Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Yesterday the Orr Judicial Commission of Inquiry gave its recommendations. The Commission's mission was to investigate the riots of Israeli Arabs in October 2000, and the killing of thirteen people by the Police, during these riots.

A lot has been said, since these events took place, about the discrimination of Israeli Arabs, about their feelings of alienation and their low socio-economic status in Israeli society. All these are serious matters that demand attention and solutions.

However, I've read very little that manages to convey the atmosphere among Jews in Israel at the time of the riots, or at least as experienced by this Israeli Jew. I'm not trying to judge, or say who was right and who was wrong. The Judicial Commission of Inquiry has had its say, based on all the relevant evidence. I respect its recommendations. I just thought I would like to write about how it felt for me at the time, as I remember it.

Through my eyes.
In October 2000, Israeli Arabs rose up in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Widespread riots were reported, with frenzied crowds throwing stones at Jewish passers-by and clashing violently with the Police, who were completely unprepared for this eventuality. Yaffo, the southern part of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, was cut off, for a day or two. You couldn't get to Bat-Yam via Yaffo, the shorter route, when coming from inner Tel Aviv. You had to go right round, through Holon. Even when the road was opened, people were afraid to drive that way.

The riots in the north of the country were the worst. Main roads leading to the north of the country were sporadically blocked by rioters, effectively cutting off the north from the rest of the country. People were scared to go home.

Jews living in secluded villages and small towns in the north were afraid that they were going to be attacked (Bish reminds me that people traveling on slip roads leading to secluded villages and small towns, such as Lotem and Misgav, in the Galilee, actually were attacked by their longtime Arab neighbors, who they had formerly seen as their friends, and the Jewish inhabitants were placed under protective curfew).

A man was killed (Hebrew link) from a stone thrown at his car, while he was driving along highway #2, the main road from Tel Aviv to Haifa, near the Arab village of Jisr a-Zarqa, a bit north of Hadera. Thus the road connecting the main Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa seemed to have become as dangerous as roads leading to remote West Bank settlements.

There was a decided feeling of alarm and emergency. It felt like the terrible 1948 war was coming alive again before our eyes. Would we have to travel in armed convoys from now on, in the middle of the country, like we did back then? The whole country was in shock. Suddenly people realized how dangerous the Israeli Arabs could be if they chose, and it looked like they were choosing.

The riots seemed, at the time, to be an integral part of the awful violence that had erupted in the territories, with the full backing of the Palestinian Authority, if not actually initiated by the Palestinian Authority, as the more serious experts for Arab affairs believe. At the same time, there was real fear that the surrounding Arab countries would rally round their Palestinian brethren and attack Israel. Bish cancelled his long-awaited Vipassana meditation course in Kibbutz Hatzeva in the Arava desert that month. He didn't want the girls and I to be alone, should all-out war break out.

This was what was happening. It was very scary.

The Israeli Arabs ceased their rioting only after thirteen Arabs had been killed by police forces in the north, twelve Israeli and one Gazan.

Quiet returned, but everything had changed. The feeling of betrayal we Jews felt was overwhelming. Israeli Arabs had violently sided with the Palestinians against the rest of us.

Long after Arab Yaffo was quiet, the Jews didn't go back. The restaurants, the stores, the flea market, all remained deserted. The queue outside Abu-Lafiya's bakery on a Friday night disappeared. At first people were afraid. Then, when the fear subsided, they were angry. A lot of people told me they would not buy from Arabs any more, they would not eat at their restaurants or shop at their stores, even if it meant paying more elsewhere.

Three years on, you still don't need to queue up at Abu-Lafiya's bakery on a Friday night, although people are gradually coming back to Yaffo.

We were surprised to discover that the Israeli Arabs also felt betrayed. By the Israeli establishment, by Israeli Jews. They also experienced what had happened as a complete breakdown. They had never felt so alienated and angry. They were outraged that the police had opened fire on what they saw as peaceful demonstrators in legitimate demonstrations, in situations that were not threatening anyone. They were understandably heartbroken by the youngsters that were killed. I suppose they don't really understand, to this day, why their Jewish customers stopped coming.

* * * *

This is my personal recollection of that time. Maybe other people experienced it differently. I feel no anger towards ordinary Israeli Arabs, although I can't help feeling they have been led astray by their leadership. Israeli Arabs are my fellow citizens and as such I feel an affinity for them. I see no reason why they should have less opportunities than me, or why their towns and villages should not be allocated equal funding, if this is not the case. I believe they should be my equals in everything, rights and obligations alike. I see no reason why they cannot do national service, if they have a problem with military service. I pray we can put aside our differences and forgive each other for what happened.