LOD — Last week, the central Israeli city of Lod could have used some help from its resident dragon-slayer.
As legend goes, George of Lydda, a Christian soldier in the Roman Army, once killed a dragon that had been running a protection racket in a Libyan village, demanding a yearly human sacrifice on pain of the hamlet’s destruction. Today, the sarcophagus of St. George, venerated as Christianity’s most prominent soldier-saint, lies in the dark crypt of a Greek-Orthodox church in this mixed Jewish-Arab city.
The streets around St. George’s marble grave are still marked with the skeletons of burned-out cars and littered with glass from smashed windows, the scars of a pent-up hatred that was unleashed on the city. One Jewish and one Arab resident of the city are dead from the violence, and grief and fear still hang in the air.
Even more disconcerting for Arab and Jewish residents of the city, is that no one is sure where the dragon is, and whether it still lurks in the city, waiting to burn more homes and schools, and potentially take even more human lives.
By Tuesday, a few days after the outbreak of deadly fighting had died down, the city appeared to have regained an odd normalcy, at least at first blush. Jewish and Arab residents went about their day as the tattered strings of Israeli flags left over from Independence Day fluttered on the porches of small, tidy homes and neat apartment blocks.
But signs of the recent violence remained everywhere. Border Police officers dispatched to the city to stem the unrest lazed in the shade at major intersections. A bus stop sat covered in shards of shattered glass. Pulling into the parking lot next to the home of the Hassouna family – one of Lod’s most prominent Arab families – a white SUV drove by, stopped, reversed, and the driver rolled down his window.
“I was worried you were settlers,” the man explained in Arabic, as his daughter watched curiously from the back seat.
The dragon unleashed
In Lod’s Hashmonaim neighborhood, grieving father Malik Hassouneh sat under an awning outside his home.
“I want to imprison the man who killed my son,” he said.
The details of what led his son, Mousa Hassouneh, to his death remain unclear. What is known is that during violent riots early in the morning of May 11, a Jewish resident of the city fired several bullets toward Mousa, killing him.
Jewish eyewitnesses said the shooter fired in self-defense during rioting by Arab residents of the city. Three days after the killing, the four Jewish suspects in the shooting were ordered released under relatively lenient restrictions.
Mousa’s family said he was not involved in the rioting. According to Malik, he had been invited to break the Ramadan fast with his brother-in-law. By the time he left the late-night meal, clashes had already erupted throughout the city.
The Hassounehs are not involved in organized crime or violence, residents told The Times of Israel. The family is well-known, relatively well-heeled, and widely respected; members of the extended family have served on Lod’s city council and own shops in the city’s ancient heart.
Hassouneh’s killing ignited the city, which was already tormented by unrest. Demonstrations had been sparked there and in other cities with large Arab populations days earlier as protests against Israeli policies in Jerusalem gradually escalated.
On Tuesday, the rioting intensified significantly, spurred by the shooting death and the fighting with Hamas in Gaza, growing from clashes with police to rage-fueled mob attacks on people and property. Both Arabs and Jews attacked one another, with the mixed city quickly becoming a veritable war zone.
That night, three synagogues and numerous shops were reportedly set on fire, along with dozens of cars. The government declared a state of emergency in the city, and urgently dispatched several Border Police companies to restore order.
Yigal Yehoshua, a 56-year-old electrician from a nearby town was driving home through Lod when his car was pelted by rocks and bricks. One brick smashed into his head, and he was rushed to a hospital with serious injuries.
Jewish extremists responded forcefully. In Lod, far-right nationalists gathered to stone passing Arab cars. A Muslim cemetery and dozens of Arab cars were torched, allegedly by Jews.
Hundreds of Jews arrived from outside the city, many of them from the West Bank, some of them apparently armed. While the police had technically imposed a curfew, that did not seem to apply to the armed Jews, who were allowed to wander freely throughout the city, terrifying the Arab residents, according to witnesses.
“It felt like the curfew was only for us, only for the Arabs. The settlers were running free,” said Abed Hassouneh, Mousa’s cousin.
Six days after being injured, Yehoshua died of his wounds, making him the second casualty of the ongoing violence.
“Yigal was a paragon of coexistence, he did not fear anything,” his wife Irena told Channel 12 news. “He worked as an electrician and repaired homes for all, Arabs and Jews.”
