Against backdrop of Gaza violence, Israel’s Jews and Arabs join forces for peace

The eruption of violence in Gaza prompted demonstrations around the world last weekend, with many condemning Israel’s air strikes while others protested the rockets fired by Hamas and in support of Israel’s right to defend itself. Across Israel, Jewish and Arab citizens have taken to the streets to call for an end to the inter-communal clashes that have erupted within the country's borders.

“Arabs and Jewish citizens of Israel, let’s live together,” read the headline of a Haaretz editorial on Tuesday. On Facebook, temporary profile frames used by Jews, Palestinians and others proclaimed, “Stop the war” or declared that “Arabs and Jews choose life” and “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”.

After Hamas and Israel began trading rocket fire and air strikes in Gaza on May 10, riots broke out inside Israel, mainly in cities with a mixed Jewish and Arab population, such as Jaffa, Lod, Acre, Nazareth, Bat Yam – and, of course, Jerusalem – resulting in serious injuries and deaths, as well as widespread destruction of property and much tension and fear.

The Israeli government last week declared a state of emergency in several of these cities, calling up 1,000 border police in a “massive reinforcement” to help contain the unrest.

But Jewish and Arab citizens have also taken to the streets in rallies intended to strengthen the fragile fabric of intercommunal coexistence that has been holding together peacefully, if tentatively, for decades.

‘A complex message’

“We prefer to talk simply of existence, rather than ‘coexistence’,” said Dubi Moran, a Jewish Israeli from Ramat Hasharon just northeast of Tel Aviv, who has participated in innumerable rallies.

Moran works with the NGO Windows - Channels for Communication, a grassroots organisation whose members include Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Jewish Israelis who work on youth programmes promoting justice, liberty, dignity and equality.

“I’m in touch with many Arab citizens and various solidarity groups. I feel their deep frustration and fear, and the hate and hostility that is bubbling up, and it’s very difficult. My only source of optimism comes from the actions being taken, mainly the demonstrations,” he told FRANCE 24 on Monday.

“I can’t just sit at home and lose hope. The demonstrations might not yet be quite focused enough or significant enough in terms of their results, but they’re still valuable. Not only must we not stop, we have to increase the number of joint rallies and add other locations, so it won’t be possible to ignore them,” he said.

The associations calling for the mobilisation of all of Israel’s citizens are many and varied. They include joint Jewish-Arab groups, feminist groups, organisations fighting government corruption, religious and secular groups, and others. Over the weekend, thousands of Jews and Arabs took to the streets in hundreds of rallies around the country, calling for an end to the violence.

On Wednesday, more than a dozen grassroots groups – including Rabbis for Human Rights, Women Wage Peace, Tag Meir and many others – plan to join hands to create the longest possible human “peace chain” in Jerusalem.

Jewish and Arab medical staff in various hospitals around the country have also been calling for calm and sharing photos on social media holding signs in Hebrew and Arabic reading “Peace”, “Continuing Together”, “All Together” or “Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself”.

“We are navigating a very complex message,” said Sally Abed, a member of the national leadership of Standing Together, one of the largest grassroots organisations mobilising citizens for protests calling for an end to violence.

“We also want to mobilise Jewish solidarity. However, many of the Jewish citizens right now are under attack, they are afraid and they want to hear a very equal voice condemning violent attacks on both sides. They don’t want to hear about the occupation; they want to hear about the end of violence,” she said.

“Since way before the escalation we have been organising people in Jerusalem and in Jaffa and in many other mixed cities – Arab and Jewish citizens – around many issues of shared interest. Since the escalation we’ve been able to organise dozens of locations of protests throughout Israel that call for Arab-Jewish partnership and basically demanding a ceasefire as well as the end of the occupation,” Abed told FRANCE 24 in a phone interview on Monday.

Abed, an Arab Israeli citizen living in Jaffa, said it was “absurd” to think an offensive in Gaza could ensure the safety of Israelis.

“Our message is that the majority of people who live here, Arabs and Jews, actually have the shared interest of security and of peace. And the idea that an aggression, that an attack on Gaza would actually bring security to Israeli citizens, is an absurd idea – and we are demanding a ceasefire,” she said.

'Silent majority'

Avi Dabush, director general of the Rabbis for Human Rights movement, said that a “silent majority” of Arabs and Jews wanted a return to peaceful coexistence.

“The silent majority in Israel supports a shared existence and strongly opposes violence. And it’s heartwarming that some of the people – even those who are perhaps afraid – are now saying, ‘No, we’ll go out and we’ll show that we’re the majority and we won’t give in to the minority – which is very, very dangerous but still a minority’,” Dabush told FRANCE 24.

Although not a rabbi himself, Dabush was raised as an Orthodox Jew and now lives in Sderot near the border with the Gaza Strip, which has been the target of hundreds of Hamas rockets in the past week. He recently left his home for a quieter area, where he took part in protests consisting of “mainly Jews protesting for peace and coexistence”.

“We’re at war, and I live in a town that’s been badly hit [by rockets], but what’s even more dangerous at this moment, to a certain extent, is what’s happening within Israeli society between Jews and Arabs,” Dabush said.

