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Reporter's notebook

In Jaffa, neighborhood watches emerge amid Jewish-Arab ethnic violence

Unprecedented riots, beatings and firebombings by both groups around Israel spur residents to take up grassroots patrols – but the source of the problem remains

  • Hilal (right) and Khalil Habashi sit guard outside their Ajami home, May 19, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
    Hilal (right) and Khalil Habashi sit guard outside their Ajami home, May 19, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
  • Broken windows of storefronts on Jerusalem Blvd. in north Jaffa, May 17, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
    Broken windows of storefronts on Jerusalem Blvd. in north Jaffa, May 17, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
  • A child looks at local police forces in north Jaffa, May 16, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
    A child looks at local police forces in north Jaffa, May 16, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
  • Trash set on fire in the middle of the street in North Jaffa, May 12, 2021.(Elie Bleier)
    Trash set on fire in the middle of the street in North Jaffa, May 12, 2021.(Elie Bleier)
  • Police checkpoint on Yefet Street in the heart of Ajami, May 19, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
    Police checkpoint on Yefet Street in the heart of Ajami, May 19, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
  • Police guard over local synagogues in north Jaffa, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
    Police guard over local synagogues in north Jaffa, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
  • Police stand guard on Oleh Tzion Blvd. in north Jaffa, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
    Police stand guard on Oleh Tzion Blvd. in north Jaffa, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
  • Demonstrators gather to display coexistence at the Jaffa clock tower square, May 13, 2021. (Elie Bleier)
    Demonstrators gather to display coexistence at the Jaffa clock tower square, May 13, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

Furious door knocking woke Hilal Habashi at 5 a.m. at his Jaffa home. It was a fellow Ajami neighborhood resident who had heard an explosion and smelled smoke. Outside, Habashi and his brother Khalil found their neighbor’s car aflame.

It wasn’t the first time last week that chaos had arrived at their doorstep.

As rioting erupted earlier this month on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and Israel waged yet another battle with Gaza’s terrorist rulers, the unrest made an unprecedented spillover into Israeli towns such as Jaffa, Ramle, Lod, and Acre, which are home to both Jews and Arabs who had hitherto lived in relative harmony.

In Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, long known for its elevated crime rates, the recent ethnic violence is unique. Firebombings, beatings, and vandalism have been carried by groups of Jewish and Arab Israelis in a tit-for-tat escalation, with Israeli security officials concerned that the phenomenon could turn into civil war.

With local police forces stretched to the limit — at the height of the rioting the government called up thousands of Border Police reservists to help quell the violence — citizens such as Habashi have taken matters into their own hands by organizing local neighborhood watch groups.

“We guard until the fajr prayer at 4:30 a.m.,” Habashi told The Times of Israel on a recent morning as he stood guard outside his home. “The time window between dawn and sunrise is most dangerous — when it’s still dark and everyone is extremely tired.”

From the landmark clock tower at Jaffa’s northern border with Tel Aviv all the way south to Ajami, numerous watch groups have sprouted up organically. They coordinate their activities in person and digitally on services such as WhatsApp — but not necessarily with the police.

In contrast to nationwide efforts by nonprofits and other extra-judicial and often political groups, these neighborhood watch efforts consist of local residents joining together out of concern for their immediate surroundings.

Police checkpoint on Yefet Street in the heart of the Ajami neighborhood in Jaffa, May 19, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

Asked whether the neighborhood watches help or hinder their efforts, the Israel Police did not directly respond to repeated Times of Israel inquiries. But a spokesperson encouraged civilians not to take the law into their own hands, and instead to call the police 100 hotline in the event of a suspected crime.

A spokesperson for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality said that there was a benefit to citizens taking action, so long as it was lawful.

“Every resident-led initiative and action to take responsibility is positive, especially when carried out by Arab and Jewish residents together, and as long as the initiative is in coordination with the police and law enforcement,” the spokesperson told The Times of Israel.

“Jaffa is a symbol of coexistence in the State of Israel, and the municipality sees great importance in public initiatives that strengthen shared living in the city, provided that they are within the law,” said the spokesperson.

Grassroots law and order

Some of the groups bring together Jewish residents; others, Arab. Some try to make police aware of their efforts; others act in defiance of them. And many try to bring Arabs and Jews together to calm their joint neighborhoods — a task that’s proving difficult.

