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Israel’s Internal and External Battles

Ofer Bavly details new developments in Israel's struggles.

The recent violent events in Israel have two geographical dimensions and two separate timelines. Geographically, one focus of the violence is centered on Israel's southern region, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad launching thousands of rockets at our civilian population as far north as Tel Aviv and Hertzliya. The other geographical focus is on our own cities which have an intermingled Arab-Jewish population, such as Lod, Ramla, Jaffa, Acre and Jerusalem. But the two geographical dimensions also have a different chronological dimension. 

Whereas the conflict with Hamas, though decades-old, follows a known pattern of cycles of violence followed by periods of relative quiet, the unrest inside our own cities is a new phenomenon that carries a risk of long-term repercussions far more troubling for the country's social fabric.

In our region, there is never a "starting point." Every event, especially violent ones, follows from a past event in a seemingly endless chain of cause and effect. In the blame game, each side blames the other for "starting" every chain of events; but one can always go back a week, a month, a year, or a century to show that blame rests with the other side. 

It is the same with the riots and violence in our cities where Arabs and Jews have been living side by side for literally centuries. Despite claims by some Arab leaders that the Jews "arrived here in the 19th century," the fact is that the Jewish presence in the Holy Land has been uninterrupted for three millennia. On the question of "who was here first," the Jews have a solid case--but that is not the question. 

There is, in fact, a discussion about the exact moment and event that sparked the present round of violence between Jews and Israeli Arabs. Some say that the starting point was events in Jerusalem during the last nights of Ramadan and "Jerusalem Day," during which radical Jews acted provocatively towards Arabs. Others say that a legal real estate dispute in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was the spark. And yet others blame Arab residents of Lod who attacked their Jewish neighbors, leading to a Jewish resident firing his gun, purportedly in self-defense, killing an Arab citizen. 

Whatever the immediate cause of the violence, it has now spread to several cities within Israel with radicals, both Jewish and Arab, attacking each other viciously and vandalizing homes, stores and cars. Two citizens, both Jewish, were lynched to death.

The violence is not widespread and is in fact condemned by the vast majority in both the Jewish and Arab sectors. It is carried out by a handful of radicals on both sides, probably numbering in the hundreds or--at most--in the thousands. They are not representative of the general population. Small demonstrations are already taking place around Israel with Arabs and Jews standing together and calling for an end to the violence. Thousands have changed their Facebook profile picture to a multi-language sticker stating: "Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies."

But the underlying reasons for the unrest are troubling and, indeed, carry potential risks for further strife in the future. Israel's Arab citizens account for roughly 20% of our population. Muslim and Christians are part of our democracy but will forever be a minority. For years, for decades, Israeli governments of all parties and ideologies have done too little to make sure that Arab citizens are fully integrated in our society. While they do largely enjoy full rights and individual freedoms in Israel, their sector as a collective has always received less attention, less government spending, less investment in infrastructures and ultimately, they continue to feel marginalized and estranged. 

Years of neglect of the Arab sector have also meant less policing and less enforcement within Arab towns and villages. That, in turn, has led to a worrisome rise in criminality and a sharp increase in the number of Arab crime families who hold huge arsenals of illegal weapons. Those families and their weapons are now playing a central role in the riots taking place in Lod, Ramla, Jaffa and Jerusalem. 

That is not to say that all blame rests only on the shoulders of Israel's Jewish majority and its neglect of the Arab sector. The leaders of the Arab sector and their elected representatives in the Knesset have always made a point of opposing every government, on the left or on the right, deeming that support or indeed participation in government was tantamount to recognition of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state, something they refused to do. Their reluctance to participate more fully in the political game denied their sector important support and budgets to which they could have had access, had their parties used their relative weight and importance for the benefit of their electorate rather than in defense of the Palestinian national cause, for example. The desire of Arab-Israeli community leaders to maintain an autonomous, separate identity within Israel has often clashed with their justified expectation to be treated as equal members of Israeli society. 

Now, years of marginalization of Israeli Arabs--partially because of their own leadership and partially due to the government's near-sightedness--is erupting like a volcano in our society. Feelings of resentment that brewed underground burst into the open as a result of provocation and lack of adequate police action. It will take time to push that genie back into the bottle and resume peaceful co-existence between Israel's Arabs and Jews.

Thankfully, radicals on both sides are not the majority. Leaders in both camps are urging calm and a return to peaceful co-existence. Hopefully, the voices of moderation on both sides --along with more effective (and balanced) policing--will bring calm back to our cities. Certainly, the conflict with Hamas is not helping our domestic situation, but we all hope that we can return to normalcy soon.

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