In May 2021, as thousands of rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza were fired at Israel during “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” thousands of Israel’s Arab citizens, especially in mixed cities such as Lod, Ramle, Akko and Jaffa, rose up in open revolt against the state. For days, Israeli Arabs rioted, destroyed synagogues, vandalized Jewish property, even beat and murdered Jews in the streets. The country faced some of its worst internal violence in decades. Arab citizens of Israel, motivated by separatist and anti-Israel tendencies, brought the Palestinian struggle to the Israeli heartland.
International press coverage quickly fit the riots into comfortable categories borrowed from the United States—Jews as racist oppressors, Arabs as the Israeli version of African-Americans. This narrative, unmoored from any real understanding of the events, has become another exhibit in the delegitimization campaign against Israel. Israel’s supposed discriminatory practices against its Arab citizens, as anti-Israel activists claim the May 2021 riots show, are used as more proof that Israel is a racist and illegitimate state. Therefore, it is essential that the truth of the May 2021 Arab uprising be presented accurately to the international audience.
In the international coverage of the events, the nationalist dimension of the uprising was quickly covered over. Some media sources, such as The Associated Press, chose to portray the violence as a result of Arab frustration over discrimination and inequality (“As ethnic violence rocks Israel, Arabs cite deep grievances,” May 13,21).
Time magazine, describing Yitzhar residents coming to reinforce the beleaguered Jews of Lod, painted a dark picture of fanatic Jews taking a break from stealing Palestinian land in Judea and Samaria to assert dominance over the Arabs within the Green Line. In truth, thousands of people came from around the country to reinforce and support the Jewish residents of Lod—a show of fellowship unthinkable in the United States. However, the press focused on “settlers,” their actions twisted into something sinister. The undertone is clear – racist Jews harass and oppress Arabs both within and beyond the Green Line, while the Arabs are merely protesting for civil equality.
As the article describes:
“It’s the Sabbath, and dozens of Jewish young men are strolling through a mostly Arab neighborhood wearing yarmulkes and white shirts, M-16s slung over their shoulders or pistols in their waistbands. They move as if this were a settlement in an Arab city in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and they were the locals, even the landlords.
“But the young men aren’t locals, and this only feels like the West Bank. … But the reality on the ground is the 300 armed men afoot in Lod. They are Jewish settlers who rushed from the West Bank, interrupting their assertion of dominion on land in nominally Palestinian territory to reinforce Jewish residents of Lod intent on ‘settling’ an Arab neighborhood within Israel proper.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW), the pseudo-human rights organization that is one of the main proponents of the campaign to isolate, demonize and boycott the Jewish state, called upon the United Nations to investigate Israel’s supposedly discriminatory and high-handed response to Arab protests. In HRW’s retelling of the events: “Israeli authorities responded to the May events in Lod by forcibly dispersing Palestinians protesting peacefully while using inflammatory rhetoric and failing to act even-handedly as Jewish ultra-nationalists attacked Palestinians. This apparent discriminatory response underscores the reality that the Israeli state apparatus privileges Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians, wherever they live and irrespective of their legal status.”
This recasting of the violence perpetrated by Israel’s Arab citizens as Israel’s version of the Black Lives Matter protests whitewashes the nationalist and Islamist motives that animated the rioters. By falsely portraying the situation as, at best, ethnic strife between Jews and Arabs, or at worst a racist crackdown on innocent protesters, the true roots of the violence are covered up.
Unless there is a willingness to openly acknowledge and confront the growth of a large and hostile Arab fifth column, Israel will remain vulnerable to subversion and threats carried out by its citizens during wartime. The growing radicalization of Israel’s Arab citizens and their willingness to openly side with Israel’s enemies during wartime threatens any hope of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs and poses an acute threat to Israeli security. This article intends to provide English-speaking readers with the truth behind May 2021’s Arab uprising.
How did it start?
Throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on April 12, the Palestinian Authority regularly broadcast anti-Israel incitement, warning Palestinians to defend the Temple Mount from supposed Israeli encroachment. Official Fatah social media channels fueled the flames of violence with messages such as these: “Death and not submission, raise your hand … Millions of Martyrs are marching to Jerusalem with spirit, with blood, we will redeem you Al-Aqsa Mosque.” (It should be noted that the claim that Israel or the Jews endanger Al-Aqsa is a baseless claim that has inspired Arab violence against Jews for a century.)
These calls for violence were promptly answered, especially by Arab youths in Jerusalem. The outburst of widespread violence in May 2021 was preceded by several weeks of anti-Semitic and nationalist attacks against Jews in Jerusalem. Throughout Ramadan, eastern Jerusalem Arabs filmed themselves attacking random Jews, especially haredi (i.e., visibly Jewish) Jews and uploading the videos to social media such as Tiktok. For example, in April, two Arab teenagers filmed themselves slapping a haredi man on the Jerusalem light rail, knocking his glasses off and humiliating him.
On the night of May 8, one of the last nights of Ramadan, hundreds of Palestinians barred themselves in the Al-Aqsa mosque following prayers. The rioters threw stones and firecrackers at the police, leading to large-scale violence. May 10 was Jerusalem Day, which features an annual march by tens of thousands of Jews throughout the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, celebrating the reunification of the city in 1967.
The Hamas terrorist organization issued an ultimatum that unless Israel cancel the march and pulled back its security forces from the Temple Mount, it would fire rockets at Jerusalem. When Israel refused Hamas’s diktats over its activities in its capital city, Hamas fired several rockets at Jerusalem, marking the formal beginning of “Operation Guardian of the Walls.”
Israel’s Arab citizens join in the violence
Arab citizens of Israel quickly joined in the violence. In Jaffa, Arab residents burned trash cans, vandalized bus stops and threw fireworks at police. What began as protests soon deteriorated into mass disturbances and then escalated to attacks on property, security forces and civilians. On May 13, Arab gangs beat an IDF soldier, breaking his skull and sending him to the hospital in serious condition. There were similar riots throughout mixed cities such as Lod, Ramle, Akko and Haifa.
The epicenter of the violence was in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city situated close to Israel’s national airport. On May 10, hundreds of Arab residents of Lod began rioting, targeting synagogues, Jewish-owned cars and homes, as well as city property. The violence escalated the next afternoon, following the shooting of an Arab man who took part in attacks on his Jewish neighbors.
After his funeral, hundreds of Arabs left Lod’s central mosque and proceeded to attack Jewish homes. Some tore down the Israeli flag hanging in the main square of the Old City and replaced it with the PLO flag. Throughout the event, nationalist and anti-Israel slogans were heard such as “With fire and blood, we shall redeem Palestine” and “O Khaybar, the armies of Muhammad will return” (referencing a seventh-century massacre of Jews).
Arab gangs blocked main thoroughfares throughout the city, looking for Jews to beat and lynch. One victim of Arab violence was Yigal Yehoshua, a 56-year-old who was stoned to death in his car. Eight Arabs, six residents of Lod and two Palestinians, were later charged with aggravated murder motivated by nationalist hatred.
Akko, another city often hailed as a paradigm of Jewish-Arab coexistence, also suffered intense Arab rioting. On May 10, the day before the outbreak of mass violence, Arabs assaulted Jewish children at the Noam Herzog school, leaving several with light injuries. The most extreme violence was carried out the next day, on May 11. Arab rioters fired on police officers, attempted to lynch Jewish citizens and firebombed Jewish businesses, such as the famed Uri Buri restaurant and the Effendi hotel.
Despite efforts to evacuate the hotel, acclaimed Israeli aerospace scientist Avi Har-Even, 85, succumbed to his wounds after being trapped in the burning building. 37-year-old Elad Barzilai suffered serious injuries after being stoned by Arab gangs while crossing the street. Mor Ganashvili, a Jewish man, was pulled from his car by Arab rioters and severely beaten with stones and metal bars. Mordechai Katz, another Jewish resident of the city, lost consciousness after being surrounded and beaten. There were calls issued from the loudspeakers of the central mosque of Akko to defend the city from “settlers,” i.e. Jews.
