Anarchy in Israel’s Mixed Cities

The present riots are merely the spillover of years of lawlessness and non-enforcement of the law in Israel’s mixed cities. Erez Tadmor has the story.

Wild driving, firecrackers, frequent physical assaults, massive building violations and takeover of public areas – this is what the breakdown of law and order looks like in Yafo and Lod · The Jewish residents are worried for their personal safety, while the Islamist Movement is teaching the youth to fight the Zionist enemy · The collapse of sovereignty in the mixed cities – a report

הפגנה אנטי-ישראלית ביפו במהלך מבצע 'צוק איתן'. צילום: פלאש90
Pro-Hamas demonstration during Operation Protective Edge. Photo: Flash90

On the evening of Friday, 16 November 2012 – but two days after the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense – 16-year old Bnei Akiva counselors Alon and Eytan returned to the Lev-Yafo branch after having escorted their members home. They saw three Arab youths sitting with an alcoholic beverage. “Suddenly one of them yelled ‘Where are you from?'”, Eitan recalled. Within seconds, the chance encounter turned into a serious assault.

“Since I didn’t want to create unnecessary tension, I decided to answer ‘from Modiin’ and went on. He asked ‘Are you officers?'”, and we responded that we’re from the city and continued walking. Then he knocked me down from behind, he also pushed Alon who fell on top of me and started kicking us.

Since this is Yafo and we knew he could take a knife out of nowhere, we didn’t fight back and tried to escape. He cursed us in Arabic and continued to kick us again and again. He also landed a few punches and tried to put out his cigarette on Alon and didn’t succeed. We grew up in Modiin, we don’t really know how to deal with situations like this. We were in shock. Then one of the other guys who were there showed up and told the attacker to stop. We got up, started walking, and when we reached the street corner sprinted to the [youth movement] branch.”

The day after the incident, another counselor was harassed with shouting. When a police car showed up to the scene, the offenders were identified by Eitan and Alon as the same three Arab youths involved in the assault. “A crowd gathered, and while the guy who attacked us was being put in the police car, he made threatening gestures, to make clear that he’ll make sure to settle the score,” Eitan explained.

“At the police station were pitted before the assailant and he threatened us in front of the cops. He yelled ‘if it’s not me, it will be my friends’, ‘every dog has his day’. When we left the station the cops told us that they know some of these youths and they suggested we stop counseling at the branch and not go to Yafo for the next year or two. In the end, mainly because of the cops’ warnings, both I and Alon decided to go be counselors in another city.”

To preserve the peace?

The assault on Alon and Eitan stands out in its severity, but form conversations we had in recent weeks with dozens of Jewish residents of mixed cities, where Jews and Arabs live side by side, a very troubling picture emerges of lack of law enforcement and personal insecurity of whole areas in those cities. The situation is worse in Yafo and Lod, and though the situation in cities like Ramle and Akko are better, things are still not good and the potential for deterioration is great.

The problem in Yafo and Lod has three components.

The first is widespread crime and lack of respect for the law, similar to the situation in many purely Arab cities in the country. It starts with the drug trade, accumulation of weapons, assassinations and the laying of explosive devices, as well as lower level criminality such as vandalism and assaults on passersby.

The second is growing nationalism and Islamist extremism, which ties in with the criminality. Islamist radicalization has become widespread among Israeli Arabs in recent years, especially in Yafo and Lod. This has led to the abandonment of these cities by Jewish residents of means. In some cases, remaining residents are afraid to leave the house or let their kids walk around unescorted even right outside their door.

קליע שנמצא על גג ביתו של תושב שכונת רמת אשכול בימים האחרונים
Bullet recently found on the roof of a Ramat Eshkol resident’s home.

The third component is the police’s minimal enforcement of the law and the faulty treatment of ‘problematic’ neighborhoods by the municipalities. The many residents we spoke to mentioned massive building violations, takeover of public spaces, wild driving and shootings at weddings as just some of the crimes which the police and municipality do not really deal with.

The feeling among the residents is that the police and municipality are doing everything they can to avoid a conflict with the powerful extended families in the problematic neighborhoods, even if this means giving up on enforcing any law that doesn’t involve serious assault or worse.

