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In nights of Arab-Jewish violence, memories of October 2000

Police killings of 13 Arabs in riots on the eve of the Second Intifada shaped the community’s ties with the state for a generation. Will this round of ethnic violence do the same?

A police officer on horseback amid an Israeli Arab crowd during clashes early in the Second Intifada, on October 20, 2000. (Flash90)
A police officer on horseback amid an Israeli Arab crowd during clashes early in the Second Intifada, on October 20, 2000. (Flash90)

Jews and Arabs fighting in the streets. Arab Israelis decrying Israeli provocations at Al-Aqsa Mosque, against the backdrop of escalating armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

After days of rising violence, Israel’s central cities imploded on Wednesday, with Jewish and Arab mobs engaging in rounds of violence and revenge attacks. Israeli police were nowhere to be found, even as an Arab Israeli man was nearly lynched in Bat Yam and a Jewish Israeli was attacked in Acre. The internecine violence continued Thursday, even though police were alerted, and bolstered by Border Police deployments.

Israel has not seen such widespread unrest between its Arab and Jewish citizens since October 2000, when 13 Arab Israelis were killed by police during violent clashes at the dawn of the Second Intifada.

“The comparison between now and the October 2000 events is the clear one to make, although there are differences,” said Arik Rudnitksy, an expert in Arab Israeli politics.

A man beats a man lying prone on the ground in Bat Yam, amid interethnic violence across Israel, May 12, 2021. (Kan TV Screenshot)

The immediate catalyst then was a visit by Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount. The site is revered by Muslims for its Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is also Judaism’s holiest place, as the site of the two biblical temples. Sharon’s visit, flanked by Israeli security guards, was viewed by the Palestinians as deeply provocative.

Ariel Sharon on the Temple Mount (photo credit: Flash90)
Ariel Sharon on the Temple Mount, September 28, 2000 (photo credit: Flash90)

“I told Sharon not to do it. I warned him what would happen,” claimed Abd al-Malik Dehamsheh, a key player in the October 2000 events, who at the time led the Islamist Ra’am party.

The day after Sharon’s visit, riots broke out in Jerusalem. Israel police responded with live fire, killing four Palestinians. Rage swept through Arab Israel, whose leadership declared a general strike in solidarity.

“It was like the Green Line [between Israel and the West Bank] was erased,” Rudnitsky said.

Over the course of several fateful days, Arab Israelis conducted violent protests that spread nationwide. Thirteen were killed in clashes with police, including with live fire — 12 Arab Israelis and one Palestinian. An Israeli Jew was killed when his car was stoned by Arab rioters.

The Or Commission, established to investigate the events, found that the police had used excessive force and that senior public officials, including then-prime minister Ehud Barak, had failed to prepare adequately for the catastrophe.

But no police officers or politicians were ever charged. Every year, Arab Israeli politicians and civil society leaders gather with the families of the dead, laying wreaths on the graves of those killed.

There were also outbursts of intercommunal violence at the time — volleys of stone-throwing and attacks back and forth in the Galilee and in Jerusalem. Arabs attacking Jews here, Jews attacking Arabs elsewhere.

The brutal events impacted Arab Israelis’ relationship with the Israeli state for a generation, leaving deep emotional scars. When officials decry the widespread lack of trust in government in Arab communities, many Arab Israelis point to those bloody days in October 2000.

For some Arab Israelis, the specter of the October events looms, too, over the current escalation in violence between Arabs and Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting Border Police officers in the central Israeli city of Lod, May 13, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

On Monday, with the stench of violence heavy in the air, Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sleiman told The Times of Israel that she was starting to see similarities. Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of police had already been hospitalized in clashes at the Temple Mount and across East Jerusalem.

“The feeling is the same feeling, where we go to sleep at night and wake up to news of victims and massacres,” Touma-Sleiman said. “It’s the same feeling that we had on the eve of the October uprising.”

A few hours later, Lod resident Mousa Hassouneh was shot by an armed Israeli resident as Arab Israeli mobs stormed the city, torching synagogues and stores, setting cars alight. It was not clear whether Hassouneh had taken part in the violence.

“The sense that everything is happening at once, the Jews fighting the Arabs, no matter who started it — that’s the same as in October 2000. The psychological impact, the trauma it will leave — that’s the same,” Rudnitsky said.

The immediate spark of the events is similar as well: clashes in Jerusalem, especially around Al-Aqsa Mosque. Even non-religious Arab Israelis have been angered by what they deemed Israeli aggression against the holy site.

“Everything that violates the Al-Aqsa Mosque unifies all Palestinians, and so you see solidarity demonstrations in Haifa and Acre and Umm al-Fahm,” former Balad party leader Jamal Zahalka told The Times of Israel on Monday, hours before Hamas began firing rockets into Israel at the start of that escalating conflict.

But in some ways, the October events might have been simpler than the current violence between the two communities, which sees far more roving mobs of civilians, poisoned with nationalist sentiment and looking to fight.

Israelis watched in horror on Wednesday night as violent Jewish mobs stormed Bat Yam, smashing Arab-owned businesses. Around 150 later attempted to attack an Arab Israeli motorist caught up in the incident, repeatedly kicking him while he was on the ground.

“This is far worse than October 2000. Back then, we saw mostly clashes between Arab society and the police. What we’re seeing now is between Arab citizens and Jewish citizens. It’s like a civil war, without weapons,” said Meretz MK Issawi Frej. (In fact, Thursday night saw gunfire in both Lod and nearby Ramle.)

Torched synagogues, cars and vandalized stores in the central Israeli city of Lod, following a night of heavy rioting by Arab residents in the city, on May 12, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I’m terrified that things will deteriorate further. Our young, reckless [Arab] youth will want to defend themselves. This could take us to a very dangerous place,” Frej said.

Moreover, the October events were conducted with the backing of the Arab political leadership, who called for and led general strikes and protests. The Or Commission later found that the Arab leadership — including Dahamsheh — had incited some of the violence.

But when events burst out of control, the same leaders were able to reign it in. “When we called for it to end, it ended. There were a few scuffles here and there because of incidents in the north, but once the decision fell, it was over,” said Dahamsheh.

This time, Joint List head Ayman Odeh and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas have both condemned the violence and called for an end to bloodshed and destruction on all sides.

But the Arab political establishment has yet to succeed in reigning in the mobs, Rudnitsky said.

“Arab Israeli leaders are acting in a very thoughtful manner. But they’re not in control. Nor do they have the strength to take control,” Rudnitsky said.

Police seen on the streets of the central city of Lod, May 12, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

For now, Rudnitsky and Dahamsheh said, Israel is not at the point of no return it reached in 2000. If the conflict with Gaza ends and Israeli police manage to crack down on Jewish and Arab rioters alike, Israel could still pull back from the brink.

“These are charged, young people, running out to defend Al-Aqsa and Palestine and Jerusalem. But it’s not an intifada. As soon as there is a ceasefire with Gaza, two, three days, and all this will be behind us,” Dahamsheh said.

But if the Gaza hostilities continue, and Israeli police continue to be unable to defend their own citizens, Dahamsheh acknowledged, that optimistic scenario becomes far less likely.

“Every action will create a reaction. I hope that this is not the case,” Dahamsheh warned.

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