The attacks on Jews were by no means confined to mixed cities. In the Negev, Bedouins knocked down street lights along a major highway, set up makeshift roadblocks and stopped drivers to ask if they were Jewish. Upon an affirmative answer, the Bedouin threw cement blocks at the drivers. Five Bedouin were later charged under Israel’s anti-terror law with offenses motivated by nationalist, racial and religious hatred.
After the violence died down, the Central District Fire Station released statistics showing the shocking scale of the damage. In little more than a week, Arab rioters set 10 synagogues and 112 Jewish residences on fire, looted 386 Jewish homes and damaged another 673, and set 849 Jewish cars on fire. There were also 5,018 recorded instances of Jews being stoned. Three Jews were murdered and more than 600 were hurt. Over 300 police officers were injured in disturbances in over 90 locations across the country.
By contrast, no mosques were damaged, one Arab home was firebombed (by Arabs that mistook it for a Jewish home), 13 Arab homes and cars were damaged, and 41 Arab bystanders were hurt by hurled stones. There were also two attacks by Jewish extremists against Arab bystanders, in Bat Yam and Herzliya. These attacks were widely condemned by Israeli authorities, including by the Chief Rabbi and political figures from right to left. The perpetrators have been arrested and charged with racially-motivated crimes.
These numbers clearly show that the violence was largely Arab instigated and led, and should be enough to dispel the false narrative of “extremists on both sides.”
Looking Palestinian nationalism in the face
In the aftermath of the violence, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev admitted that the Arab riots took the country and the security forces by surprise. After wide-scale arrests of the rioters, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) estimated that close to 85% of those involved came from a criminal background. However, a survey of indictments served in northern Israel carried out by the Kohelet Policy Forum shows clearly that more than 90% of those charged had no previous criminal record.
Figures in Arab society have admitted that Palestinian nationalism was the catalyst and fuel for the riots, and warned that the violence will repeat itself in the future. In a documentary on the riots in Akko produced by the Kan 11 station, Bulus Nahas, an Akko city council member, was emphatic: “We will go out again. … It [the violence] shouldn’t deter us. … We believe that all evil is rooted in the Occupation. … If the matter is related to the Palestinian people, of which we are a part, we will go out.”
Despite the growing social and economic integration of Israel’s Arab citizens, there remain large swaths of Israeli Arabs who identify with the Palestinian struggle against Israel, oppose the Jewish state and are willing to engage in violence against Israel’s citizens, soldiers and security forces. The May 2021 riots exposed Israel’s soft underbelly—thousands of hostile Arab citizens willing to aid Israel’s enemies during wartime.
Then-president Reuven Rivlin called on Arab leadership to reject and condemn the violence: “These sights must not be repeated. We must not be held captive by the murderous terrorists from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad who shoot at Israeli citizens indiscriminately. … The people of Israel, Jews as well as Arabs, need to hear the Arab leadership speak in a clear and decisive voice against the rampant violence, against the attack on synagogues, against this wild rampage.”
So far, this call has not been heeded honestly and forcefully.
Policy-makers and security experts are openly discussing the dangers of Israeli Arabs blocking major highways and preventing troop movements during military operations. Others are warning that the tens of thousands of illegal weapons held by Arab citizens, among them criminal gangs, may be pointed at Jews in the case of another nationalist insurgency.
In the 1920s throughout Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the Jews of the Yishuv often found themselves at the mercy of marauding Arab nationalist gangs. Hundreds of Jews were murdered in the Arab revolts of the 1920s-1940s by the ideological predecessors of Hamas and the PLO. The events of May 2021 raise the real fear that tens of thousands of Arab citizens of Israel have not internalized Israel’s permanency and seek to emulate the pre-state gangs.
Israel cannot afford to be soft on nationalistically-motivated crime or attacks on its citizens and security forces. It cannot allow the continuation of the absurd situation in which many of its Arab citizens are willing to enjoy the benefits and privileges of Israeli citizenship, while actively working against the state and its existence. The May 2021 Arab insurgency must be a wake-up call to Israeli Jews and Arabs who seek to peacefully coexist.
Russell A. Shalev is an Israeli attorney in the litigation department at the Kohelet Policy Forum.
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