“The problem begins with the fact that the police’s approach is to avoid ‘inflaming the sector’ as much as possible,” Dr. Moshe Elad, expert on Palestinian and Israeli Arab society from the Western Galilee College, told ‘Mida’. “The extent of building violations in the Arab sector is huge. There are tens of thousands of cases waiting for demolition. When they’re about to demolish a building they concentrate many forces, but with the little they do they see the responses, threats and incitement and then decide to minimize such demolitions.

And then you ask: are you allowed to illegally build in the United States? Will someone argue [that it should be avoided] because it will inflame the public? The police is acting according to the government’s instructions, and as far as the government is concerned, it’s never a good time to come down hard on crime. So the residents see that there’s no enforcement and continue to build without authorization.”

Dr. Elad continues, tying the chronic situation among Israeli Arabs to the recent riots: “Even now, after the incident at Kfar Kanna, you could still hear on the news that the police doesn’t want to inflame the situation which is already tense. The result is that they haven’t gone into [Arab] villages and mixed neighborhoods. So the police doesn’t go in so as not to inflame, but when there is no law – there is no law and order. You see this also with relatively light phenomenon like wild driving, shootings at weddings and also more serious violence.”

There were times when I felt close to rape

Residents in Akko and Ramle have reported similar incidents like those in Yafo and Lod, but they are far less frequent. Even though violence does happen, the feeling in these cities is that the police takes a hard line against crime, regularly enforcing traffic laws and showing a clear and regular presence on the streets. Residents also explain the difference by saying that the municipalities in Akko and Ramle are robust ones which work hand in hand with the police, encouraging investment and improving the city’s appearance. This as opposed to Lod, which has been run by a (non-elected) state-appointed committee for years, and Yafo, which was always Tel Aviv’s neglected and abandoned sister city.

“You can’t go on the street without being harassed. There were times, not many, where I felt that I’m close to rape but when I pass a group of ‘youths’ then they’ll either try to scare me or yell something,” Ina said of life in Yafo, describing how a simple drive can turn into a struggle for sheer survival: “…driving in the wrong lane is a daily occurrence. They don’t let people cross the street, [they run through] a red light. These are normal occurrences. The police see this and does nothing.

A few days ago, I passed Wolfson junction and when I passed the light, a car cut me off from the right, almost throwing me off the road. I honked at him and then he started to throw things at me from the car while driving. Bottles and other objects I didn’t recognize. I just stopped in the middle of the road and fortunately the car behind me understood the situation. It could have easily ended in an accident. After a few dozen meters, he just stopped and waited for me to pass so he could throw more things at me. I went to the left-most lane and somehow I got away without getting hurt.”

These events lead many law-abiding citizens to simply avoid or minimize their presence in parts of the city, avoid leaving the house at certain hours and live in an atmosphere of terror.

“We asked [the police] to increase patrols and their presence near schools and youth movement branches. There are groups of youths who simply act like violent bullies time and again,” said Sefi Masadga of the Lev-Yafo neighborhood committee. According to her and people from the Bnei Akiva movement, these requests were not taken seriously. “The result is that people very often just avoid filing a complaint. What’s the point?” Ina says.

Lod residents describe a similar situation, especially in the neighborhoods of Ramat Eshkol, Neve Yerek and the infamous Train neighborhood: “We dropped of the kid at the nursery and I heard a large boom. I didn’t understand that it’s a stone, but then my son said that he saw the guy who threw the stone. The stone hit the window. Luckily the window wasn’t broken. I called the police and the community cop left with a car to the scene. After two weeks I received a message that the file was closed for lack of evidence,” relates Reut, a Lod resident. This is an incident that took place a few months ago on a route parents use to pick up their children from education institutions. “That’s not even the worst. Our children are also attacked with curses and physical violence. I’m telling you about cases that sound like they were taken from 1939 Austria.”

Doron, father to a boy, describes an incident in which his son and his friend were attacked on their way home: “My son was on his way home from school with another friend. A few youths came up to them, knocked off their kipa, pushed them onto the ground, called him a ‘dirty Jew’, beat them up a little and then fortunately an older Arab showed up with a car and yelled at them to leave them alone.”

There were no less than three similar incidents in which Doron’s 10 year old son was attacked in Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, one of the most problematic areas in Lod. “This was the third time last year that they were attacked physically. In most parts of the city this is not the atmosphere, but in this area there are problematic points. For instance, last Yom Kippur one of the prayers left the synagogue – a synagogue that was rebuilt after being burned down a few years ago – and before him stood a fairly older Arab yelling ‘Jews out’ and ‘death to the Jews’.”

