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How Lod became a battleground for Jewish extremists

How Israel's mixed cities became a demographic battleground for Jewish extremists
6 min read
03 June, 2021
In-depth: Garin Torani, a religious nationalist movement, is seeking to strengthen the Jewish presence in Israel's mixed cities, with Palestinians fearing the worst.

As violence simmers across Israel-Palestine in the aftermath of the Gaza ceasefire, tensions remain at boiling point in the city of Lod (Lydd in Arabic).

Standing next to Mayor Yair Revivo, council member Amichai Langfeld called for armed civilians to storm the city and protect Jews in a video widely circulated on social media last week.

"They won't mess with the Jews in 'Eretz lsrael,'" Langfeld said. "The police think that the goal is…to calm things down, and we support [that], but we aren't friars, and we have honour."

Once seen as a haven of coexistence, Lod and other binational cities are now confronting systematic Judaisation and the erasure of Palestinian identity spurred by Jewish supremacists.

A model of coexistence?

The city of Lod has long been upheld as a champion of Arab-Jewish cooperation in Israel. The reality on the ground, however, is markedly different.

"The Nakba never ended, and what we're seeing these days is living proof of that," Rami Younis, who grew up in Lod and is producing a documentary about the city, said. Younis was referring to Israel's mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, often called the Nakba or "catastrophe" in Arabic.

"We feel like we're on the verge of another ethnic cleansing. And what makes it even more obvious is the fact that [Garin Torani] are pretty open about it."

A small group of Jewish settlers, at least one of whom made the trip from the Golan Heights, marches through Lod on 12 May 2021. [Getty]

Garin Torani (literally Torah Nucleus or "biblical seeds") is a hard-line, Zionist movement aiming to strengthen the Jewish presence in binational cities.

According to member Ayelet-Chen Wadler, the group's mission is to go to areas in socioeconomic decline and improve conditions there.

The Garin Torani community of Lod's Hebrew site describes a place of disarray and depletion saved by an influx of Jewish people:

"Towards the end of the twentieth century the condition of the city deteriorated. Failed municipal management, a massive infiltration of a problematic Arab population into some of the neighbourhoods and the departure of residents in favour of the nearby new cities - led to a harsh reality throughout the city and an increase in crime and abandonment," the site says. 

"In the last decade, however, winds of hope have been blowing again in Lod: the establishment of new neighbourhoods, the entry of the Torah nucleus, the activity and determination of residents who care in a variety of areas, and the rise of functioning urban leadership, all bring Lod back on the map."

Palestinian citizens of Israel instead view Garin Torani's actions as attempts to further Judaise mixed communities.

The term Judaisation essentially means turning an area's demographic and core character into a purely Jewish one. The forcible displacement of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, and Arabic names of cities and streets changed into Hebrew, are examples of this process.

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Suha Salman Mousa, executive director of the Mossawa Center: the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel, explained how the arrival of Jewish extremists into binational cities has stifled Palestinians' way of life and culture.

"[Palestinian citizens of Israel] cannot exercise the normal life that they are used to," Mousa said, mentioning how differing religious customs can cause friction between the two. 

"It's not evacuation as we saw in Sheikh Jarrah, but if you see lots of families from Garin Torani buying or renting houses in your neighbourhood, you will not feel that you can stay there."

One notable instance of this disruption of Palestinian society occurred in 2017 when Mayor Revivo barged into a local mosque demanding the imam stop using a PA system for prayers.

From settlers in Gaza to settlers in Lydd

Garin Torani's history stems from the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza. When then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to evacuate Israelis living in Gaza, the majority were resettled in Lod.

A city suffering from a drug addiction crisis and little economic opportunity soon boomed with resources. The rapid growth, though, wasn't because of the newcomers' innovation and expertise, but rather the government's investment.

Palestinians carry the coffin of Musa Hassune, who was killed by an Israeli gunman in the city of Lod, Israel on 11 May 2021. [Getty]

Garin Torani received state funding through the Settlement Division, a body of the World Zionist Organisation overseeing construction in the occupied West Bank and Israel.

According to Molad: the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, an Israeli think tank, the Settlement Division allocated tens of millions of shekels (millions of dollars) to Garin Torani.

Dr Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of Abraham Initiatives, a civil society organisation promoting Jewish-Arab partnership, explained that Garin Torani only makes up roughly 1% - 2% of Lod's population, yet the group holds significant political clout there.

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"The Arab community of Lod consists of one-third of the population but there's only six Arab municipality councillors out of 18," Abu Rass said.

"On the other hand, the founder of the Garin Torani of Lod is the director of the municipality. Out of 26 high-rank positions in Lod, three positions are held by Garin Torani and none are held by Arabs."

Palestinians feel 'pushed out'

As Garin Torani benefits from government funds and political power, Palestinians feel increasingly marginalised.

Unequal services and a lack of adequate infrastructure mean most Palestinians cannot obtain building permits. This has led to housing shortages and home demolitions due to unauthorised building.

Israeli settlers in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. [Getty]

From Younis' perspective, this has emboldened a community already highly empowered. 

"Look at the number of facilities built for them. Look at the number of Israeli flags in Palestinian neighbourhoods," Younis said. "And now they're openly carrying weapons and calling on each other to come with weapons."

Since Israel's inception in 1948, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been subjected to discriminatory laws placing them as second-class citizens in the so-called "only democracy in the Middle East."

Until 1966, Palestinian citizens of Israel were under Israeli military rule, which restricted their freedom of movement and economic prospects. 

More recently, Israel passed the Jewish nation-state law in 2018 declaring the right to national self-determination is solely reserved for Jews. 

Other discriminatory laws include the Admissions Committee Law permitting certain towns to select housing applicants based upon social criteria, a practice often barring Palestinian citizens of Israel from living there.

While the settler movements in the West Bank and Israel are different, in that Palestinian citizens of Israel have a perceived level of equality, Younis stressed how the element of Judaisation ties the two factions together. To colonisers and the colonised, a settlement in the occupied territories and Israel proper is one and the same.

"These settlers actually say, 'What's the difference? That's a settlement and that's a settlement,' and of course, they are right," Younis said. "But they are not right in wanting to ethnically cleanse the West Bank and the land of 48."

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum