The day Asaf Ronel saw the images of his neighbor Mohamed, a 12-year-old Arab-Israeli boy, with burns on his torso and face from the explosion of a Molotov cocktail thrown by extremists at his home, he decided to take to the streets of his city, Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, to understand firsthand what was happening during the worst wave of mass unrest in the country in more than 20 years.
I live in Sheikh Jarrah and for Palestinians this is much more than a “real estate conflict.”
For nearly two weeks last May, shootings, stabbings, arson and lynchings between Jewish and Arab citizens made headlines in the local and international press, which reported on the lawlessness in Israel’s mixed-population cities (Lod, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Haifa, Acre and Jaffa), as well as the new escalation of violence between the Jewish state and militias in the Gaza Strip following protests in East Jerusalem over the imminent eviction of Palestinian families in favour of Israeli settlers. The demonstrations were violently dispersed.
Asaf Ronel witnessed firsthand not only the chaos that prevailed for several days in his Jaffa neighborhood, but the police repression that followed once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government decreed the deployment of hundreds of border police – with a presence in the West Bank, The police applied to the detainees, mainly Arab-Israelis, the same tactics (wiretapping, interrogation, use of informers) that they usually use with the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. A police repression that, according to Asaf Ronel, was also intentionally covered up by the Haaretz newspaper, known inside and outside the country for its greater sensitivity to the Palestinian cause.
You decided to leave the newspaper where you had been working for 15 years because of its coverage of the riots in Israel’s cities. What made you take that decision?
To see that what the newspaper was reflecting was not what I was seeing with my eyes, as a journalist and as a neighbour. To see how it placed in the ghetto the Palestinian voices that were in its pages without showing those that spoke of brutal police repression, of the presence of paramilitary forces in the streets, of the fear that they sowed and how they used that fear to control and oppress the population.
In their chronicles they described the response of the Arab-Israelis as “inexplicable anger”, they implied that their reaction was disproportionate, that they wanted to fight and that they had no right to react, when what my neighbours told me was how they were forced to stand at the gates of their homes with whatever weapons they had to defend their families in the absence of police to protect them. They said that the security forces would stop and interrogate any 50-year-old Arab for simply being an Arab. There were racist motivations that were not being transferred.
The police, who were forbidden to use live ammunition, instead applied a hitherto unknown brutality. Most of the violence came from their side, rather than from that of the Jewish settlers. When I understood that, I explained it to the editor of the newspaper, since there were no more Israeli journalists on the ground with any real will to go deep into the bowels of the local population. However, the coverage did not change. I understood that in Israel even the “left-wing” press, and I stress the quotation marks, does not reflect the reality of the Arab citizens, it always puts them in the ghetto.
How did your professional colleagues react?
Some admitted that there was an excessive use of force. Others said it was a lesser evil, that the priorities were different, while continuing to talk about the violence perpetrated by the Palestinians. The paper’s management adopted a very specific narrative in its pages, picking out the voices it considered legitimate from those it did not, without showing the panic that the police were provoking in the local population. It sided with the security forces, which is common in the Israeli media, but perhaps a bit more subtle in Haaretz. For example, such prestigious voices as those of journalist Amira Hass are always in the opinion pages, never in the main news. They take great care to choose the people who act as a mirror of what is happening on the Palestinian street. However, sometimes, the reality is different and for me, this became an insurmountable problem.oportable. I left my post. Today I am still glad I did.
What specific event contributed to your decision?
It was not a single thing, but a succession of several. When on May 12 a mob of Jewish extremists pulled an Arab driver out of his car and lynched him to death near my neighborhood, I didn’t really understand what was going on. Three days later it was an Arab boy, my neighbor, who was badly burned by another attack, this time by two Arab boys. It had a profound impact on me. That day, when I was writing about Bangladesh or Costa Rica for the newspaper, I decided to go out on the street and understand firsthand what was happening a few meters from my house. I talked to dozens of people, I went to neighborhood meetings. Only then did I begin to understand.