“Warning: pigs moving in.” Anti-semitic graffiti in Pardes Shnir neighborhood, illegally built but retroactively approved. Photo: Erez Tadmor

Yair Revivo makes order

Twenty years ago, Ramat Eshkol had a clear Jewish majority, and was considered one of the best neighborhoods in the city. But after the Oslo accords, the government decided to house 140 West Bank Palestinian collaborators with Israel in apartments belonging to Amidar, a government public housing company. As soon as they showed up, the neighborhood became a center of crime and one the largest drug distribution centers in the country. Pretty soon, Jewish residents abandoned the neighborhood en masse, until there were only 150 Jewish families left out of 900 apartments overall.

“Everyone who could, sold, usually to Arabs,” says Oren, a neighborhood resident. “A big part of Lod’s reputation as a city of crime comes from the move of collaborators into the neighborhood. When you talk about drug dealers and stations, you’re talking about the Train neighborhood, which is another problem, and the neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol. In 2009, apartments were sold for 100,000 or 120,000 shekel. Only people who really did not have the money to move anywhere stayed here. Only the despondent and the weak.”

At this stage a Garin Torani of some 70 families started to operate in the neighborhood, alongside a Mechinah which has 80 students. According to neighborhood residents, the combination of families joining the Garin, the establishment of the Mechinah and the entry of a new mayor – Yair Revivo – have all significantly improved the situation in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, the residents agree that there are still serious problems when it comes to law enforcement in the neighborhood.

When planning and building laws are selectively enforced

“Although the situation in Ramat Eshkol has improved in recent years, there’s no regular law enforcement when it comes to less serious crimes. Burning of garbage bins, illegal construction, music during the night, shooting and fireworks at weddings. A few weeks ago I called the Supervision Department to report construction of over 200 meters, two floors. They showed up, saw that there was a pirate connection to the municipal water supply, and nevertheless no demolition or even construction freeze order was issued,” Oren says. “In June 2014 it turned out that the large mosque invaded an abandoned store belonging to Amidar. A work cessation order was issued, and the mayor said that if here were no requests for permits, the expansion would be demolished. The bottom line is that the mosque expanded and the demolition order was not enforced.”

The reason, according to the police: they didn’t want to make a scene on the eve of Ramadan. “The mayor is from the Garin, I feel [he sees] the neighborhood as kind of a stepbrother, and he prefers not to make waves. If there was construction like this downtown an order would be issued and it would be enforced. Against serious crime, drugs and weapons, there’s a war against that, even in the neighborhood.”

Almost all the residents we spoke with believe that a major factor in the violence and crime is the policy of non-enforcement. “The reality in the neighborhood is not normal. There is no law or judge,” says Gilad, also a Ramat Eshkol resident. “Most of the construction takes place on Shabbat or the holidays when there is no supervision, businesses take over public spaces, [even] parts of the street.”

Sefi Masadga from the Lev Yafo neighborhood committee sees a direct link between the lack of enforcement of building laws and the spreading violence: “There are entire streets where you can see the taking over of private lands and illegal construction. We pass on notifications of illegal construction starts to the municipality and they just ignore it. The minute a Jew does this of course there will be enforcement but with the Arabs they avoid doing so. The inspectors say, ‘we act where we succeed, where we don’t succeed, we won’t come’. One of the biggest problems is the taking over of private lands. Arab families buy an apartment on the ground floor, they then take over all the territory around the building. They build on the whole garden, close the gate, connect to the water without a meter. It happens everywhere. There is no law or judge.”

בניין שנבנה באופן בלתי חוקי בשכונת פרדס שניר בלוד. צילום: ארז תדמור
Illegal building in Pardes Shnir neighborhood in Lod. Photo: Erez Tadmor

The wild driving intifada

The police policy of avoiding areas of friction has consequences which residents of mixed cities immediately feel. “We see Arab youths driving the wrong way down a one-way street at speeds that sometime reach 100 kilometers an hour,” Ina of Jaffa says. “The police doesn’t do anything about it. There are youths who drive with Xenon beacons, which blind everyone, they drive wildly, they don’t let pedestrians pass. I remember one time I saw an old woman trying to cross the street and not succeeding for several minutes. Until I came to help her and confronted the drivers she couldn’t pass.”

