BRIEFING PAPER | May 2021 Escalations: Jewish-Arab Clashes w...

BRIEFING PAPER | May 2021 Escalations: Jewish-Arab Clashes within Israel

June 3, 2021

On May 10, a series of clashes in East Jerusalem spiraled into some of the worst inter-ethnic violence between Jewish and Arab citizens in history. While violence has ebbed, heightened tensions and many questions remain. The following briefing paper provides insights into conditions within Arab society leading up to escalations, the gulf in discourse that widened between the Jewish and Arab public, and the vibrant response from civil society which jumped into action. It closes with preliminary insights into action areas ahead.

Read the introduction below or click here to read the full briefing paper.

On May 10, a series of recent clashes that had been largely localized to East Jerusalem escalated into national and regional conflict. An Israeli police raid on the Al Aqsa Mosque, circulated widely on social media, along with escalations at the Damascus Gate and planned evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, was the spark for Hamas rockets from Gaza, widespread demonstrations in Arab communities within Israel, and violent riots by Arab citizens in mixed cities and neighborhoods. The latter spiraled into some of the worst inter-ethnic violence between Jewish and Arab citizens in history, shaking Israeli society.

The escalation within Israel began with arson and attacks on Jewish property by mobs of young Arab men in Lod, and which then spiraling out to Akko, Ramle and several other mixed cities and neighborhoods. This rapidly deteriorated into inter-ethnic clashes, including retaliatory attacks between Jews and Arabs, Jewish vigilantes arriving to mixed cities and Arab towns, clashes with police, lynchings of both Jewish and Arab citizens, ransacking of homes, and burning of synagogues. By the morning of Thursday, May 13, IDF battalions and border police had been sent to Lod, Ramle, Jisr A Zarka, Um al Fahm and Akko. Protests and demonstrations also took place in Arab towns and cities, many without altercation, some involving clashes with law enforcement.  

These escalations are being widely compared to the watershed events of October 2000 (in which 12 Arab citizens and a Palestinian were killed by Israeli police) for their anticipated impact on Jewish-Arab relations and Israel’s social fabric. Arab MK Issawi Frej and many others warned that current escalations may be worse: “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.

Why now? After a decade of concerted efforts to improve social and economic conditions in Arab society and on the cusp of groundbreaking Jewish-Arab political participation, what went wrong? 

While much of the focus has been on the perfect storm of national and ideological triggers, longstanding socio-economic and political realities in Arab communities and mixed cities made conditions ripe for unrest. It is important to note that most of the violence was perpetrated by groups of young men: Arabs from some of the most disadvantaged demographics in Israel; Jews largely members of vigilante and extremist groups.

As leaders and organizations work to deescalate tensions, assess damage, and begin to look towards rehabilitation, these underlying factors will be critical to their work. Already, shared society organizations have begun to mobilize effectively, contributing to cautious optimism that some of the deeper gains made in the field over the last decade did not only endure, but will prove vital to the recovery.

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