Attacks on synagogues and archeological sites inside Israel are rooted in Palestinian citizens’ experience of weaponized ‘development’ for Jews only.
By Jonathan Cook
Published on Mondoweiss, May 21, 2021
Last weekend Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as “terrorists” those Palestinian citizens who have been protesting decades of state-sponsored discrimination. Vowing that “anyone who acts like a terrorist will be handled like one”, he said: “Arab law-breakers are attacking Jews, burning synagogues and Jewish homes.”
Netanyahu has been far from alone in his denunciations of nearly two weeks of protests inside Israel by the fifth of Israel’s population who are Palestinian by origin. They are the remnants of the Palestinian people, most of whom were ethnically cleansed at Israel’s founding in 1948.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who is usually seen as far more moderate than Netanyahu, has called Palestinian protesters inside Israel a “bloodthirsty Arab mob” and described their actions as a “pogrom” against the Jewish community.
Both have remained largely silent about the wave of even greater violence against Israel’s Palestinian minority, both from the police and armed Jewish far-right gangs.
On Tuesday the Palestinian minority observed a general strike in protest at the wave of violence being directed at Palestinians in the region, most especially in Gaza. There, more than 200 people – and more than 60 children – have been killed by Israeli airstrikes.
At the same time, the minority’s main political body, the Follow-Up Committee, called on international organizations to protect Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens from the combined – and seemingly coordinated – backlash by Israel police and mob Jewish mobs.
Adalah, a leading legal organization for the minority, echoed the Follow-Up Committee, saying the Israeli government was “giving a free hand to racist and violent oppression… Arab citizens have been left with no alternative except to appeal to the nations of the world to force Israel to protect them”.
In the main sites of confrontation, in a handful of what Israel misleadingly terms “mixed cities”, it is Palestinian citizens who have been paying the steepest price.
These cities, several of them close to Tel Aviv, are historic Palestinian communities most of whose inhabitants were expelled in 1948. Even since, the small ghettoized Palestinian populations left behind have been aggressively “Judaized” – in what amounts to a long-term process of Jewish ethnic and religious gentrification to erase their presence.
Danger of pogroms
The first death from the clashes in the “mixed cities” was a Palestinian citizen who was shot in Lod, near Tel Aviv, by a group of Jewish residents. All the suspects in the murder are reported to have been released after the police minister, Amir Ohana, was among the senior politicians expressing outrage at the arrests.
Another early incident involved a Palestinian taxi driver being dragged from his car south of Tel Aviv by hordes of masked Jews who beat him savagely in front of Israeli TV cameras and hundreds of onlookers, with police nowhere in sight. Earlier, the same mob rampaged through the town of Bat Yam smashing any stores that looked like they were owned by Palestinian citizens.
An organized pogrom took place tonight against Arabs in Bat Yam despite the fact they they all learned about Kristallnacht. Today, in my Haaretz article I wrote, "We need to see, what a blatantly racist society we have become." I wish I had been wrong. pic.twitter.com/lSeeFSLsQ7
— Louis Fishman لوي فيشمان לואי פישמן (@Istanbultelaviv) May 12, 2021
Despite Netanyahu and Rivlin’s claims, it is Palestinian communities inside Israel that have been in far more danger of pogroms than the Jewish majority.
In the balance of power, the state’s security forces are tribally Jewish, the government and policy-makers are all Jews, a large proportion of the Jewish citizenry own weapons, and the media speaks for its Jewish population, not its 1.8 million Palestinians.
In a sign of the growing dangers, the Israeli media reported this week that applications for gun licenses – usually available only to Jewish citizens – had risen seven-fold.
Ohana, the police minister, has suggested Jewish citizens act as a “force multiplier” for the police – that is, they should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. And footage has shown police and armed far-right Jewish gangs cooperating in attacks on Palestinian communities in the mixed cities, even as those cities were supposed to be under curfew.
‘Reload the gun magazine’
Like Netanyahu, leading Israeli media figures have been openly inciting vigilante-style violence against Israel’s Palestinian minority.
In one example, a senior TV anchor, Dov Gil-Har, equated the protests by Palestinian citizens against state-sponsored discrimination with historic pogroms against Jews. Earlier, he had suggested to his Jewish viewers – 80 per cent of the country’s population – that the solution to the protests was to “reload the gun magazines”. When challenged by a Palestinian interviewee, he added that he might use his own weapon on the protesters.
