Anti-Arab sentiments in Israel show no signs of abating
TEL AVIV // When Israeli police finally confirmed one week ago that the murder of 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir had a “racist, nationalist motive” it only proved what everyone in Israel and Palestine had known for weeks.
The identities of several of the men who killed Abu Khdeir — abducting him from outside his home in Shuafat, East Jerusalem, taking him to a remote forest and burning him alive — are still under gag order in Israel, but it is known that two are just 16 and the ringleader, Yosef Chaim Ben David, the only man identified so far, was 29.
Israeli police say that the three men in custody — there are three others free on bail and thought not to have been actively involved in the murder — recreated the murder for police, and admitted that on the morning of July 2, following the funerals of three Israeli teenagers the previous day, “they went out looking for an Arab to kill”.
The Abu Khdeir case feels like a long time ago now, with more than 500 Palestinians dead in Gaza since Israel began its bombardment of the strip.
The Abu Khdeir family will be considered terrorist victims, meaning that they will receive benefits offered to Israeli victims of terrorism, but the family is sceptical that the men will be tried at all.
Abu Khdeir’s father, Hussein, said even after the murder that the men would claim to be insane; indeed, local media reported this week that two of the men would be submitting insanity pleas.
But the racist, nationalist undercurrent that the Abu Khdeir murder represents shows no sign of abating in Israel. In recent weeks, peace rallies in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem have been attacked by right-wing extremists, chanting “Death to Arabs”.
On Saturday, hundreds of rioters were dispersed with water canon in Haifa after attacking peace campaigners.
Meanwhile, on July 12, violent fanatics attacked a peace rally in Tel Aviv after police rushed to shelters during a rocket siren.
In recent days, only large numbers of police posted at rallies in Habima Square have managed to keep the growing mobs at bay.
Many of those on the streets — or increasingly making their views known online — are teenagers or in their twenties, underscoring the growing popularity of right-wing politics among young Israelis.
Their generation grew up during the second intifada and since then the separation wall and siege of Gaza has reduced interaction between Jews and Arabs. Most young Israelis will only encounter Palestinians as young IDF conscripts posted to the West Bank or, more recently, battling Hamas in Gaza.
“There seemingly is greater receptivity for those sentiments here in Israel (and) I think part of it is about the second intifada,” said David Sheen, a Canadian researcher focused on far right parties in Israel.
“When you go back to before that there was more interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. If you were in a group of people 20 years ago and somebody said: ‘Kill the Arabs’, or something like that, at least someone in your group would say: ‘That’s not cool’.”
Mr Sheen has, in recent weeks, exposed cases of young Israelis using Twitter or other social media to call for the murders of Arabs.
This follows a number of scandals after the kidnapping of three teenage Israelis in June, when one page called for killing “one terrorist an hour” until they were found.
For Haggai Matar, 30, an Israeli political activist, it is important to distinguish between the internet trolls and those who can actually shape public opinion.
“It is worth trying to see with the internet who are your regular loonies and whose writing has more effect. Take the organiser of the demonstration” in Tel Aviv on Saturday, he said. The man in question was an Israeli rapper named Yoav Eliasi — known as ‘The Shadow’ — who urged right wingers to join him in protesting a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square last week.
“When he calls people to arms it is not as important as a politician but it is worth more attention than just your average nut, sending death threats,” he said.
This was seen after the rally, when dozens of right wingers attacked the peaceful protest. Mr Eliasi wrote on his Facebook page: “Together we’re a force against the real enemy among us, the radical left, and thanks to my guys who are apparently called the lions, and thanks to the IDF, all this is for you!”
But critics also point out that the surge of fanaticism, which has intensified over the past month, comes against a political backdrop of the most right-wing government the country has seen in years.
Naftali Bennett, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, said last year that he had “killed lots of Arabs… and (had) no problem with that”.
The foreign minister, Avignor Lieberman, branded a prominent Arab politician in the Knesset as a “traitor” after she was arrested at an anti-war rally.
“I agree that the 100 people coming to these events… shouldn’t be given all the attention, they don’t deserve it. I think the bigger problem (is)… the more established side of this phenomenon: high-ranking politicians inciting against the left,” said Mr Matar.
Michael Stephens, deputy director of Royal United Services Institute in Qatar and a former Jerusalem-based analyst, believes that the perceived rise in right-wing politics in Israel dates back to the country’s 2006 war with Hizbollah, and painful memories among Israelis of the government’s handling of it.
“The general tone of Israeli discourse has become more defensive, and more aggressive in dealing with security issues, particularly with regard to Hamas and Hizbollah,” he said.
“Israel and Israelis in general have moved right because there doesn’t seem to be an answer to the problems they have — the left tried and failed.”
Meanwhile, division is growing among Israelis tired of the repetitive and increasingly brutal wars in Gaza and those on the right, who hate the leftists almost as much as they do Arabs.
At a peace rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday, a young former soldier turned peace campaigner paced up and down at the entrance to Habima Square. On the other side of the street, 100 far-right protesters were held back behind police barricades.
Suddenly, three young women approached the soldier and began to scream at him, calling him a traitor and a terrorist before they were dragged away by police. “I just want to have a dialogue,” said the soldier, as one of the women, wild-eyed, shouted and waved an Israeli flag in his face before being pushed by police back towards the swelling ranks of right-wingers.
Their chant: “Let’s turn Gaza into a car park!” hung in the air on the sticky summer night.