadar neighborhood on May 13, in Haifa, Israel.
Daniel Rolider/Getty Images

It’s not clear how long the violence on Israeli streets will last, or how it will end. But experts are already warning that, even if it ends quickly, the consequences could reverberate for years.

Over the past several months, there’s been a growing willingness on the part of Israeli Arab political parties to be part of the political mainstream. Ra’am, an Islamist Arab party led by Mansour Abbas, has been in negotiations with both Netanyahu and his leading rival — the centrist Yair Lapid — to form the next government of Israel.

Mathematically, both men need Abbas to form a majority government in the Knesset. As a result, even right-wing parties like Netanyahu’s Likud were warming to the idea of formally partnering with an Arab party as part of a governing coalition — an extraordinary and unprecedented development in Israeli politics. It was a sign that, amid the worsening problems in Jewish-Arab relations, some things might be getting better.

But the communal violence on Israel’s streets may have shattered this consensus. Naftali Bennett, a far-right political leader and a swing vote in the current Knesset negotiations, recently ruled out joining a coalition with Abbas — claiming that his party could not support the action (presumably, military and police deployments) necessary to restore order to the streets.

At a time when Arab-Jewish cooperation at the highest levels of Israeli politics seems more necessary than ever, Arabs are once again being excluded from the Israeli government — a reversal of fragile advances that could last beyond the current fighting.

“There have been seven decades of distrust and discrimination against Israeli Arabs and we finally saw these green shoots of progress,” said Michael Koplow, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. “I’m worried that is going to be eradicated.”

This, ultimately, is the situation that Netanyahu has created.

Even when he attempts to reach out to Arabs, such as by trying to include Abbas in his coalition, events set into motion by his divisive style of governance conspire to block him. His populist “de-democratization” of Israeli society, as Smooha puts it, aimed to pit Israelis against each other — scapegoating Arabs and Jewish leftists for the country’s problems.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours the city of Lod, Israel, in the wake of riots, on May 12.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

This has been an effective means of marshaling right-wing and center-right voters to his political cause, helping him in stay in office for over a decade. But it has come at a tremendous cost: an attack on the civil agreements undergirding Israeli society, the basic norms of mutual toleration and respect required for democratic coexistence.

The outbreak of communal rioting represents a political failure — an inability or unwillingness by the state to foster civil trust and restrain violent extremists. The rioters are morally responsible for their own actions, but those actions are a symptom of deeper fault lines in Israeli society.

Israel’s political system already suffers from a profound contradiction: It is a democracy for Israeli citizens and a military dictatorship for Palestinians. This dual identity exerts profound stress on the entire system’s stability. By pushing on the social fault lines within Israel, Netanyahu has exacerbated communal tensions in exactly the area where it is most under pressure by the occupation — Jewish-Arab relations.

As a result, the country’s social bargain is unraveling. And innocent Jews and Arabs alike are suffering.

Health Care

9 high-stakes issues the Supreme Court will take up this coming term

Politics

Germany’s (sort of) change elections

Interviews

Why America keeps turning its back on Haitian migrants

View all stories in World