The constant message to the Jewish majority has been the Palestinian public are a menace and that it may be necessary for Jews to take the law into their own hands.
And this has been happening just after the violent far-right – Jewish fascists – made unprecedented ground in March’s election, securing six seats in the 120-member parliament and possibly a place in government if Netanyahu can engineer a coalition.
But worrying as the direct incitement by Israeli politicians and the media against the Palestinian minority is, it is being strongly reinforced by a much more subtle “othering” by Israeli Jewish liberals. They have masked their own incitement in the more refined language of archeological preservation, Jewish-Arab coexistence, and religious tolerance.
In official Israeli discourse, the “mixed cities” – with Haifa the showroom – have long been presented as rare places where Jewish and Palestinian citizens live in close proximity, offering a potential model for greater understanding and cooperation between the two populations.
The flip side is less often highlighted: the “mixed cities” are just about the only communities where Jewish and Palestinian citizens have some sort of daily interaction.
In the rest of the country, Israel has imposed strict residential segregation. Palestinian citizens are confined to some 120 overcrowded, communities where they are starved of land, planning permits, industrial areas and classrooms for their children.
But even in the “mixed cities”, there is no real mixing.
Before Israel’s creation on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland in 1948, cities like Haifa, Acre, Jaffa, Lod (Lydd), and Ramle were some of the most important in Palestine.
Israel’s leaders made it a priority to drive almost all of the Palestinian residents out of these cities during the Nakba and into exile, as part of a policy of making sure there was no educated, urban elite to organise political or diplomatic resistance to its ethnic cleansing campaign.
Today, most of the Palestinians in the “mixed cities” are descended not from the original families living there but from refugees who got trapped in them as they were trying to flee to safety in 1948. The Israeli army often herded the refugees together into the poorest areas of these historic Palestinian cities – neighborhoods Jews did not want to inhabit – while Israel decided what to do with them.
The descendants of the refugees still live in these deprived neighborhoods, typically renting from Amidar, a Israeli state-run property company. For decades, Amidar has denied them permission to renovate or improve their homes. It is usually only too ready to evict them if a state agency or Jewish investors decide these Palestinian families are in the way of a “Judaization” project.
Which is the necessary background for understanding the way the Israeli media, including a respected liberal newspaper like Haaretz, has been engaging in its own covert incitement when covering the latest events in the “mixed cities”.
Much attention has been given to the torching by Palestinian protesters of synagogues and yeshivas, or Jewish seminaries. The sight of Torah scrolls being evacuated from charred buildings has encouraged the Jewish public to conclude that these attacks were driven by antisemitism – a variation of the fear that Palestinians want to push the Jews into the sea.
Preposterously, Lod’s mayor compared these scenes to Kristallnacht – the notorious night of Nazi pogroms against German Jews in 1938 – as if Israel’s Jewish majority were not protected by one of the strongest armies in the world.
But there are practical, far more mundane reasons why synagogues and yeshivas were among the first buildings attacked in Lod.
Settler outposts in Israel
Over the past three decades, Israel’s main effort to “Judaize” the “mixed cities” has been waged through a religious war of attrition. A section of the settler population has been encouraged to “redirect” their attention from the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel. They have slowly encroached into the “mixed cities” as local municipalities and state agencies have lured them with special funding for their extremist seminaries and synagogues.
Homes and land are being taken over in Palestinian neighborhoods to house these new fanatical outposts of the main West Bank settlements inside Israel.
That has had very damaging consequences. The religious extremists have tried to whip up more nationalist sentiments among the local Jewish population of the mixed cities, increasing tensions with Palestinian neighbors. Just as is happening in East Jerusalem’s Old City, these Jewish religious fanatics are seeking to drive Palestinian families out of their own communities.
For years there has been especial anger in Jaffa about the takeover by Jewish religious extremists of the Palestinian parts of the city. That culminated weeks before the current clashes with an attack by two brothers on the head of a yeshiva there.
Even the Israeli court that examined the indictment against the brothers ultimately rejected police claims that the attack was antisemitic. Like many other families, the brothers have been fighting eviction from their home by a government agency. The attack reflected their anger that religious extremists are seeking out, and being offered, new properties in their neighborhood.