Sefi of the Lev Yafo neighborhood committee adds: “Today there’s a fad of electric bikes. The kids endanger themselves and the drivers. It also serves for criminal activity, drug deliveries, the police doesn’t do anything.”

“The more problematic youths see that the police doesn’t pay attention to the wild driving, illegal construction, the vandalism, so it’s clear that they feel that everything is permitted and the result is that they allow themselves to do more serious things. When there is no police presence, it doesn’t end in wild driving or construction but also leads to phenomena of threats and violence,” Ina sums up.

“The law needs to be equal. There cannot be selective enforcement,” Sefi says. “Despite all the murders and crime there is no camera system on the streets. That’s basic. The municipality has been promising it for years and nothing has happened. Parks are a target of vandalism. The minute they hear that it’s the heart of the city then there’s no enforcement or handling [of the issue]. The phenomenon of breaking into cars in the middle of the day is common. It happens. Crime takes place in the daytime.”

Islamist and nationalist extremism

“Stone throwing on cars and buses is something which happens in Yafo every week,” Sefi says. “The media chooses not to report it, but that’s reality. The city underwent a dramatic extremist turn in recent years.” Now, when the sensationalist media has found a definition for the phenomenon – the third intifada – they report every rock.

Sefi and other residents who remember events in the city over decades describe a dramatic change in Jewish-Arab relations in the last 15 years: “The youth of today is something else entirely. There are a lot of teenagers and young men over twenty who don’t even know Hebrew. Once there weren’t such things, the relationship was entirely different. Alongside this is the Islamist extremism and the result is what we feel every day in the streets.

Girls I remember my whole life being dressed just like us – tights and high heels – are now covered from head to toe,” Ina says. “It’s not that they suddenly became devout believers, they just understand that the culture has changed and with it the dress codes. My mother even saw an ISIS flag on R. Nahman of Breslav street.”

The Islamization the residents speak of is directly connected to the strengthening of the Islamic movement among Israeli Arabs. The movement, which receives huge sums from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has become the dominant body among Israeli Arabs in recent years. According to Dr. Moshe Elad, the movement invests enormous amounts in educating the younger generation in order to alienate them from the state.

“The Islamic movement is establishing itself as the body with the biggest budgets and largest capabilities in the Arab sector, primarily thanks to foreign donations. You see this in the number of people who show up to their events, such as the conference of ‘the al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger’, or even a group who sits on the Temple Mount and whose purpose is to inflame the atmosphere. On paper these are female students who study the Koran, but in fact they receive 4,000-5,000 shekel a month to be the oppositional force [on the Mount],” Elad explains.

“Per the Dawa strategy, they provide a long list of services: a long school day, medical services, dental services, summer camps which allow the parents to work. These camps are indoctrination centers. The children learn there that they ‘need to fight the Zionist enemy’ and ‘liberate the holy places’. The messages are passed on to the children from a very young age and the police does not deal with these issues. The long term damage is enormous. People who in the past were not devout Muslims, who didn’t wear religious garb, you see that they take it on themselves. The argument is that they are growing more pious, the truth is a little different. In order to receive the benefits, you need to accept obligations. One of these is that the women walk around with head covering and the men go to mosque to pray.”

The Broken Window Syndrome

The growing extremism eventually leads to undermining personal safety. A week ago, Bnei Akiva counselors found the movement’s branch in Lev-Yafo to be smashed, as they had many time before. “Before Rosh Hashanah we were in the branch doing an activity, and two 14-15 year old got on the roof opposite the branch and started throwing rocks on us. It’s not a particularly rare event,” described T., one of the counselors. “Two months ago, a group of female counselors was escorting their members and there was a group of 19-20 year old Arab youths who started to just beat up the members. Most of them managed to get away, but two ninth grade counselors did not. They were kicked, they were hit in the back. Other counselors tried to hold the attackers back and didn’t succeed and then an older Jew tried to stop them and then they started to beat him up.” A few days later the counselors found the branch windows smashed.

החלונות המנופצים בסניף בני עקיבא בשכונת לב-יפוץ צילום: בני עקיבא
The broken windows of the Lev-Yafo branch of Bnei Akiva. Photo: Bnei Akiva

“The counselors attacked in that incident preferred not file a complaint. Both because anyone who complains becomes a marked target in the neighborhood, and because the parents would then take them and forbid them to go to the branch,” T. said, mentioning the case of Alon and Eitan who left Yafo altogether. “We appealed to the Tel Aviv municipality to get an alternative building in a safer place. The Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality is strong enough that it can find us an alternative place but so far there’s no progress.”

According to Sefi Masadja, the non-enforcement of traffic and construction laws has a direct effect on the increase of more serious crime: “There’s just no enforcement. Everything’s connected, they want to show who rules. And people don’t complain because they’re scared. There are drug stations on almost every corner, simply because there just isn’t a large enough police force. You can go days in the neighborhood without seeing a squad car.”

The growing extremism which the residents speak of is especially prevalent during military operations or conflicts between Israel and terrorist organizations. During Operation Protective Edge, demonstrations in favor of Hamas and against Israel took place, with hundreds and sometimes thousands expressing joy at rockets falling on cities in the Dan region.

“During one of the anti-Israel demonstrations, a Jew on a bicycle passed by. They attacked him and then he asked them in Arabic why are you attacking me and pretended to be an Arab. They told him something like ‘ah, you’re an Arab, sorry’ and left him alone,” Sefi said of one of the incidents. “In the younger generation there is no more coexistence. It’s not like in the past. Among people 30 and older there is still a connection between Jews and Arabs, but that doesn’t exist among the youth. On their holidays, all the prayers are on the sidewalk; they show up with scooters and block the whole sidewalk. On Yom Kippur, Yafo is like Independence Day. It wasn’t like this before. 10-15 years ago there was mutual respect. Unfortunately it’s only getting worse.”

Itai, a resident of Lev-Yafo neighborhood, explains: “The reality in Yafo is complicated. There is a reality of coexistence, there is crime and there are a lot of nationally motivated acts of harassment. When I moved into my new home in the neighborhood, my four tires were punctured, and another time they spilled paint on my car. Since I established good connections with neighborhood residents – when it’s clear that there are also economic interests since we buy at their stores – then relationships settled and it stopped. But there’s no doubt that Yafo is a scary place. My children don’t walk around alone. There was a day when they punctured one tire of every car in the neighborhood. It was vandalism for its own sake. Shooting in the air, firecrackers, illegal construction, fireworks, that’s the routine.”

Gilad of Ramat Eshkol neighborhood in Lod tells how during Operation Protective Edge, Arab business owners declared a trade boycott of three days, and some of them refused to sell to Jews even afterwards. Anti-Jewish graffiti became a fairly routine occurrence. Gilad, one of the Mechina students said that instructions were that they cannot move around in the neighborhood alone. “The instruction was that when we go outside, we go at least in threes.”

אם כך מתמודד צה"ל עם הבנייה הבלתי חוקית שמגיעה ממש עד לגדר בסיס צריפין מה אמורים  להרגיש התושבים? צילום: עמותת רגבים
If this is how the IDF deals with illegal construction right next to its bases, how are the residents supposed to feel?      Photo: Regavim

The relatively good situation in Akko and Ramle requires further study by authorities. It turns out things can be done to improve the situation. The residents we spoke to tell of a high police presence, and systematic enforcement of moving and building violations. This obviously also affects personal security. “There’s less enforcement of building laws in the old city of Akko, but in the rest of the city there is rigorous enforcement and you can see that the city has developed very nicely in recent years,” says Rubi, a resident of Akko.

“There’s no such as thing as cars driving against traffic here. Here and there are nationalist incidents but I have no doubt that it’s not representative.” According to him, part of the reason for the difference is that as opposed to Yafo and Lod where the main friction is in mixed neighborhoods, in Akko, there is separation between Jewish and Arab areas: “Even in places where there is a mix, it’s usually more educated Arabs who are interested in improving their quality of life and not looking to riot. In general, there’s less friction and when there is violence, it is rigorously dealt with and the result is that there is great improvement in the city, even if the situation isn’t perfect.”

Ramle residents describe a similar situation. Although the neighborhood of Jawarish is effectively exterritorial as far as the state is concerned, other quarters in the city have seen coexistence among Arabs and Jews, and these show a sense of security and a feeling that the municipality and the police are doing their job. Despite the geographical proximity of Lod and Ramle, the reality described by residents of both is of two different worlds.

“In the end, the main story is the police policy not to go into certain places, ostensibly not to inflame the street,” Dr. Moshe Elad sums up. “The police doesn’t go in so as not to inflame, but when there is no police, there is no law and order. There are places where the police goes in and systematically enforces the law, and there the situation is entirely different.”

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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