Middle East Eye / March 26, 2022
Jewish settlers in the central Israeli city form a militia to protect the Jewish presence in the city from Palestinians, who they see as an existential threat.
In May 2021, Israeli authorities tried to forcibly evict families from their homes in East Jerusalem, attacked Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, and killed hundreds in an offensive on the Gaza Strip.
The violence also spread to Israel’s mixed cities, especially Lod/Lydda, where Palestinians were lynched in the streets. The atmosphere in the city has remained febrile ever since.
A battle has been quietly raging between Palestinian residents of the city they call Lydd and its Jewish residents, backed by Israeli authorities, over the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to exist within their homeland.
Every level of Israeli society is involved, from its institutions to its civil society organizations and Jewish settler groups, who recently formed their own militia.
The Guardians of Lod
The settlers were not deterred by the uprising last May, dubbed by many Palestinians as the Karamah (“dignity”) Uprising.
Instead, they have made inroads into the Old City and formed an armed militia called “the Guardians of Lod” under the pretext of protecting the Jewish presence in the city from what they see as the existential threat posed by Palestinians.
In reality, however, they have been providing cover for the expansion of settlement blocs into Palestinian-majority neighbourhoods.
The recent formation of the militia coincides with the countdown to the holy month of Ramadan, which starts in early April, and the forthcoming anniversary of the May uprising, which is combining to create a climate of increasing security tension in Palestinian towns.
With a population of 85,000, 40 percent of whom are Palestinian, Lod is undergoing a process of Judaization that is perhaps most obvious in the Old City.
Newcomers might not even realize that Lod is in fact a Palestinian city, given the number of Israeli flags, towering skyscrapers, and Jewish establishments.
But Palestinians there have remained steadfast in the face of a demographic war waged through evictions, the erasure of Palestinian, Muslim, and Christian sites, and the replacement of Palestinian Canaanite heritage with Jewish symbols.
A mosque and a church
Because it sees the conflict in Lod as unresolved, the Israeli establishment in the city, as represented by the Lod municipality and the Garin Torani – or Torah Nuclei – a Zionist religious group, and the so-called Civil Forum for the Security of Lod, has been hurriedly forming “preparedness teams” with the support of the Israeli police.
The Guardians of Lod project has been presented as a way to safeguard order and security for all the city’s residents, despite its similarity to far-right settler militias across the occupied West Bank.
Avishai Kaiserman, one of the founders of the project, denied that the group had similarities to the militias at its recent founding conference.
The Guardians of Lod are also reminiscent of the Zionist terror groups that existed during the Nakba in 1948, or “the Catastrophe”, Khaled Zabarqa, a lawyer with the Lydd Popular Committee, told Middle East Eye.
To encourage Jewish immigration to the area, Israeli authorities have stepped up the construction of Jewish establishments, including a synagogue, a Talmudic School, a Torah, and a military college, among other imposing buildings.
Meanwhile, members of the Torah Nuclei continue to provocatively patrol the streets.
The expansion of Jewish colonization since 1948 has almost completely erased traces of the Palestinian character of Lod.
But on a walk through the Old City, MEE noticed that despite the Judaization efforts, many Palestinian properties, and Arab historical and archaeological sites are still standing.
The church bells of St George and the minaret of the Omari Mosque remain as a testament to the city’s indigenous heritage.
On the other side of the Old City’s market stands the old olive press and the Dahmash Mosque.
Further on, there is the old municipality building, which has been closed since the Nakba when Zionist militias forcibly displaced roughly 750,000 Palestinians from their towns and villages.
Armed Jewish militias
Khaled Zabarqa said that 80 percent of the population of Lod’s Old City is still Palestinian, but that Israeli authorities are aiming to bring in more settlers and control public spaces through Jewish celebrations, the spreading of Israeli flags across the city, and militia street patrols.
“The Torah Nuclei, which was established in 2008 after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, brought in scores of settler families into the area with the objective of winning the demographic battle,” Zabarqa said.
At the same time, the number of Palestinians in Lod has steadily increased over the past two decades, reaching 35,000 people.
The authorities were taken aback by this population increase and expanded the Torah Nuclei, building two new settler neighbourhoods, Ramat Elyashiv and Habrashim, and establishing outposts in the middle of Palestinian-majority neighbourhoods.
“Arab residents of Lydd were able to persevere in the last two decades and reject the plans for forcible expulsion, and have indeed increased in number,” Zabarqa said.
He added that the existential dread of the Jewish religious right in light of the natural increase of the Palestinian population in the city drove them to create armed Jewish militias, because, to them, the Arab presence poses a threat.
