By Daniel Sokatch, International CEO of the New Israel Fund
Last year, around this time, Israel saw the worst intercommunal violence it has seen in decades. Neighbours in Israel’s “mixed” cities like Lod, Akko, Be’er Sheva, and Jerusalem rose up against each other; it felt as though the fragile world of mutual respect, shared space, and work towards equality that NIF, Shatil, and our project partners, have been working towards was crumbling before our eyes. But the shock of the violence in May 2021 shaped NIF’s project partners’ response in March and April 2022.
So many of our partners acted quickly to assess the situation, align staff, and advance a series of measures that have been crucial in keeping violence from spreading.
These last few weeks we have seen violence bubbling up once more: Four terrorists killed 14 Israelis, the last one taking place in the beating heart of Tel Aviv; rockets were fired from Gaza into Ashkelon; the IDF bombed Hamas targets in Gaza; right-wing Jewish Israelis attempted an illegal “flag march” through the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, with Kahanist leader and MK Itamar Ben Gvir egging them on (before being banned by Prime Minister Bennett from attending); the Al Aqsa/Temple Mount compound became the site of near-constant skirmishes in which Palestinians stockpiled rocks in the mosque and threw Molotov cocktails at police (one firebomb even made its way into the sanctuary itself, causing a small fire). Israeli police, using rubber-tipped bullets and tear gas, on the Mount, wounded hundreds of Palestinians. All the while, Hamas and Jewish Israeli extremists encouraged the escalation of violence from the sidelines. In the West Bank, at least 21 Palestinians also died at the hands of settlers or the IDF since the beginning of April—including a 14-year-old boy.
It’s a tense and dangerous time—the Temple Mount was the tinderbox that engulfed Israel in the flames of violence last year, and for me, the renewed tension recalls the events of last May. And yet, we may be nearing the end: Pesach and Easter are over, Ramadan is wrapping up, and the feeling in Israel is that Israelis and Palestinians may get through this holiday season without an even deadlier violence. (It is important to note that Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the final days of Ramadan, coincides this year with Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers—so we’re not out of the woods yet. But I hope and pray that the worst, at least for now, is behind us.)
It is impossible to say what exactly sparks violence, and why there have been differences between this year and last year. Israel has a different, if precarious, coalition government this year; not the hard-right wing one that was in place last May. A Summit took place in the Negev earlier this month, where representatives from Arab countries (but not the Palestinian Authority), Israel, and the United States sat together just before Ramadan. The US has recently become more involved in trying to defuse the volatile situation on the Temple Mount, sending Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt to mediate.
We do not know ma nishtana — what is different — from last year, but there can be no doubt about one thing: Civil society organizations — the organizations supported by the NIF global network — learned important lessons from May 2021, and worked hard to implement them to maintain calm this year.
Allow me to offer a few examples.
Immediately following the first two terror attacks — one in Be’er Sheva, and one in B’nei Brak — members of the Shatil-led Shared Society Forum worked to help Jewish and Palestinian leaders find a powerful way to condemn the murders and call for calm and continued Jewish-Arab partnership. After that meeting, the Hebrew University affiliated aChord Institute conducted a survey in which they found the 98% of Palestinian-Israelis surveyed opposed violence against Jews and 87% said that terrorists who killed Jews did not represent them. Yet roughly 40% of Jewish respondents felt that the terrorists did represent all Palestinian-Israelis. Public perception of Palestinian citizens of Israel as “enemies within” — and the media’s willingness to play into that trope—contributed significantly to the violence in May of last year.
But this year, Israel’s Channel 12 — one of Israel’s most-watched news channels — sent the truer message to the mainstream Israeli public: that Arabs, like Jews, overwhelmingly oppose violence and want to live lives of safety and security, just like them.
On March 28, two Palestinian-Israeli Hebrew University students were overheard singing a Palestinian folk song on campus. They were immediately detained by off-duty police and released only after six hours of detention and were banned from campus for six days. But their Jewish Israeli compatriots didn’t ignore this unjust racial profiling: Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together) led a solidarity demonstration and other NIF partners provided legal assistance to the detained students.
In the volatile East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where, last May, threatened evictions of Palestinian families from their homes served as a trigger for violence, things are different this year. Activists from Ir Amim and Omdim Beyachad have been sounding the alarm about the current round of immanent evictions, including by protesting together with the families outside the Jerusalem Magistrate Court, which — just this week — upheld an injunction that would prevent the eviction (at least for now) of the 11-person Salem family.
After that protest, the residents of Sheikh Jarrah invited activists to retire to Sheikh Jarrah to sit alongside the residents and share the Ramadan break-fast meal together, modeling what it looks like to stand for justice and to live together in a way that is truly shared.
Finally, in Israel’s “mixed cities”, Abraham Initiatives has been working over the last year in conjunction with Israel’s Ministry of Welfare (they held a conference together just this past March) to develop thoughtful policies that reduce instead of exacerbate economic disparities. In the absence of policies that are specifically tailored to “mixed cities,” the gaps between Jewish and Palestinian citizens grow progressively wider alongside diminishing Jewish-Arab cooperation—resentment grows, as does despair. And inequality, resentment and despair are critical ingredients in the toxic recipe for the violence we saw in May; we are so proud of the work that Abraham Initiatives is doing to call on all government ministries to develop their policies in education, culture, and urban planning for “mixed cities” especially carefully and attentively.
Our work to end these cycles of violence and build a shared, just, and peaceful future for all is far from over. As Israel’s military occupation over millions of Palestinians enters its 55th year, intercommunal resentment and distrust remain at an all-time high, and extremists continue to foment racist violence.
But it’s clear to me that the New Israel Fund, Shatil, and our partners are on the right path. Our work on the ground is laying the foundation for a better Israel — we know that future is not only possible, it’s the only way.