Hilal (right) and Khalil Habashi sit guard outside their Ajami home, May 19, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

In the predominantly Arab Ajami, the situation remains tense and many residents still fear for their safety, with some claiming that police only inflame tensions.

Habashi and his neighbors weren’t certain who had set the cars aflame across from their homes. Police didn’t seem intent on solving the case, they claim. This paucity of factual information, combined with fear, anxiety, and lack of police support, led Habashi and others to create their nightly Arab-led neighborhood watch.

“We sit outside together, smoking hookah, watching for anyone who is not from the neighborhood,” said Habashi. “We check for WhatsApp alerts from across Ajami. Guys here have mopeds and can travel around to see what’s up. We’re in constant communication from all over the neighborhood.”

“There are 20,000 Arab Jaffa residents,” he said. “We all know each other. We’re all distant relatives. Someone is someone’s cousin. We know how people here dress, how they look, and we can identify each other.”

A child looks at local police forces in North Jaffa, May 16, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

Switching seamlessly between Arabic, Hebrew and English, Habashi complained that Israeli media had misrepresented Arab residents of mixed cities over the course of the civil unrest by painting them mainly as aggressors.

In Ajami, Habashi claimed, many Arab residents like himself were on the defensive. They had tried to remain calm while seeing chaos unfold in other cities from afar. But once the violence reached their doorsteps, local Jaffa residents felt they needed to take action to defend themselves, their property and their neighborhoods.

“People here quickly came to a realization,” said Habashi. “We live with our neighbors, we love our neighbors, we respect our neighbors and don’t want anyone to get hurt. People changed from offense to defense quickly — even in the usually hostile Ajami neighborhoods.”

At the height of the riots, even while police presence was strong, young men in Ajami patrolled the region on their own, often in small groups both by electric bike and car. Others, like Habashi, sat outside their homes or businesses with others to create a sense of presence and order.

“The people who grew up in Jaffa, we all have respect for one another. If someone’s in trouble, we will help them. Our neighbors just want peace. We’ve been living here for decades together,” Habashi said.

Broken windows of storefronts on Jerusalem Blvd. in north Jaffa, May 17, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

‘We need to be able to work together’

Karin, a Jewish resident of Ajami, shared an experience similar to Habashi’s. After seeing what happened to their neighborhood over the past weeks, civilians began attempting to calm the situation on their own, she told The Times of Israel.

“I know of many different neighborhood watch attempts occurring right now,” said Karin, who requested that her last name be withheld. “Both Jews and Arabs feel like they have to take back control. Many efforts are being coordinated — not with batons or guns, but merely between individuals that want to be able to safely walk in the streets.”

Karin also noted that Jews and Arabs needed to make these efforts together.

“We need to be able to work together with Arab residents,” she emphasized. “Tonight, a group of Muslims and Jews are going out to walk around quietly together. To try, as citizens, to calm the situation and protect our home.”

Military police stand guard at a checkpoint on Yefet St in Jaffa, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

Later that night, Karin reached out to The Times of Israel to say that the Muslim residents had backed out. The patrol would not take place.

The difficulty of coordinating across sectarian divisions was a common struggle for many Jaffa neighborhood watch groups. The period of violence — Jews against Arabs and Arabs against Jews — spurred suspicion among previously friendly neighbors.

In the predominantly Jewish area of north Jaffa, which saw violent attacks on civilians and storefronts, separate Jewish and Arab watches were taking place just steps away from one another.

“We’re sitting outside the mosque to make sure no one causes trouble,” said a local Arab man at north Jaffa’s Al Sik Sik mosque who requested to remain anonymous. “Sure, the police are stationed around the corner. But they entered our mosque and shot at us a few days ago. We need to make sure we’re protecting ourselves.”

The Al Sik Sik Mosque in north Jaffa, overlooking a recently developed park and new luxury condos, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

Across the park from Al Sik Sik mosque was a Jewish resident who also initiated a local neighborhood watch. He too requested anonymity; many associated with neighborhood watches were hesitant to draw attention to the phenomenon.

“The idea behind the neighborhood watch is to create an intelligence-sharing system,” said the resident. “Members are scattered across the neighborhood and can send real-time updates. If someone’s in trouble, they simply send a location and we go to help.”

