Israelis are living in fear. Missiles from Gaza do not discriminate among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. And yet the current crisis has also exposed familiar rifts in Israeli society. When Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem, was found burned to death in what authorities say was a revenge crime for the murder near Gush Etzion of three Jewish teens, a wave of angry protests swept East Jerusalem and other Arab towns in Israel.
Demonstrations among Israeli Arabs are unusual and have not been seen on this scale since October 2000, at the outbreak of the Second Intifada, when the Israel police shot and killed 13 Arabs during protests in northern Israel. Following that breakdown of relations between Jewish and Arab citizens, the government set up the Or Commission, which found the police used excessive force in calming the riots and demonstrated prejudice against the Arab minority.
Fortunately, there has been no repeat of fatalities, suggesting Israeli police took the Or recommendations to heart. The numbers of demonstrations up north are relatively small, and local leaders have met publicly with government ministers and called for calm. There have been some reports of Negev Bedouin stoning Israeli cars, but it remains to be seen if they peter out or escalate.
In the current and understandably heated climate, many Arab citizens are now fearful of speaking in Arabic on public transportation and refrain from walking on city streets in Jewish neighborhoods. Some are afraid to show up at work. Their fears have been stoked by social media rumors of attempted kidnappings of Arab children by Jewish settlers.
While the country’s main focus is on Gaza, Israel’s human rights and coexistence community has not forgotten about Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. “The current crisis is a litmus test of Israeli democracy and shared society,” said Thabet Abu Rass and Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, directors of The Abraham Fund Initiatives.
Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy, warns of a “frightening new era of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.” He adds: “This is how civil wars in other regions of the world began. All those who value life must do everything in their power to stop this.”
Fortunately, there are many efforts to improve relations between Israel’s Arabs and Jews.
When a modest monument created by local residents in memory of Khdeir was dismantled, members of the Dror Israel youth movement replaced the monument and held a ceremony at the site. They have also been working to strengthen connections between Jewish and Arab members of the HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed youth movement.
The Israel Trauma Coalition is helping Bedouins, who typically do not comply with safety directives issued by Home Front Command. ITC hosted a gathering of 27 Bedouin imams and trained 25 Bedouin social workers in Rahat over nine months to deal with trauma. The Bedouin community now has tools so kids can deal with their fears from the start.
The Givat Haviva organization connected Jewish and Arab mayors with the aim of reducing tensions and preventing further clashes among residents affected by demonstrations and racist incidents. A joint public statement issued by Jewish and Arab mayors of the Wadi Ara region called for peace, calm, and cooperation. Jewish-Arab civil society organizations formed a human chain of 400 Jews and Arabs along the main highway in Wadi Ara.
The Tag Meir (“Spreading the Light”) coalition organized a visit for 350 Jewish Israelis to East Jerusalem to pay respects to Khdeir's family last week. They were hoping the gesture would open a door to peace and understanding between two divided communities. The visit showcased shared humanity, but also the difficulties of reconciliation in the current environment.
International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which has served as a bridge between Jews and Arabs, delivered two portable bomb shelters to the Kfar Aza kibbutz along the Gaza border.
The current crisis has also revealed gaps in emergency preparedness. Be’eri-Sulitzeanu reports that an Abraham Fund survey of Arab communities in Israel found that “86 percent of all Arab localities are virtually unprepared for an emergency.” Working with Israel police, Arab and Jewish mayors, government ministries, civil society leaders, and Hebrew and Arabic media, The Abraham Fund Initiatives is trying to limit damage to Jewish-Arab relations and is pushing for upgraded emergency preparedness for Arab towns and villages, especially in the Bedouin communities of the Negev.
Ever-deepening social divides and increased hostility threaten Israel’s democratic fabric. With 1,200,000 Arab citizens, including 220,000 Negev Bedouins, Israel must build a shared society characterized by mutual responsibility, full participation, and equal opportunity.