Lydd’s Palestinians are leading a new uprising

Oren Ziv

+972 Magazine  /  May 20, 2021

Discrimination, police violence, and disparities between Palestinians and religious settlers in the city of Lydd have led to the largest uprising in decades.

Last week saw the eruption of a kind of violence rarely seen between Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens, including lynchings, street fights, and arson. Nowhere was that violence more visible than in the so-called “mixed city” of Lydd. Violence in the city erupted last Monday after a group of Palestinians protested in solidarity with Palestinians in East Jerusalem over the forcible expulsions from Sheikh Jarrah and the attacks on worshippers at Al-Aqsa Compound during Ramadan.

Residents told +972 that the protest went on without any issues, until the police began using stun grenades when youth hung a Palestinian flag on Al-Omari Mosque in Lydd’s Old City. Following the protest, both in Lydd and the adjacent city of Ramle, Palestinians burned cars and tires. Later that night, a group of right-wing settlers opened live fire toward a group of Palestinians who were protesting. Musa Hassuna (28) was critically wounded and died. This sparked a wave of protests in Lydd and in other cities that we haven’t seen in decades. 

The events in Lydd and other Palestinian cities in Israel are part of the most widespread uprising among Palestinians inside the Green Line since October 2000. They represent a new kind of protest, which the Israeli public, the media, and the police are struggling to contend with.

Yet this alone does not explain the current situation, nor the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reaping political rewards from the chaos.

Institutional discrimination, police brutality, and the racism of Israeli society — particularly in cities like Lydd and Ramle, from which thousands of Palestinians were expelled in 1948 and have today been turned into ghettos — have all played a decisive role in the ongoing uprising. Israelis from settlements in the occupied territories have been steadily moving to these cities over the past few years — in particular since the 2005 Gaza disengagement — and are enjoying a higher standard of living than many of the original residents; this, too, is another principal factor in what we’re seeing right now.

There has been a degree of quiet in Lydd since the end of last week. This could be because the penny dropped for the Israeli police who, along with sending additional forces to the city, began communicating with local residents while finally curbing, to an extent, the activities of the far right groups. Last week, those groups essentially conducted themselves as an armed militia in the city, either frequently accompanied by the police, or at least unhindered by them.

‘Either we’re all terrorists or we’re all defending ourselves’

 Over the past two weeks, I have spoken with dozens of Palestinian residents of Lydd, both young and old. According to them, they went out to protest Monday last week in solidarity with Al-Aqsa Mosque. The police attacked the demonstration, which devolved into clashes, including bins being set on fire. But the real impact, they told me, was the killing of Musa Hassuna. 

Hassuna, they say, is Lydd’s first casualty of direct Israeli violence since 1948. His killing provoked outrage against the “Garin HaTorani” — the name for the religious Zionist community that was established in the city over two decades ago, and whom Palestinian residents dub “settlers.” The community has, over the past few years, been making increasing efforts to “Judaize” Lydd, particularly in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood in the old city.

Thousands of people attended Hassuna’s funeral, which took place Tuesday last week, a day after he was killed. As the funeral procession passed the city’s military preparatory academy, Israeli police fired tear gas at mourners, further escalating the tensions. That same night, and for several nights after, young Palestinians in the city attacked cars and homes belonging to Jews, and burned a number of synagogues.

Last Wednesday and Friday, hundreds of settlers and right-wing activists took to the streets of Lydd almost without interference, marching through the old city and looking for people to assault. Some of them threw stones at Palestinians while standing next to police officers who did nothing to stop them. In one incident, they stormed the Al-Omari Mosque in the old city. The police chased after them and, instead of removing the right-wing activists, opened fire on local residents. Another right-wing group shattered the windows of the nearby Dahmash Mosque. Dozens of cars belonging to both Palestinians and Jews were set alight, as were parts of several synagogues.

The police split the right-wing activists into two categories: those who had come to “passively protect” the city’s Jewish residents from attack, and those who were actively seeking to attack Palestinians, such as right-wing extremists, hilltop youth, members of the far-right La Familia group, and even the principal of a religious high school. But it was in fact the first group that set up checkpoints in the street, staged armed patrols, and assaulted Arabs.

“When I throw stones they call me a terrorist,” said a man in his 20s last week, as he stood guarding the entrance to Al-Omari Mosque with a wooden club in his hand. “But settlers also throw [stones], so either all of us are terrorists or all of us are defending ourselves.”

For many, the most significant development has been the fact that right-wing activists arrived in the city armed. “We also have weapons, if need be,” the man outside Al-Omari Mosque continued. Gunfire could be heard throughout the evening on Wednesday, being shot into the air and at police positions. “This is a balloon, and it’s being inflated until it’s going to explode,” he added. Despite his militancy, however, the man showed me an exchange of text messages he had with Jewish friends who had sent him holiday greetings, to which he had responded with heart emojis.

