In May 2021 Israel faced violent confrontations on two fronts, within the common broader context of Jewish-Arab relations in the Israeli-Palestinian space. One front was Hamas-controlled Gaza, from which over four thousand rockets were fired at Israeli cities. The other was the domestic front, centered around violent incidents of various kinds within Israel (including East Jerusalem): demonstrations, riots, arson, Molotov cocktails, stone-throwing, clashes with the security forces, confrontation between neighbors, physical attacks – with casualties in some instances. The events within the domestic front and their potential implications for Israel are the subject of this article.
For the sake of order, the period of violence within Israel can be divided into four separate stages:
Stage 1: Tensions in Jerusalem, and their outcomes. This stage included confrontations relating to the Temple Mount and the area around the Old City’s Damascus Gate, clashes between Arab demonstrators in East Jerusalem and the security forces, assaults on Jews on the light rail and other places in Jerusalem, attempts by Jewish movements to respond to these incidents and confront groups of Arabs, the diversion of the Jerusalem Day march (the “Flag Dance”) from its traditional Old City route, and more. These events are connected with the nearly incessant tension that marks the month of Ramadan and Jerusalem Day. The tension in Jerusalem sparked the chain of violent events, gave Hamas a pretext to fire rockets at Israel, and spawned a rhetoric of confrontation on the part of the Arabs as well as some Jewish groups, focused on “defending the holy places.”
Stage 2: Arab Israeli riots in mixed cities and other places, and life-threatening attacks on Jews. These incidents took place in Jaffa, Lod, Akko, Ramle, Haifa, and at major intersections in the north and south of the country. The incidents undermined the sense of security of Jewish residents and caused serious damage to the fabric of common life. The police response to the riots was slow, and its leadership (as well as that of the state) seemed unable to grasp the severity of the events in real time. As a result of this slow response, the rioting intensified, as did reactions to it, including gunfire by Jews in self-defense: in one highly publicized case, an Arab resident was killed, leading to further escalation.
Stage 3: Retaliatory violent Jewish riots also erupted in various hotspots – Arabs were attacked, some of them innocent bystanders – and attracted wide attention. In one instance, a group of Jews attempted to lynch an Arab passerby in Bat Yam. The incident, which was filmed in real time, shocked people across political camps, but also sparked debate about the question of “symmetry” between the Arab and Jewish rioters. This debate added a layer of intra-Jewish conflict to the multitiered Jewish-Arab confrontation. The police commissioner was also dragged into the fray when he drew comparisons between the rioters on both sides.
Stage 4: Police reinforcement, restoration of calm. This process got underway once the police and the government acknowledged the gravity of the situation; the police were supplemented by Border Police forces, the Israeli Security Agency (Shabak) was directed to assist with operations against the inciters, and a temporary curfew was imposed to quiet the storm. Within a few days these measures restored calm and ended the riots, though high tension and mutual suspicion (stronger on the Jewish side) still prevail in the mixed cities. Jews living in certain areas say it will take a long time to restore a sense of partnership and security, and they demand that the state act to ensure their safety should further outbreaks of violence occur.
What caused the events?
This is, of course, the key question, from which quite a few practical conclusions will be deduced. It should be noted that the incidents came after two years of substantive and practical discussion on the state of Israel’s Arab population and its involvement in Israeli society, and that, based on various data sources, Arab Israeli attitudes seemed to be drawing the sector closer to the Jewish Israeli sector.[i]
The 2021 elections, which took place not long before the riots broke out, illustrated the fact that Arab Israelis lack political representation commensurate with their population share (due to low voter turnout).[ii] However, a split in the Arab vote in these recent elections indicated a change in attitude of Arab Israelis toward the Israeli political game, and a parallel change in the political parties representing Jewish voters. Following the elections, Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party announced that it would not rule out joining a coalition with other parties, including those representing right-wing views. This announcement expressed a desire to influence the political system, a bargaining chip aimed at promoting Arab Israeli interests. Some prominent right-wing parties also began to consider the possibility of partnering with an Arab party for the purpose of forming a coalition. Nor did the prime minister (Likud) rule out a political partnership with Ra’am. This was without a doubt one of the election cycle’s most significant developments, signaling a shift of consciousness and a sense that the Israeli public is growing accustomed to more active involvement of Arab parties and Arab Knesset members in Israeli public life.
It was precisely against this background that some of the worst rioting in Israel’s history erupted. Below are a few explanations that have been offered in this regard. Each explanation can, of course, be taken alone or in combination with others.