‘Lod has changed dramatically’
Since 1948, when tens of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from Lod in the Israeli War of Independence, the city has had a distinct Jewish majority. In recent years, waves of immigrants have created an eclectic mix of Ethiopian and Eastern European immigrants, as well as resettled West Bank Palestinians who collaborated with the Israeli security services, creating a fragile balance with the city’s Arab residents.
“We would host them and they would host us. We would protect them, and they would protect us,” Malik Hassouneh said, sketching a somewhat rosy picture of ties with the city’s Jews.
But according to the Hassounehs and others, that balance was upset in recent years by an influx of religious Jews to the city via a movement known as Garin Torani, which seeks to establish or bolster the national religious Jewish presence in neighborhoods or cities where there are few religious Jews. In Lod, Garin residents have moved into parts of town that are predominantly Arab, and long-time residents accuse members of attempting to Judaize their neighborhoods.
“Our problem isn’t with the Jews, not at all. We have a problem with the settlers. They’re the ones who made this city a pressure cooker,” said Abed Hassouneh, Mousa’s cousin.
The Garin has been boosted by support from Lod Mayor Yair Revivo. Since being elected mayor in 2014, Revivo has allocated increased budgets for Arab residents. But he has also backed the Garin with city money, started municipal battles over lowering the volume of the Muslim call to prayer and deemed Arab culture inherently violent.
Former deputy mayor Aviv Wasserman, a Revivo critic, blamed his leadership for the city’s increasing polarization in the ensuing years. “It has changed dramatically,” he lamented.
“The music, the energy, the atmosphere here was totally anti-Arab, going back to the volume of the muezzin all the time, being disrespectful to their mosques, to their traditions,” Wasserman said.
Jewish members of the Garin Torani say that they are there to uplift neighborhoods suffering from urban blight and concentrated poverty. But Arab residents complain that they harass them and seek to ultimately evict them from the neighborhood.
As far as grieving father Malik Hassouneh is concerned, if Revivo had not encouraged the Garin Torani to move into Lod, the friction that resulted in his son’s death would not have taken place.
“I hold Lod mayor Yair Revivo personally responsible for the shooting,” he said.
‘Nothing like this before’
With the rioting over and order ostensibly restored, Lod residents have now set about the task of attempting to rebuild, both physically and figuratively.
At a community center in Lod’s Ramat Eshkol neighborhood this week, Arab residents lined up their shattered vehicles to receive help filling out compensation forms with Israel’s National Insurance.
Muadh al-Naqib sadly surveyed the wreckage to his car. Cracks spiderwebbed across the windshield and at least another window was completely smashed in.
“The settlers caught me while I was driving,” al-Naqib explained, referring to right-wing Jewish Israelis. “There’s been tensions, but nothing like this before.”
Rotting chunks of metal dotted a nearby Arab residential area. The cars had clearly been set on fire, with Arab residents accusing Jews of being at fault.
Sitting under a tree outside the Great Omari Mosque in Lod, a group of young Arab men who said they were present at the scene when rioting began on May 10 blamed the police for initiating the violence.
“They started it. They started hitting us with sound grenades as soon as we started demonstrating. You think we’d let that go by? If I hit you, would you stay quiet?” said Thair Dababseh, a teenager who works at a shop in Rishon Lezion.
Most Arab residents of Lod who spoke to The Times of Israel dismissed or denied that there had also been organized attacks against Jews, despite the evidence to the contrary. “Maybe there was a little, but a very small amount,” Dababseh said.
“They attacked people, so people attacked them in return,” shrugged Ali Nasasrah, who said he attended Monday’s demonstration.
Rebuilding on Exodus Street
On nearby Exodus Street, volunteers were busy working to repair damage to a religious elementary school and the Maoz pre-military academy.
Among those pitching in were religious Jewish youths from across the country and the tensions that had underpinned the violence seemed to hang in the air.
Volunteers were instructed to avoid interactions with the city’s Arab residents in order to minimize friction and to allow the city to cool down.
“I came because the residents need help,” said Ziv Cohen, a Jewish teenager. “They don’t feel safe enough. Thank God they brought more police and border police, but the residents still don’t feel safe enough at night.”
Cohen said he came through HaShomer HaChadash, which began as a volunteer organization protecting Jewish farmers from attacks by Arab organized crime and vandals, and now is involved in Zionist and agricultural education.
When the violence broke out, HaShomer HaChadash CEO and Founder Yoel Zilberman reached out to the Lod municipality. After several apartments were vandalized, they decided to send volunteers to sleep in apartments of Jewish families that fled the city to make sure they were not ransacked.
