A look into the heart of the Israeli experience in the face of more violence, dashed hopes, and inner optimism where we least expect it.
A few months ago, when the Israeli winter began to subside and the days got warmer and longer, our enduring cynicism raised its head. “Summer is just around the corner, which means another war is coming,” people started to say. That was the prevailing state of mind in spring 2015. The memories of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 were still fresh in our minds: Heavy fighting in Gaza, rockets fired into Israel, alarming numbers of Palestinian casualties, IDF soldiers killed in action.
It is the bitter punch line to an unfunny joke that wars in Israel invariably take place in summer. And for the most part, they do. So when summer approached, we all lowered our heads and braced for the worse. Miraculously, we were spared. The summer was blazingly hot, but quiet.
Now here we are, with the long summer finally coming to an end and the first rains beginning to fall, and the country is again besieged by violence.
It is a different kind of violence, as politicians, army generals, and law enforcement officials are constantly reminding us. Rockets are not being fired, soldiers are not fighting in Gaza, buses aren’t exploding, suicide bombers aren’t walking into crowded cafes. This is supposed to be comforting.
It isn’t. Israelis are not comforted by the current wave of stabbing and shooting attacks. We also don’t care for quibbling over semantics, such as the ongoing official assertion that this is not an Intifada.
Israel has been through two excruciatingly long Intifadas. The first one erupted in 1987 and continued until 1991, costing the lives of 84 Israelis and 1,593 Palestinians. In the first Intifada, firearms and explosives were not used. It was more of a grassroots operation in which stones and Molotov cocktails were the primary weapons. And it was restricted to the Palestinian territories, outside the Green Line that marks Israel proper. It was an attempt by the Palestinians to drive the military out of the West Bank and Gaza. Needless to say, it failed.
The second and more brutal Intifada took place from 2000-2005 and killed 1,011 Israelis and 4,944 Palestinians. The reality of those years is impossible to comprehend. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the two symbols of modern-day Israel—one religious and the other secular—were targeted repeatedly by suicide bombers. It was an orchestrated attempt to bring the violence of the previous Intifada into Israel proper. In this, it succeeded.
The current wave of violence is different. We don’t hear bombs detonating in cities, and the number of casualties is much lower, at least so far. This is cold comfort, but the only one we have to cling to.
But is does it really matter? Not in the least. Not for us Jewish Israelis who are the target of the surging violence. It’s true that knives are less lethal than bombs. But the nature of the current attacks, with their person-to-person intimacy, is more jarring. It is a difficult distinction to deal with, but an important one to understand: Attempting to kill a person with a knife is personal. Whereas detonating a bomb, whether you are strapped to it or not, is declarative.
The fact that explosives aren’t being used in mass casualty attacks is undoubtedly due to the relentless work of the IDF and the Shin Bet in the years since the Second Intifada ended. Still, the frontal nature of the current wave of violence represents frustration, hatred, and anger on a scale we haven’t seen before.
Anger and hatred are contagious. When a person expresses anger toward you, you get angry as well. When someone hates you, your instinct it to hate them back. It takes enormous restraint not to fall into this pattern. And at the moment, unfortunately, Israelis are failing to show restraint.
This is not a criticism in any way. It is an observation. As we face yet another wave of terrorism, the memories of previous attacks echo in our minds and instantly trigger fear and anger. This is the prevailing mood on the streets of Israel these days—a mix of fear and anger. The two are inherently connected and feed off each other. Or more precisely, it is the anger that feeds off the fear.
When the stabbing attacks began it made us fear for our well-being. To be afraid to walk the same streets you walk every day, the streets your children play on, is a terrible feeling. It compromises your freedom and forces you to change your daily routine, limiting it to places and activities that you—completely on your own—deem to be somehow safer. This increases your anxieties, because you are constantly second-guessing yourself—what if I am wrong in coming here? The locations of the stabbing attacks have been random, making any assumption or prediction of the ones to follow irrelevant. Still, we keep on guessing: This street is crowded, better to avoid it; this playing ground is secluded, better to avoid it; the stabbing yesterday happened in this location, so it is okay to go there today. All of this is useless, and we know it. That is a pretty scary feeling.
This is where the anger is coming from. Of course there is anger directed toward the individual terrorists who carry out the attacks. But there is also an underlying anger toward the whole situation we find ourselves in. We are angry that we are scared, angry with those who made us afraid.