An outbreak of socioeconomically-driven frustration: Israel’s Arab citizens are – on average – at the bottom of the education and income ladder.[iii] They are chronically underserved by their municipalities, suffer underbudgeting in various areas, high levels of crime and sectoral violence. In the absence of political power and influence (for various reasons that lie beyond the scope of this article), many of these challenges are being inadequately addressed, intensifying the sense of frustration and helplessness – which sometimes translates into anger. Although the spark that lit the fire had nothing to do with these problems, the cumulative distress is what fueled it.[iv]
A release of pent-up communal tension: Much of the rioting took place in cities where Arabs and Jews live side by side. The shared living circumstances breed envy and competition, accentuate economic and other disparities, and in some cases create a perception (among the Arabs) that certain areas are being “Judaized,” with the concealed aim of Arab exclusion and depopulation. This explanation takes on particular relevance when one considers the event that set off the round of violence – the lead-up to final Supreme Court deliberations on the possible eviction of Palestinian families from homes that were recognized as Jewish-owned property in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Identification with the Palestinian struggle: This explanation links the violent outbursts among Arab Israelis to those of Arabs in East Jerusalem and Gaza. On the face of it, what happened in May was essentially a replication of the events of October 2000, when Arab Israelis engaged in violent demonstrations throughout the country as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed and the period known as the Second Intifada began. This explanation differs from the earlier ones in that the Arabs who went out to protest (sometimes with great violence) were apparently motivated less by their own problems than by a desire to solve the problems of those Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens.
Expression of the Palestinian struggle: Despite the apparent similarity between this explanation and the previous one, there is an extremely wide gulf between them.[v] The earlier explanation ascribes to Arab Israelis a desire to retain their status while helping to improve the lot of Palestinians who do not have Israeli citizenship. According to the present explanation, Arab Israelis not only identify with the Palestinian cause but also see themselves as engaged in a struggle against the “occupation,” which must be overthrown. In fact, those who hold this view assume that Arab Israelis have never truly reconciled themselves to the State of Israel’s existence, and that when the opportunity arises, they will try to resume the “struggle of 1948” – a struggle based on fundamental opposition to a Jewish state in Eretz Israel.
As noted, each of these four explanations, with their arguments and sub-arguments, can be taken singly, or as one of several factors, behind the outbreak of violence. One may assume that most of those who engaged in the rioting, looting, and physical attacks did not do so after careful consideration or on the basis of an explicit rationale. Rather, they were swept up in the mob, giving emotional expression to what was not necessarily a clearly defined ideology. However, it was obvious that the groups (both Arab and Jewish) that took part in the rioting were motivated by deep feelings of mutual hatred, mutual fear, and a desire for vengeance over real or imagined injustices. The fact that the events continued over several days and nights indicates the possibility that this wasn’t a localized flare-up of unbridled impulses, but a more fundamental matter that the restoration of calm left unresolved.
Main proposed responses
The diagnosis that identifies the root cause of a problem will also generally determine the set of solutions to that problem. In this case, however, there are a few elements common to all of the proposed responses. The two most notable of these are:
Strengthening police presence and response readiness for such incidents. This solution is not unique to the problem of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. For years the Israel Police has exhibited operational ineffectiveness and projected an image of weakness that overshadows all of its activity.[vi] This weakness stems, above all, from the neglect of the political echelon. Policing problems in mixed cities and, in particular, Arab neighborhoods and Arab cities, are well-known but unaddressed. The government bears considerable responsibility in this matter, but so does the Arab political representation. In the absence of any willingness to participate in the “political game,” the Arab Israeli leadership is unable to make decisive demands of the government. And more: the Arab leadership conveys conflicting messages on the issue of law and order. On the one hand, it expresses a desire for more aggressive policing in the Arab sector. On the other hand, it expresses suspicion and sometimes hostility toward the police, and frequently alleges over-policing of Arabs.[vii]
Improving the economic and employment situation of the Arab sector. The Israeli government has been working relatively hard on this issue in recent years, in the form of budgets and planned systemic effort, though the educational and occupational status of the Arab Israeli public is still far from satisfactory. However, it can be said that unrest of this past May is detrimental to attaining improved employment and wage conditions for Israel’s Arab sector: it increases suspicion, making it difficult for Arab citizens to find work in Jewish-majority frameworks, or even to function freely and securely in Jewish-majority areas. During the recent period of turmoil, quite a few Arab workers were reluctant to go to their regular jobs, and even if they returned once the tensions subsided, the persistent danger of flare-ups, and the mutual suspicion, could potentially overpower any mutual desire for cooperation.
The two solutions delineated above – effective policing and investment in raising the Arab Israeli standard of living, are technical fixes that do not proceed from in-depth diagnosis of the problem or from a given political outlook; they aim to restore calm to daily life, to improve the lives of all citizens, and to reduce the likelihood of further outbreaks of violence. From this point on, the proposed solutions part ways based on ideology; those who favor the first two explanations will, in essence, be content with the practical approaches laid out above, perhaps with additional measures (such as changing the Nation-State Law and others) to strengthen Arab Israelis’ sense of belonging within Israeli society. Those who feel that the third explanation (identification with the Palestinians) played a significant role in the rioting, will want to see a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict added to the mix, in the form of two states for two peoples (assuming that solving the problem of non-Israeli Palestinians will address the major concern of Israel’s Palestinian citizens). In contrast, those who are persuaded by the fourth explanation (expression of the Palestinian struggle) for the outbreak of the riots will turn to a different path, which splits into two main channels:
First: Recognition of the need to separate Jews and Arabs, sometimes completely – i.e., to find a solution to the Palestinian problem that involves as much as possible the separation of all Jews from all Arabs. This channel would promote such initiatives as a land swap, or the morally and legally controversial measure of transferring Arab cities and their residents out of Israel. At the same time, there will be those who also support efforts to separate the populations within cities, and to strictly maintain separate residential areas, which would, in practice, lead to separation of most services for Jews and Arabs.
Second: The futility of attempting to separate Jews and Arabs, out of a realization that the Arabs wish to abolish the right of Jews to exist in a national framework in the Land of Israel. This channel would advocate initiatives for the annexation and Judaization of Arab-populated areas, and erecting an “iron wall” of resolve, to stand for decades or more, until local-Arab aspirations of denying self-determination to Israeli Jews fade away entirely.
Of course, both channels come with their own problems, theoretical and practical, including ethical questions pertaining to human rights, political rights, citizenship, conflicting conceptions of Jewish morality, the abrogation of individual rights to achieve a social and political balance for the population as a whole, Israeli foreign relations and international standing (including legal standing), the practical implementation of some of the solutions proposed, and more. However, a clear look that penetrates the fog of arguments and counterarguments, proposals and counterproposals, will discern the presence of these two channels all along the timeline. They are favored by those who regard the 2021 Arab Israeli Riots as a continuation of the pre-state riots – events that attest to Arab unwillingness to accept a Jewish presence in the land.
Danger and opportunity
Interestingly, and perhaps counterintuitively, in the days when thousands of rockets were being fired from Gaza at Israeli cities, most Israelis were more concerned about what was happening inside the country than about the actions of the enemy outside. This is an important reminder that domestic dangers arouse more intense passions and evoke deeper fears than do external dangers – which makes them particularly worrisome. The delicate relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority, which have had ups and downs over the years, seemed to have been at a peak just before plunging to a low point unparalleled in the last 20 years. After the turmoil of the early 2000s, it took many years to rebuild the relationship; hopefully, an effort will now be made to rebuild it in a shorter period of time.
The events of 2021 embody a real danger of rapidly deteriorating relations between the two populations, to the point of a protracted “civil war.” Such an outcome would make life especially hard for an Arab minority living under majority rule but would also exact a high price from the Jewish majority in terms of its sense of security, its economic prosperity, and the need to take measures detrimental to the state’s international standing and relations with other countries. Deterioration to the point where Jewish and Arab “militias” end up fighting each other – something the Israeli public had a taste of at the height of the recent crisis – is one of the most dangerous and highly-charged potential scenarios, and the Israeli government must make every effort to prevent such a possibility, first and foremost by allocating the necessary resources and backing up the police forces, so as to ensure calm and provide a short-term solution to the problem.
But the recent events also embody a long-term opportunity, fragile though it may have seemed at the height of the violence. Jewish-Arab relations in Israel had embarked on a path of slow and gradual improvement; the crisis should be utilized to fine-tune and even accelerate that process. For this to happen, the Jewish majority and its leaders, in their effort to promote a speedy return to normal life, have the difficult duty of “repressing” their recollection of the events (and perhaps even their root cause), so that they can persevere with the improvement process. The Arab minority and its leadership must take the opposite approach: they must remember how dangerous the moment of erupting violence was for them, and how low their social and political status could sink due to a short-term loss of control. On both sides, it is precisely the justified panic over the potential severity of the events and the disastrous consequences inherent in them that could motivate the leadership to make more determined and comprehensive efforts along the path toward a life of coexistence. Perhaps the key to a change in consciousness lies in the practical implementation of such efforts.
[iii] See (The Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute): brookdale.jdc.org.il/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ARAB-2019-Facts-and-Figures-ENG3.pdf
[iv] Without entering at length into socioeconomic theory, it should be recalled that another dimension can be added to that body of theory: continuous quality of life improvements may have raised the expectations of Arab Israelis, making their frustration all the greater when those expectations are not fully met.
[v] This isn’t the only possible opinion. Avi Gil argues that the nationalism of Israel’s Arab citizens is intensifying because no solution has been found to the Palestinian question as a whole. However, he appears to feel that the sector’s nationalism will weaken if and when such a solution emerges. See: “Israel’s Confrontation with Hamas Is a Strategic Wake-Up Call – Opinion,” Avi Gil, Jerusalem Post, May 20, 2021.
[vi] See Madad website data: themadad.com/מה-הציבור-חושב-על-המשטרה/#.YKzC4i3XefA
[vii] See Madad website data: themadad.com/מי-אשם-במצב-הערבים-והמשטרה-כך-לפחות-הי/#.YKzDLC3XefA