Following the incident, Palestinian families held a demonstration chanting: “Jaffa for Jaffans, settlers out.”
The huge resentment among Palestinians in the “mixed cities” towards these new religious occupiers can be explained by the urgent desire for self-preservation, not antisemitism.
‘Barbarians at the gate’
Similarly, the Israeli media have been aghast at the attacks on important archeological sites in places like Acre and Lod. The media’s barely veiled thesis is that these attacks have revealed Palestinian citizens to be, as Israeli Jews long suspected, barbarians at the gate. The impression has been cultivated that the minority’s behavior is little different from the Taliban blowing up the Buddhist Bamiyan statues.
Last week the Israel Antiquities Authority’s chief scientist, Gideon Avni, told Haaretz: “In Acre, an entire life’s work, meant to capture world attention through its archaeological value, went down the drain. In Lod, they [Palestinian residents] tried to destroy the attempt to empower and lift up the city as a center of antiquities.”
But again, there are good practical reasons why Palestinian residents of the “mixed cities”, especially in Lod and Acre, would be targeting archeological sites.
The Palestinian cities now defined as “mixed” are mostly located next to or over Roman, Crusader and Mumlak ruins.
Israel destroyed the Palestinian character of these communities from 1948 onward by expelling most of the Palestinian population, and then gradually Judaizing them as public spaces. Archeology, like religion, has been weaponized against the Palestinian inhabitants of the “mixed cities” to assist in their erasure.
Archeology theme parks
Israel’s politicization of archeology has focused on layers of history unrelated to, and meant to overshadow, its recent Arab Palestinian past. Further, archeological preservation and related tourism ventures have become the pretext for yet again ethnically cleansing Palestinians from their historic cities.
The clearest example has occurred in occupied East Jerusalem, where the Israel Antiquities Authority has allied with a settler organization, Elad. Together, using highly dubious archeological evidence, they have been creating a Disney-style “Kingdom of David” theme park within and below a Palestinian neighborhood called Silwan.
The City of David site has been expanding for more than three decades, aided by the government and Jerusalem municipality. Dozens of armed Jewish settler families have moved into the neighborhood in violation of international law.
In the latest development, Israel is preparing to evict many dozens of Palestinians in the coming weeks as it expands the City of David.
It was these moves that in part fueled the tensions that sparked the current Palestinian protests inside Israel and the rocket fire from Gaza.
Lod mosaic attacked
Watching Silwan’s long-running oppression through archeology, Palestinians in the “mixed cities” have seen a strong echo of their own experiences. The main difference is that the archeological assault inside Israel focuses not only on Jewish history but embraces any historical period that distracts from Palestinian heritage.
Israel has misleadingly sold these archeological projects as “tourism development” and “urban renewal”, often claiming they are designed to improve “Jewish-Arab relations”.
One of the targets of the current protests was a soon-to-be-opened museum for the Lod Mosaic, a world-renowned, almost complete Roman mosaic found in 1996. It had been traveling the world until belated funding meant it could be housed in a poor Palestinian-majority neighborhood next to the old city where it was unearthed.
Although the mosaic was unharmed in last week’s attack, the new building’s glass frontage was smashed.
The residents’ resentment towards the new Lod Museum needs to be understood in two contexts: decades of obscuring the Palestinian heritage of Lod, as well as the visibility of its current Palestinian population; and the investment by Israeli authorities in projects to bring tourists to Lod, even as they continue to neglect local Palestinian residents, who suffer from high levels of poverty.
Lod’s old city was mostly destroyed in the 1950s to erase its Palestinian character. The streets, even in Palestinian neighborhoods, have been given Hebrew names.
Lod municipality recently unveiled plans to renovate another historic site, a Mamluk khan that was used as the city’s main market until 1948. Over the heads of the local population, it is due to be turned into a Judaized cultural space, housing cafes and arts and crafts shops.
And as with Silwan, Lod is developing local tour programs – sometimes in coordination with incoming settler populations – that highlight an ancient Jewish heritage and ignore the city’s Palestinian past and present.
Or as a report from Emek Shaveh, an Israeli organization of dissident archeologists, recently concluded: “The city of Lod thus erases once again the city’s glorious heritage and views its Arab residents as a nuisance.”