“We do patrols around the neighborhood to make sure Jews aren’t harmed. Many of us are armed with batons and pepper spray. We want people to be less scared and feel more secure. Some residents don’t like this effort and prefer to walk in fear. I’m not prepared to do that. It’s my neighborhood. It’s my house. It’s my need to defend myself,” the resident said.

Police guard over local synagogues in north Jaffa, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

Who’s watching the watchmen

While some patrols have Jews and Arabs working separately, there were additional attempts to bridge the Arab-Jewish divide, for example in WhatsApp groups such as Neighborhood Guard Preparations Yafo (Jaffa). But rampant infighting over group rules, politics, naming conventions, and tactics spurred strong reactions and made taking action difficult.

“In a lot of these groups, people are just releasing emotion,” said Seffi Smadga-Wasserman, a longtime Jaffa resident, volunteer policeman, and member of local neighborhood watch WhatsApp groups. “I know from experience that in this group you can have 50 eager individuals, but when the time comes, only five will act.”

As a volunteer policeman, Smadga-Wasserman explained the uphill battle these neighborhood watches face.

Police stand guard on Oleh Tzion Blvd. in north Jaffa, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

“People want to protect the neighborhood but they don’t have the tools to do so. What can you do against groups of young children coming with bats or rocks? People aren’t equipped to fight against this,” Smadga-Wasserman said. “I’m in contact with the police. They know these [watch] groups are something that won’t last for long. People are under stress, and opening a neighborhood watch group can give them peace of mind. But I don’t think anything will change.”

Another divider between the various watch groups were views on coordinating with the police. Jewish groups such as the guard in north Jaffa claimed to have let police know of their efforts, even if law enforcement was not actively collaborating with them. In contrast, Arab residents, such as Habashi and those at the Al Sik Sik mosque, had created neighborhood watches in large part due to what they said was police negligence.

“Had the police actually taken action and not shown clear favoritism towards one side, things would have been calmer,” Habashi said. “But they got here and effectively chaperoned the population that attacked Arab locals. Are you trying to tell me you’re stopping the situation? I don’t think so.”

“I hope this all ends and we go back to being good neighbors,” Habashi added. “And I hope there won’t be a next time. But if there is, then I’ll have to get myself ready. Because I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel like the cops can guard me.”

“There’s a lack of faith in the police and the way they are behaving,” said Karin. “No one thinks that they’re not trying to calm things. But they do so with asymmetric behavior. And when this [opinion] is heard by people outside Jaffa, it can come off as very leftist, extremist and political.”

Demonstrators gather to display coexistence at the Jaffa clock tower square, May 13, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

More than a palliative

The last few days have seen a tentative calm amid a higher police presence. With the violence hopefully subsiding and with it the need for neighborhood watches, many involved are aware that the groups are short-term solutions for much deeper issues. In contrast to the coexistence the municipality had proudly spoken of, many pointed to deep problems caused by Jaffa’s rapid gentrification by both affluent and religious Jewish residents.

“Jaffa is very problematic,” said Karin. “Signs like ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’ that came out of these neighborhood watch efforts are nice, but don’t solve anything. The problem is really deep, and we need to solve it from the root. The neighborhood watches are a Band-Aid.”

She added that “many Jews that came to Jaffa recently don’t understand its roughness. This gives rise to antagonism. I personally don’t have a problem with living here. I think it’s my right to do so. But I won’t rub it in. I won’t go and complain about the chickens roaming around, or why there’s so much trash, or why they drive insanely. Come on, it’s Jaffa.”

Trash set on fire in the middle of the street in North Jaffa, May 12, 2021.(Elie Bleier)

Smadga-Wasserman expressed similar sentiments. “The people who live in north Jaffa, most of them are new here. I don’t think there are many Arab families left. So they don’t really live together. And now these residents are scared,” he said.

While Habashi also spoke of the problems brought about by gentrification, he said that many Arab residents of Jaffa perceived police tactics and government policies to be skewed in favor of Jewish citizens.

“The thing that really hurts us is to see that we don’t have the same rights,” Habashi said. “This all just puts a mirror in front of our faces. If we thought we were advancing, and that racism was shrinking, now we see the opposite. We see a lot of people against Arabs, against coexistence. We hope this changes.”

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