Arieh Kovler

Riots in Jerusalem

The holy city has seen yet more unrest

Riots in Jerusalem
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In 2015, I was nearly beaten by a far-right mob in Jerusalem. Thursday night’s riot in the holy city reminded me a lot of that evening. Thankfully, this time, nobody died, but that same feeling of tension, anger and violence was in the air.

My run in with the mob began at a small vigil to protest against the murder of a family at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. For some reason they decided we were ‘left-wing protesters’ — the police were able to encircle us but could do nothing to stop the bottles being thrown, the spit, the curses. Our crowd of attacks moved on, beating any Arabs they came across. A few streets away, two Israelis were stabbed to death by a Palestinian, inspiring a series of opportunistic attacks that became known as the ‘Intifada of the knives’.

This week’s violence involved the Jewish extremist Lehava organisation, founded to ‘fight intermarriage’. One of the ways it seeks to achieve this goal is by beating up random Arabs, or sometimes just people who look a bit like Arabs, and by marching while chanting ‘Death to Arabs!’ Lehava decided to pour fuel on the flames by arranging a march through downtown Jerusalem to the Damascus Gate, a Palestinian area of the Old City to restore ‘national honour’. Their numbers bolstered by disaffected Ultra-Orthodox teenagers, they were a few hundred strong by the time they got to their destination.

Meanwhile, at the Damascus Gate, Palestinians were also gathering. The Palestinian mob turned violent first, before the Jewish mob arrived; police responded forcefully, causing dozens of injuries. The same police were more restrained when Lehava arrived, pushing back the marchers carefully and absorbing their attempts to charge the barricade.

The evening ended with both mobs breaking up into smaller groups, often of teenagers, who went on harassing people all round the city.

Whatever sparked it, tensions suppressed by a year of Covid-19 restrictions have re-emerged now that Israel seems to have beaten the pandemic with vaccines. The hot weather and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan have also played a part in bringing people onto the streets.

Last year was the most peaceful year in Israel's history. Just three Israelis died in terror attacks and none have been killed so far this year. In the same period, 25 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, mostly while carrying out attacks. That's also a historically low number.

But this is a different sort of violence, more akin to race riots than terrorism. On the one hand it's less destructive to life and property; on the other it's more insidious and harder to tackle.

Friday prayers during Ramadan are a big deal and there were fears that there would be trouble on the Temple Mount as Palestinians flocked to al-Aqsa to pray yesterday. In the end, they passed without incident. Friday is the Jewish Sabbath. Bars are mostly closed and the centre of town is empty.

So the real test will be tonight. If things are quiet then there's a chance this flare-up could die down. If there's more trouble, then we could be in for a hot spring. Personally I'm hoping for the best. But I don't plan to join any vigils in town this week.

Perhaps this week’s violence started with a viral TikTok trend: Palestinians and Israeli Arabs recording and posting videos of themselves attacking Ultra-Orthodox Jews for likes and shares. Or perhaps it began when a Rabbi went to rent a flat in the coastal town of Jaffa and was surrounded by an angry crowd of Arab residents, two of whom kicked him to the ground... and, of course, recorded and posted it online.

Just like much of the world, Israel is sometimes two different countries divided by politics. People on the right are reading reports and seeing videos and social media posts about Palestinian rioters attacking Jews. Those on the left watched the Lehava march with horror and condemned the one-sided response of the police. Anyone trying to condemn the whole damned mess is accused of ‘both-sidesism’ by, well, both sides.

Politicians, too, have been making the situation worse. The minister in charge of the police, Amir Ohana, put out a statement on Friday that made no mention of the Jewish violence while condemning the Arab TikTok attacks; the head of Balad, an Israeli Arab political party, praised the attack on the rabbi in Jaffa; Lehava is effectively the street movement of the Jewish Power party, whose one Knesset Member, Itamar ben-Gvir, is key to forming a coalition government that would keep Benjamin Netanyahu in office. There's a real dearth of responsible adults capable of cooling things down.