And this anger is extremely harmful. This is best illustrated by what happened on the morning of October 13: Two stabbing attacks took place in Ra’anana, a quiet city of about 70,000 residents 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. It was the first ever terrorist attack in the city, even though it is only a few miles from the West Bank. The two terrorists arrived together from East Jerusalem, carrying out nearly simultaneous attacks in two separate locations. The first one was on Ra’anana’s main street. The attacker stabbed a young man sitting at a bus station. Passerby and storeowners immediately rushed the attacker, disarmed him, and beat him to a pulp. They didn’t want to get violent. They weren’t looking for it. They reacted to a life-threatening situation. It is not clear whether it was the police who stopped them, or if they managed to stop themselves, but the 22-year-old attacker survived and was taken to the hospital in critical condition.
He deserved the beating. He intended to kill a random Jewish Israeli. He was stopped and severely beaten for it. That’s not the issue here. But the anger the bystanders had to summon up in order to hurt him so badly is difficult to digest. It is nauseating for us as Israelis to think that we can be forced into such a rage on a Tuesday morning next to our local café. And even more, it makes us angry. One can only imagine that, later that day, those bystanders must have felt immense anger at what they had to do.
But then it got worse. On the evening of October 18, another attack took place at the Central Bus Station in Beersheva. A lone attacker entered the terminal carrying a knife and gun. He shot a soldier, took his M-16, and started shooting in all directions. In the chaos that followed, the security forces mistakenly identified a refugee from Eritrea as an attacker and shot him in the legs. While he lay on the ground bleeding, the crowd took out their anger on him. They hit him with chairs and beat him unconscious. A few hours later, he died.
It was a horrifying scene, one that represented an alarming escalation in the fear and anger of the Jewish population. We all saw the footage on TV that night and realized that another phase has begun. We have completely lost control.
At whom do we direct our anger? At anyone and everyone. We are angry with the Palestinians; we are angry with the Arabs of East Jerusalem, who have produced most of the attackers; we are angry at the U.S. and Europe for not supporting us; we are angry with our government for letting this happen. We are even angry with Israeli Arabs, though the vast majority of them certainly don’t deserve our anger.
Any discussion of the current situation would be incomplete without considering the Arab citizens of Israel. There are 1.557 million of them. They carry an Israeli ID and enjoy equal rights. They are an ethnic and religious minority, but an integral part of the human mosaic that is Israel.
Now they are caught in the middle of a senseless cycle of fear and anger. Suddenly, we Jewish Israelis see them on the street, women wearing the hijab, men speaking with each other in Arabic, and we get scared. It’s obviously ridiculous. We saw them yesterday and didn’t give it a second thought. But today they are frightening even though nothing has changed about them. It is we who project our own anxieties on to them.
Well, perhaps not entirely. Two attacks have been committed by Israeli-Arabs. One was the Beersheva attack mentioned above. In that case, however, the attacker had a direct connection to Arabs living outside of Israel; in this case, a mother from Gaza.
But there was one attack that did tear at the delicate fabric of Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel. On October 11, a 20-year-old man from Umm al-Fahm, one of the largest Arab cities in the country, rammed his car into two soldiers sitting at a bus station. Then he got out of the car and started stabbing passerby with a knife. Voices from the extreme Right immediately seized the opportunity to try and portray the entire Arab population as terrorists and traitors. But it was Illan Sadeh, the head of the regional council where the attack took place, who came through. “Our area knew some of the most deadly attacks in the past,” he said,
And we knew, together, Jewish and Arab officials, to condemn and strive toward coexistence. I believe that also today, despite the atmosphere, all the residents know that these kinds of acts don’t contribute anything to any struggle, and that it is our task to work together toward resuming normal and communal life.
Sadeh’s words carried a strong message that resonated with events that took place just a day later. In perhaps the most disturbing attack of all, a 13-year-old Arab from eastern Jerusalem stabbed a 13-year-old Jew from western Jerusalem. The attacker was then struck by a car while trying to escape. The young age of both the perpetrator and the victim was heartbreaking. Each of them was rushed to a different hospital, both in critical condition. And in a bizarre turn of events, it was an Arab doctor who treated the Jewish boy and a Jewish doctor who treated the Arab boy. Both doctors expressed complete indifference to the religion of their patient; but nonetheless, it symbolized a sense of shared destiny that we, Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, can’t escape.
The vast majority of Israeli Arabs have no violent aspirations; they just want to live in Israel as ordinary citizens. It is enough to look around the Middle East to understand why. Israel, if only by default, is their country, and it has the potential to be a great home for them. It is quite extraordinary that despite Israel’s bloody history, its constant unwanted conflicts with neighboring countries and fundamentalist entities lurking at its borders—all of whom are composed of Muslim Arabs—we have managed to sustain a relatively reasonable coexistence with Israeli-Arabs. We’ll take half the credit for that, and give Israel’s Arabs the other half.
But it must be extremely uncomfortable to be an Israeli-Arab these days. They are looked at with suspicious eyes; they are being purposely avoided; they are being stopped and searched by the police. Some workplaces have told their Arab employees to stay home, as much for their own benefit as for the feelings they arouse in Jewish Israelis. Just as we are drawn into a cycle of fear and anger by individual Palestinian terrorists, we are drawing Israeli-Arabs into the very same cycle.
Unfortunately, the Knesset’s 13 Israeli-Arab members are going in precisely the wrong direction. This is an opportunity for them to rise to the occasion, to voice a reasoned and calming message to their constituencies, to stress the importance of coexistence. They haven’t been doing that.
Lucy Aharish, an Israeli-Arab news anchor and journalist, gave the most important criticism of the Arab MKs conduct during the recent wave of terrorism. In an appearance on a current-affairs morning show on Channel 2—Israel’s most-watched television network—Aharish, in an emotional monologue, said, “It’s about time someone from the inside started criticizing and telling [the Arab MKs] the truth to their faces. The leadership is flaccid. No one runs the Arab leadership in Israel.”
Sadly, she is right. None of the Arab MKs condemned the violence. None expressed sorrow or sympathy with the families of the victims. They did not call on their fellow Arabs to stop the violence. Their silence on the matter is bewildering.
Aharish was not alone in her criticism. In a candid moment that happened entirely by chance, Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam drove by MK Ayman Odeh—the head of the Israeli-Arab Joint List party—as Odeh was about to be interviewed. Salam stopped his car, rolled down the window, and in front of the TV cameras gave Odeh a furious scolding. “Get out of here!” he shouted. “Enough with interviews! You all have destroyed everything! … What are you being interviewed about? What are you doing to us? You are doing nothing!”
Odeh, an articulate man who does not shy away from argument, stood there like a child, his head bowed, and said nothing. Salam rolled up his window and drove away. Earlier that day in an interview on Army Radio, he said Joint List MKs were “ruining coexistence.”
The tension between Israelis and Jews is most palpable in cities that are not mixed, where interaction between the two populations is less frequent, where Jews and Arabs don’t live side-by-side, and this is understandable. Residents of mixed cities, however, notably Jerusalem, Haifa, and Ramla, have seized the opportunity to champion coexistence and sharpen the distinction between Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians in the eyes of the Jewish majority. They have organized joint demonstrations that carried their message to the rest of the country—Israeli-Arabs are not Palestinians. Here, we live together and we are more than fine with it.
Because we do get confused. It is dangerously easy to look at the situation and resort to sweeping generalizations. This is not because of ignorance or racism. It’s because when you’re scared, you don’t think straight.
There is hardly ever a silver lining in Israel. We are accustomed to disappointments, to impossible situations, to devastating cycles of violence. We not only look back in anger, we also look forward in fear. Most Israelis will tell you they don’t believe the conflict with the Palestinians will be resolved in their lifetime. That’s a terrible premonition to have. It eats at you from the inside. Despite our doubts, we desperately try to hold on to any shred of hope.
In the face of this, seeing the coexistence demonstrations, seeing Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel standing together, declaring that they refuse to succumb to the cycle of fear and anger, was nothing less than heartwarming. The slogan of the demonstration in Jerusalem was, appropriately, “We Won’t Surrender to Despair.”
Finally, a silver lining. Not that Jews and Arabs can live together in Israel. We know that already. Even if unconsciously, we have been doing it for 67 years. But that the current wave of violence has the potential to differentiate Israeli-Arabs from Palestinians in the eyes of the Jewish majority. In doing so, it may provide us with the opportunity to accept our fellow Arab citizens into the Israeli fold. It will take time, of course. First the violence needs to subside, and with it, the terrible cycle of fear and anger it creates.
Banner Photo: Nati Shohat / Flash90