“Even the mayor has tried to place a moratorium on the call to prayer, which he regards as a symbol of Arab Palestinian and Islamic presence, in addition to the Arab Christian symbols that stand in equal defiance to the Jewish state,” he said.
The city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, is leading the charge in the fight against the Palestinian presence in Lod through the Torah Nuclei group and its policy of encirclement of Palestinians in all public spaces, with the aim of forcing them to leave under duress.
This is because the public sphere is viewed as one of the most important pillars of “the Jewishness of the state”, according to Zabarqa.
One of the Palestinian members of the Lod municipality, Fida Shehadeh, tried to expose the actions of the Jewish militias by pursuing an unorthodox strategy: attempting to participate in the inaugural conference of the Guardians of Lod.
This embarrassed the municipality and the Israeli police, who tried to separate themselves from Shehadeh’s ostensible support for the project. The police questioned Shehadeh about why she wanted to attend the inauguration of an armed Jewish militia.
Both the municipality and the police said they did not participate in the conference, despite the police’s logo being used in the invitation to the event.
Shehadeh holds the Israeli government responsible for these militias, which are registered under the name of a nonprofit organization, receive financial support and are granted the authority to carry out activities without any consequences.
She fears that these armed groups may start to target Palestinian citizens, and, with little fear of reprisals or legal action, will not hesitate to shoot at them.
Such was the case with the Musa Hassouneh who was murdered by four settlers last May on the road leading to Lod’s Old City.
Shehadeh represents a unified list of six Palestinian members out of 19 in the municipal council in Lod.
The armed militias currently boast the membership of dozens of settlers, retired soldiers, and retired security officials, all of whom participate in the mayor’s campaign of incitement against Palestinians in the city, said Shehadeh.
Shehadeh told MEE that the recruitment of hundreds of volunteers in militia groups during times of emergency, protest, and unrest betrays the “colonial mindset of religious Zionism”, which views as imperative the establishment of an exclusively Jewish state in all of historic Palestine.
Shehadeh warned of the potential consequences of establishing the Guardians of Lod, which may serve as a precedent for the founding of other armed militias across coastal cities in the name of safeguarding the “personal safety” of Jews residing near Palestinian locales.
‘A state within a state’
She argued that the pretext of “personal security” and the fear-mongering it entails is a way of telling Jewish Israelis that “you must only rely on yourselves for security, and you cannot rely on state and police institutions”.
Shehadeh fears these militias are proliferating and that the Israeli authorities and police are losing control over the rise of the fascist right.
The far-right, she added, has become a kind of “state within a state”, especially after the establishment of another armed militia, the Sayeret Barel, in the Negev, known to Palestinians as Naqab.
With the tacit support of the Israeli police and the Beersheba municipality, Sayeret Barel was formed at the initiative of the fascist organization Otzma Yehudit under the slogan of “saving the Negev from the security problem”.
That these militias have materialized is no coincidence, Shehadeh argued.
“They are an extension of the Zionist paramilitary groups who massacred untold numbers of Palestinians during the Nakba and carried out ethnic cleansing, erecting a Jewish state on the ruins of the Palestinians who are still living the legacy of the Nakba to this day,” she said.
The use of Jewish armed militias during emergencies means a constant military presence on the streets of Palestinian neighbourhoods in the city.
Zabarqa recalled the events of May 2021 when Israeli authorities made use of the Jewish militias in the West Bank, which it considered “an incubator for intolerance and terrorism”, to target Palestinian citizens in coastal cities, including Lod, Jaffa, Ramla, Haifa, Akka, and other areas of historic Palestine.
Zabarqa believes that employing militias signals the failure of the religious right and the settlers in imposing their control over Lod.
She says settlers are now seeking to gain legitimacy by garnering official support from the state as a way of gaining immunity from prosecution in the event that they kill a Palestinian citizen or damage Palestinian property.
Settler militias took over the old headquarters of the Lod municipality and turned it into an operations room for planning their activities and armed attacks during the uprising, according to Zabarqah.
They have since adopted the policy of stepping up pressure on Palestinian residents, showing them no tolerance, and deterring any act of rebellion through violent harassment.
Through these militias, he added, “the Israeli authorities aim to Judaize public space and to employ the militias in the battle over identity and to secure a victory for the supremacy of Jewish identity over Palestinian identity.
“But we will not allow any of these militias to target us or our identity. Our steadfastness is our main way of protecting our existence,” he said.
“We are facing an open war with the Israeli establishment, and we are looking for a normal dignified life.
“We derive our legitimacy and our power from the land, and we regard the armed militias as lawless. Israel must rein in these militias, which will be responsible for any future outbreak of unrest.”
Mohammed Wated is a Palestinian journalist from Haifa, and an expert on issues related to Palestinian citizens of Israel, Jerusalem and Israeli current affairs