This is perhaps the story of the youngsters who went out to protest in Lydd: their willingness to act, even with forms of violence, in order to protest their circumstances, while at the same time acknowledging the reality of living side-by-side with Jewish Israelis. Another young demonstrator I spoke with last week agreed with this: “It’s true, Israel is here now, but give us a place to live.”

Many of the residents I spoke with denounced the synagogue arson and the violence against civilians. Some even took it upon themselves to douse the fire set at the Dossa Synagogue on Wednesday night. “Of course we are also not okay,” admitted one young man whose home was attacked by right-wing activists Tuesday night.

“We grew up with [those who] founded Dossa [Synagogue],” says Jamal Abu Kasif. “We lived in Lydd, Jews and Arabs together. The problem started when the settlers and organizations trying to Judaize Lydd arrived. They walk around with guns and provoke us, but we’re not leaving.”

‘They want Lydd to resemble the occupied territories’

 Members of the religious Zionist community, most of whom moved to Lydd from settlements in the occupied West Bank, seemed surprised at the turn of events. From their perspective, the city prior to recent events had been in a state of “coexistence” — clearly ignoring what their presence was doing to the Palestinians in the city.

“This is a city in the center of the country, next to an airport. If there’s a neighborhood where Jews aren’t allowed to live in, that’s crazy,” said Tahal, who moved to Lydd two years ago from a settlement near Jerusalem. “I know our Arab neighbors are happy we’re here,” she said. “We came and connected the stairwell to electricity, and they thanked us. It’s hard to believe this is coming from them.”

Avi Rokach, the head of the religious Zionist community in the city, struck a more militant tone. “I’m a citizen, I work and come home to sleep, but if I’m caught up in a fight over that home, I’ll fight,” he said. Rokach dismissed the presence of hundreds of armed Jews in the streets of Lydd as a necessary response to the absence of the police, who he claimed failed to protect Jewish residents.

“A vacuum was created, and we filled it,” Rokach continued. “We, as a public, have spent a lot of time in Judea and Samaria [the biblical name for the occupied West Bank], we know what a vacuum is and what’s needed to fill it.” Nonetheless, he expressed opposition to the violence of some of the right-wing activists. “Any Jew who throws a stone is causing a provocation, and we need to put them behind bars.”

It took the police time to grasp what was happening in Lydd, and in the end they never really confronted the right wingers. Last Wednesday, hundreds of members of La Familia, the far right militant fan club of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, patrolled the streets, brawling and setting up checkpoints to see who was Jewish and who was Palestinian.

The police also set up checkpoints, bringing hundreds of additional officers, including special forces, and using live ammunition. But while detained settlers were taken away in police cars, and often not detained at all, Palestinian residents were forcefully arrested, handcuffed, had their eyes covered with flannel, and seated in degrading positions. A police source insisted that they treated Jews and Arabs the same, but the situation on the ground showed otherwise. And at the national level, the picture is clear: since the beginning of the violence, Israel’s prosecution has filed 170 indictments against people involved in rioting or violence across the country. Only 15 of those indictments were filed against Jewish Israelis.

One Lydd resident said that the right-wing activists who descended on Lydd did not take into account that the city isn’t like the West Bank. “A Palestinian in the [occupied] territories can’t respond, because he’ll be immediately arrested or shot. But here the situation is different. They didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into,” the resident told +972.

“We cannot come to terms with the fact that settlers from outside the city have come here and are committing Jewish terrorism,” said Amir Shariki, who helped put out the Dossa Synagogue fire last week. “The police are giving them full backing while turning a blind eye. They want the situation in Lydd to resemble that in the [occupied] territories, where everyone is going around armed and checking who is Arab and who is Jewish.”

“They’re trying to set the city ablaze, to undo the quiet here,” Shariki continued. “It’s a pity it has come to this. I blame the mayor, who allowed the religious Zionist community to come here, more than I do the police. He supported them, gave them everything, while not taking care of the Arabs already living here.”

Shariki said the causes of the recent events in the city run deep. “Hatred doesn’t develop in a day or two,” he said. “It’s not Al-Aqsa or Musa [Hassuna]. It’s a years-long process that has brought us to this point. Netanyahu is going all-in. He has nothing to lose.”

On Friday, residents of Lydd discovered that dozens of graves in the Muslim cemetery next to the old municipality building had been vandalized overnight. Meanwhile, the building next to the cemetery, which the municipality handed over to private companies a decade ago, had become a base of operations for right-wing activists.

Maha al-Naqib, a former Lydd council member, toured the cemetery last week. “They haven’t come to live as neighbors but rather to push Arab residents out of the area. Until now there’s been quiet, but in the past week everything came to the surface. We’re afraid of the settlers who have come to the city, with the support of the municipality. We have no protection, the Israeli media is only showing one side of things, and no one cares about all that is happening to us. They said that [what happened to] Hassuna was self-defense, despite being able to see that [the shooters] were not in danger.”

Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, a founding member of the Activestills photography collective, and a staff writer for Local Call