Abed’s Standing Together movement underscores that its demonstrations are also a criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“It really is challenging. Because we do want to build politics that unite us around shared struggles – we really do – we really believe that there’s no other way to end the violence permanently without ending the occupation and without … creating a government and a country that actually serves the interests of security and peace, social justice, economic security [and] economic equality,” Abed said.

Israel’s Arab citizens “are part of the Palestinian people”, she said. “That’s a fact. What happens there, affects us here. That does not contradict our willingness and our desire and our interest in being an integral and equal partner within society, and being Israeli citizens.”

Spontaneous cooperation

Joint demonstrations are not the only way Jews and Arabs have been joining together. In Acre and in Jaffa, Jewish and Arab citizens came together to clean up after the riots, repairing damage caused by rioters and crowd-funding for the victims of attacks by both sides.

And many of the protests have not been led by organisations: many have been spontaneous – with citizens, Arab or Jewish, and not necessarily together, standing at crossroads bearing signs.

Edouard Jurkevitch, a researcher and teacher of microbiology for Hebrew University in Rehovot, has been regularly participating in solidarity protests over the past months in Arab cities where gang crime has been rampant but Israeli police intervention scarce.

On Sunday he went to Jaffa, Jurkevitch told FRANCE 24, but few people were there. “So we stayed a few minutes and went back home under the sirens” warning of incoming rockets from Gaza, he said.

A French-born Israeli Jew, Jurkevitch lives in the central Israeli city of Ness Ziona, which has a mainly Jewish population. “We go to [the Arab town of] Jaljulia almost every week in order to support the population in their struggle against the local crime, and the lack of action of the Israeli government and the police,” he said.

Jurkevitch said he is not an activist but “an outraged citizen – outraged by the lack of consideration toward our Arab co-citizens”, emphasising that he simply rejects “the dichotomy of right and wrong and of ‘us’ or ‘them’.”

Asymmetry in police response

Most of the people interviewed for this article agreed that although the purpose of the Arab and Jewish rallies was to bring about an end to inter-communal violence on both sides, it was important to acknowledge the asymmetry of the police’s response.

At the end of a week of riots, 116 people were arrested by police – all of them Arab citizens. “None of the very violent Jewish settlers – very violent, armed settlers – none of them were arrested,” Abed noted.

Neora Yaari, a Jewish Israeli resident of the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramle, has long been an active protester, attending rallies four or five days a week for the past year.

“When you’re out in the streets, you’re exposed to everything. You don’t need to get your information from the media. You see the violence of the police, you see the inequality, you see the injustice,” she told FRANCE 24.

“I began by going to solidarity protests in [the Arab cities of] Jaljulia and Umm el Fahm, but I never really went to Jerusalem. Maybe I was afraid, I don’t know. At first I didn’t see the connection to East Jerusalem,” she said.

Jews and Arabs have demonstrated in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah for over 10 years against the eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers. The protests have grown and became more intense in recent months as Israeli courts deliberated the dispute, with a Supreme Court ruling initially expected May 10.

Abed, of Standing Together, said the presence of Jewish protesters in Sheikh Jarrah was especially important. “It’s import to us to amplify the Jewish presence there, because it usually de-escalates the police violence,” she said.

Yaari, Moran and others confirmed this. In early April, as Yaari attended a tour of the neighbourhood organised by Ofer Cassif, a Jewish member of parliament from the mostly Arab Hadash faction, she was injured by a police stun grenade.

“That made me understand the extent of the inequality,” Yaari said. “We always knew that there was a lot more violence in the other sectors of Israeli society, but I didn’t think it was that bad.”

General strike

The Sheikh Jarrah protests came to a head last week, when ultra-right member of the Knesset Itamar Ben-Gvir, in a move widely condemned as a provocation, opened an office in the neighbourhood.

The scuffles between protesters and settlers and police – as well as those at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City – were cited by Hamas as the reasons for launching the first rocket attacks against Israel on May 10.

The Israeli Arab High Follow-Up Committee declared a general strike by the Arab population on Tuesday.

The strike “is one step in a series of protest steps by the Arab public”, Taleb el-Sana, a veteran Israeli Arab politician and former member of the Knesset, told FRANCE 24 on Monday.

“It began with visits to Sheikh Jarrah and to Al-Aqsa and in the mixed cities of Ramle, Lod and Jaffa, then a huge demonstration with tens of thousands of participants in Sakhnin [north of Nazareth]. There will also be a general strike to protest Israel’s irresponsible and very dangerous policies under the government of [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who wants to set the ground on fire in order to stay in power. He’s sacrificing the people on his own personal altar. He’s trying to incite Jews against Arabs and Arabs against Jews.”

“We’re also promoting joint protest activities for Jews and Arabs under the banner of ‘Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies’. Because the problem is not Arabs against Jews or Jews against Arabs. We want Jews and Arabs together as one against Netanyahu and his government,” el-Sana said.

Yaari, like Moran and others, said she, too, began protesting as part of the rallies against Netanyahu and his government.

“But now, what guides the protest movement are the connections between us," she said. "Only light will disperse the darkness – we’ll get there, not by fighting against what we don’t want, but by fighting for what we do want. I’m now devoting all my activism in the street to what we do want.”

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