Starting May 14, some 30 to 55 unarmed volunteers were dispatched to stay in apartments from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night, said Liat Cohen, spokeswoman for HaShomer HaChadash (no relation to Ziv Cohen).
In addition, HaShomer HaChadash volunteers renovated synagogues damaged in the riots and helped renovate the Maoz academy and elementary school.
“In the end, the goal is that the residents are protected and feel protected,” said Ziv Cohen.
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HaShomer HaChadash spokeswoman Liat Cohen explained that volunteers and employees are also working closely with police, using the organization’s drones to monitor the city and identify potential outbreaks of violence.
Cohen emphasized that elsewhere in the country, HaShomer HaChadash is accelerating its outreach to Arab communities. On Wednesday, the organization met with the heads of six Bedouin regional councils in the Galilee, and began work on joint educational, employment, and personal security initiatives.
Jewish residents of Lod working to fix the school told of a spiraling violence that police mishandled.
“Last Monday evening, we began to hear that there was a demonstration around the mosque,” said Yakir, a religious resident of the neighborhood. “It slowly got out of control.”
From his apartment, 300 meters (900 feet) from the mosque, he received updates that the demonstrators were burning Israeli flags and vandalizing homes in the neighborhood. “During the night, they went through all the streets of the neighborhood, and started burning dumpsters, then tires, and after that cars.”
“About 15 minutes later, we saw them going into the academy and starting to burn the elementary school. They went into the classrooms and burned some of them on the second floor. After that they went into the academy study hall and began to burn there as well,” he recalled.
Watching from his apartment, Yakir called the police repeatedly, but they did not come.
Three religious post-high school teens doing their year of national service in Lod, Hodaya, Shira and Zion, recalled seeing smoke from the riots and hearing ambulances speed past as they ran to bomb shelters to escape Hamas rockets fired toward the city.
“It felt like the Wild West,” said Hodaya, from Jerusalem.
The violence picked up again the next day during the funeral of Hassouneh.
“Somehow it turned out that they went through the neighborhood,” Yakir explained. “A coffin with the body, on top a Palestinian flag, and something like one thousand people walking behind with Palestinian flags shouting all sorts of incitement, and throwing rocks at the windows of our friends who live on this street…and behind them, the police were trying to drive them away but not with enough manpower.”
That night, said Yakir, Arab residents returned to the neighborhood and burned cars. “The police didn’t do anything about it,” he said. “At some locations, they stood, like in the school. But 50 meters away, on Elashvili Street, they burned three cars one after the other and no one came to stop them.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld was adamant that given the scale and complexity of violence in Lod – not to mention the unrest across Israel and in the West Bank – the police response was more than reasonable.
“During the riots,” Rosenfeld emphasized, “we protected the local residents as much as possible, even though there were hundreds of incidents that took place at all levels. I’m talking about petrol bombs, there were police vehicles that were burned, civilian Arabs that were attacked, damage to schools and synagogues.”
“At the beginning of the riots by hundreds of local Arab residents…” he said, “police units were deployed to the different neighborhoods. Units were dispatched to hundreds of calls taking place in the city. Our units moved around on foot as well as in vehicles tactically.”
Police officers were attacked and police vehicles were burned in the violence. Across the country, around 260 officers were injured, said Rosenfeld.
“As soon as we saw the situation deteriorating, and people were getting injured and the situation was dangerous both for police officers and local residents, Jewish residents, a tactical decision was made that extra tactical border police units would be brought in to calm the situation down, and coordination was made by the commanders of the different tactical units to take control of the situation.”
On Wednesday and Thursday night there were cases of apartments being broken into, with arson attacks on some.
The young women expressed shock at the level of violence, and sadness over the fact that some Jews felt they had to flee the city.
“There were difficult scenes,” said Shira, from Rishon Lezion. “It’s terrible that a Jew has to run away from his home in the Land of Israel because he feels existential danger.”
“It’s unbelievable,” she added sadly.
Hodaya noted that some returning residents were carrying their possessions in garbage bags.
“It looked like they fled, they didn’t have time to pack,” she said.
While members of the national religious community say they are interested in coexistence and building bridges with Arab residents, its not uncommon for the sides to avoid each other, leaving the city more divided than mixed, and residents fearful for the next bout of hostilities between Jews and Arabs.
“There isn’t co-existence here,” Hodaya said. “There is just existence. Everyone wants to live his life.”