And what was going on that wasn’t being reflected in the media?
I saw fear in people’s eyes like never before. The entry into Jaffa of Jewish settlers armed to the teeth and policemen who looked more like soldiers generated an uncommon terror. Arab residents reported how the police even threw stun grenades at some homes in the middle of the night for no apparent reason or arrested any Arab under the age of 50 just because he or she was an Arab. If they complained, they were beaten or arrested.
The aim was to spread terror in order to take over the situation at a time when the country’s security forces were under a lot of stress because of the rockets coming not only from Gaza, but also because of the attempted clashes on the border with Syria or Lebanon. They felt they could not cope with it all and were determined to use fear as much as necessary. No media in Israel talked about this.
What you say is very reminiscent of the information coming from the West Bank…
That’s right. The feeling was that the tactics of the occupation in the West Bank had reached the mixed cities of Israel. When the police entered Jaffa they identified as the attackers the kids who were in the street, kids with no future, victims of the rejection and neglect practiced for decades by successive Israeli governments towards the Arab population. Young people living on the edge of society.They were the perpetrators of bicycle thefts and the sale of small quantities of drugs who one day, in the absence of the police, felt they had to defend their community from the radicals who entered the neighbourhoods shouting “death to the Arabs”. They paid a price. They were brutally punished and some vented their frustration by burning or destroying Hebrew symbols such as synagogues. That image was later shown on television.
According to official data, in the weeks that followed the police arrested more than 1,500 people. Of these, 70% were said to be Arab-Israelis and 30% Jews.
Yes, of course, but my impression is that there were more arrests of Arab citizens than of Jews. Many were interrogated by the Shin Bet (internal intelligence service), which used the same tactics of the occupation on them. I wouldn’t last a day in one of their interrogations. Some detainees were not even allowed access to a lawyer for days, i.e. the same thing the Israeli army does in the occupied territories.
Criminal gangs are rampant in Israel today; there is a huge problem with them and with arms trafficking in Arab cities.
The message from the government is that many of those who took part in the fights belonged to criminal gangs?
That’s right, but I wouldn’t say they were in the majority. Criminal gangs are rampant in Israel today and, in fact, there is a huge problem with them and with arms trafficking in Arab cities, they use the nationalist outbreak to perpetrate their own attacks. Historically, when the crime affects only Arab citizens, both perpetrators and victims, the police have shown little interest. Now we are seeing the result of years of institutional neglect.
What happened to the dozens of young men who were charged for participating in the riots?
The ones who did participate in blood crimes are already paying for it, of course, but many others with minor offences have also ended up in jail. If you subject them to interrogation by the Shin Bet, they will end up confessing to whatever they want, including terrorist crimes. And then what, they will go to prison and maybe they will be put in the same cell with 3 or 4 other prisoners from Hamas or any other terrorist organization. The result will be their total disconnection from Israeli society, they may even become radicalized. It’s a perfect example of how to ruin the future of kids who could have ended up otherwise.
After what happened, where does the country stand now?
There is a new coalition government led by a religious ultranationalist and also including an Islamist party and a pacifist party that has just approved at least the first budget in 3 years. However, the political system has reached an impasse, there is no vision for the future as the underlying issue remains unresolved, the apartheid system that continues to be practiced by the State of Israel and that determines its position in the world.
Is the two-state solution clinically dead?
Yes, more than ever. The Zionist left has no real solution in this regard. The two-state solution is today a lie known to the whole world, built on the maintenance of a corrupt government such as the Palestinian National Authority, which in the end sustains the Israeli occupation for the sake of a false peace process.
What future would you like to see for your daughters?
One in which Israelis and Palestinians, us, start talking seriously about how all this is going to be because outside nobody cares about this conflict anymore. I would like to see for them a future in which the occupation is just a bad memory. That Jews and Arabs live together, but for real, with the same rights and the same opportunities.