Families face eviction
In Acre, archeology has become an even more overt weapon to be used against the local Palestinian population. Since 1948, they have been largely confined to the seafront old city, where they were long ignored and mired in poverty.
But while the United Nations’ decision to designate the old city a World Heritage Site 20 years ago came to the rescue of the ancient buildings there, it did little to help the local inhabitants. In fact, their situation has become even more precarious as Israel, Jewish investors and foreign countries have poured money into the old city’s “development”.
Overseeing these projects are the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Acre Development Corporation, neither of which have consulted with the local or national Palestinian leaderships in Israel.
Gideon Avni, of the Antiquities Authority, told the Haaretz newspaper: “These symbols [in Acre] are being destroyed in front of our eyes.” Another unnamed expert echoed him: “Gangs of looters have systematically destroyed property after property.”
One of the main targets in Acre was the Antiquities Authority’s conservation center, supported by the Italian government.
The old city of Acre was built in the 18th century by a Palestinian ruler, Daher el-Omar, atop the ruins of an earlier Crusader city. But the Israeli authorities have been sidelining this important Palestinian layer – just as it has excluded the local Palestinian population – to encourage tourists to head into the underground, Crusader Acre.
Even when Palestinian heritage is being preserved in Acre, it has been repackaged as “Ottoman” – presented to Israeli Jews and tourists as a legacy of Turkish colonial influence rather than as the cultural and architectural artifacts of local Palestinians who lived under Ottoman rule.
One of the most visible Palestinian buildings is the well-preserved Khan al-Umdan, once the city’s main market, located in the harbor.
It has been sealed off for years as the Development Corporation has been finding investors to turn it into a luxury hotel. Palestinian families living in the warrens of alleys around the khan are facing eviction so as not to detract from the new ambience the Israeli authorities hope to create for tourists.
Disneyfication of Acre
Aiding this process have been wealthy Jewish investors, such as Uri Jeremias. They have been the driving force behind the gentrification of Acre’s old city above ground to take advantage of the new tourism. Jeremias’s small empire started with a fish restaurant on the seafront and has expanded to include a popular ice cream parlor and an ambitious hotel called the Efendi.
As the name suggests, the Efendi has contributed to the Disneyfication of Acre, remaking some of the old city’s most impressive Palestinian buildings into a hotel where tourists can experience generic “Ottoman” splendor, shielded from the poverty outside and from any trace of meaningful Palestinian heritage.
It is not surprising that Jeremias’s properties were also attacked, as was another hotel, the Arabesque.
In a fawning portrait in the Haaretz newspaper, Evan Fallenberg, owner of the Arabesque, was able to present his hotel as simply a site of cultural and economic renewal, and a symbol of “Jewish-Arab coexistence”. He called it “a labor of love shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike”.
Referring to his assumptions about Acre as a “model of successful coexistence”, Fallenberg added: “What gave me hope over the past few years is that this was some kind of microcosm of what could happen in this country, and it’s in danger of being lost now.”
Illusion of coexistence
But that coexistence model in the “mixed cities” was always an illusion, one that the protests finally served to smash. Coexistence worked for only one ethnic group only, Jews. It was built on the continuing Judaization of these historic Palestinian communities to erase their Palestinian heritage and drive out their Palestinian populations.
Tourism and archeological preservation were simply more convenient, image-conscious ways to go about Judaization in the 21st century. They attracted less attention and international opposition than Israel’s ethnic cleansing operations and wholesale community demolitions of the previous century.
By stripping out this context – of Israel’s ongoing Judaization of Palestinian communities inside Israel – Israeli liberals have only deepened the incitement against Palestinian citizens. They have confirmed the picture presented by the right, whether it be President Rivlin’s “bloodthirsty mob”, Netanyahu’s “terrorists”, or the mayor of Lod’s “Kristallnacht”.
In doing so, Israeli liberals have offered their own form of legitimacy to the rationalizations by Jewish far-right gangs for their violence against Palestinian citizens: that they are protecting Jews and Jewish honor, that they are averting pogroms.
In defense of a non-existent coexistence, Israeli liberals have thrown their hand in with the far-right, exposing the Palestinian minority to the very real threat of Jewish pogroms.