In the eyes of Palestinians, the term “flag march” evokes images of Jerusalem. It connotes, for us, the struggle over the Holy City and Al-Aqsa, and provocations by masses of far-right Israeli Jews wrapped in flags, taking over the city, and reaffirming Jewish supremacy.
Those images flashed before the eyes of the Arab residents of Lydd, a so-called mixed city in central Israel, after it was announced that it would have its own flag march on Sunday, Dec. 5. The provocative march, which included hundreds of young right-wing Jews, was deliberately scheduled in Lydd, which has been ground zero for far-right groups trying to assert their power and intimidate Palestinian residents ever since the violence that erupted in the city and would come to engulf much of Israel-Palestine in May.
Five hundred of those far-right Jews — most of them young, some of them settlers from the West Bank — marched through the city on Sunday to “support the Jewish residents of Lod” (Lydd’s Hebrew name). The march was also scheduled to go through the mixed Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, which was at the center of the violent events in May, but the police changed the route of the march at the last minute to prevent friction between Palestinian and Jewish residents.
Since May, Lydd has entered the public consciousness of Palestinian citizens as the most dangerous and explosive place in the country, second only to Jerusalem. A Palestinian citizen was killed in Lydd at the start of the events, after which a Jewish citizen was also killed; the city’s synagogue was burned down and a mosque was shot at; the houses of Arabs and Jews were destroyed and Molotov cocktails were thrown at them; a closure was imposed on the city; and one resident was placed under administrative detention. Around 300 Palestinians and five Jews were arrested in Lydd, and while the investigations into Jewish violence against Palestinians in the city have been closed, investigations into Palestinian violence against Jews is ongoing.
Many Palestinians blame the local Garin Torani, a cell of the settler movement that seeks to further Judaize Israel’s “mixed cities,” for much of the violence. Since the events of May, it seems that the Garin Torani has decided that Lydd is holy only for Jews. Many tour groups — youth movements, pre-military academies, students and seniors — have been coming to the city, guided by members of the Garin. I came across these tours on Friday mornings and heard how the guide describes the mission of the Garin members to save the city from the poverty, violence, and misery that the Arabs have inflicted upon it for many years.
Lydd was never a quiet city, but until May, the struggle over the shared space and control of the city did not take on a religious character. There were a few attempts by the mayor, Yair Revivo, to provoke the Muslim residents, including by threatening to lower the volume of the call to prayer. Once, he himself even broke into the Dahmash Mosque in the middle of prayer.
‘We need a show of culture, language, and belonging’
“This entire march is the continuation of an organized plan by the Garin Torani to take over the city,” says Hanan Samara, who heads the Parents Committee in Lydd. “This is a display of force by the right, which is going to war against one thing alone: Arab presence in the city. The very fact of our existence bothers them. What happened in May was a wake-up call for all these sleeper cells. [The right] discovered that there are Arab citizens here and that these Arabs have power and presence and that they don’t give in. This march had nothing to do with Hanukkah or religious ceremonies. It is tied to a war for control of the city, to remind us what they are able to do, to remind the mothers of the arrests, the stones that were thrown, and the buses they can bring in to fight us. This is their weapon to control us.”
And what should the Arabs do?
“We have a severe leadership problem. On the one hand, there is more awareness among people who until May were busy surviving, and now have woken up and realized that they are in the crosshairs. On the other hand, the local leadership wants to silence, to go with the flow, to shut their mouth in exchange for more decent treatment by the municipality, despite the fact that the leadership knows there is discrimination and racism — and now real hostility toward us.
“We need to organize, to have a show force of culture, language, and belonging to a city that embraces everyone, and to make clear that we will not give up on our place and our roots. At the same time, as a mother, I do not want war in the streets or violent clashes with members of the Garin Torani. The way forward is to remain steadfast and step out of our zone of fear, which the events in May instilled in us.”
Settlers in the city
Today, Lydd is a city of poverty and violence, of tension and distress. It is a complex fabric that includes a Palestinian population that has lived in the city for centuries, Palestinian refugees who arrived from the surrounding villages after 1948, Bedouins who moved there from the south, Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, from Arab countries, and from Ethiopia. In the last decade, Garin Torani activists — including evacuees of Gush Katif (Israel’s settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip prior to 2005), people who grew up in West Bank settlements, and others — have moved into the city.
Like every Palestinian city, Lydd contains archeological remains from different periods of history, including layers upon layers of different peoples and groups who lived in the area. If this city is sacred to any religion, it is primarily to Christians. Every year on November 16, Christians celebrate the feast of St. George, also known as Eid Lydd (the Festival of Lydd), or Eid Al-Khader by its popular name. Thousands of Christian worshippers — as well as Muslims — frequent the city with drums, sweets, and happiness that only Lydd can provide.
For 70 years, Jews and Arabs lived in the city and faced the same problems of poverty, crime, lack of welfare, education, planning and housing. The Arabs, who make up 30 percent of the residents, suffered more discrimination and neglect than the Jewish residents, but they all shared the city, most of whose old neighborhoods became de facto “mixed.”
A struggle for ‘self-protection’
Atty. Tayseer Sha’aban is a member of Lydd’s Popular Committee. Recently, Mayor Yair Revivo publicly accused Sha’aban and Atty. Khaled Zbargah, another activist, of incitement in the run up to the flag march.
“In his irresponsible conduct, the mayor not only led us to the tragic events of May, he is also embracing the cells of the Garin Torani that were raised in the settlements’ incubators of terrorism and hatred, inviting them to his city for this parade of provocation — and then has the audacity to accuse us of incitement,” Sha’aban says. “He acts as the mayor of a very specific group in Lydd, serving them and taking care of their needs, because he smells elections looming on the horizon.”
Sha’aban calls on Revivo to change his “old tone of threats and intimidation, because he will not break us. We will not compromise on any legitimate demand for justice and full equality in the city to which we belong and in which we have lived for hundreds of years, way before the Garin Torani came and the mayor was born.” Importing the Jerusalem model, Sha’aban added, “could turn Lydd into a constant battlefield.”
Even before it became clear that the police had changed the route of the march from the Arab neighborhoods, the Popular Committee, along with other Palestinian activists in the city, asked residents to remain alert and avoid confronting or provoking the marchers. Meanwhile, groups of young people joined together and decided to spend the night in the local mosques to try and prevent any potential attacks by the marchers, particularly next to Lydd’s Great Mosque.
“The mayor brought terrorist militias from the settlements to Lydd under the auspices of the municipality in May,” said Atty. Zbargah, who is also a member of the Popular Committee. “There is currently an attempt to privatize the security of local residents through the establishment of Jewish militias under the name ‘Guardians of Lod,’ (Lydd’s Hebrew name) to try and engineer and institutionalize aggression against the Arabs in the city. [Revivo] has given them a control room, headquarters, and offices, and has allowed them to install cameras across the city.
“Instead of inciting against us, the people who want to protect the city and maintain quiet in its neighborhoods, we propose [Revivo] take responsibility for his actions,” Zbargah continues. “We never called for harm against anyone. The Arabs in Lydd have always maintained respect and good neighborly relations. Our struggle is a just, legal, and nonviolent one for the purpose of self-protection.”
In the end, the march itself was far more modest than planned, and was attended by only a few hundred people. Nevertheless, Revivo had harsh words for the Palestinian residents of the city. “The flag march, which has now concluded and took place in parallel with a rally outside the Great Mosque, could have easily ended differently. The preparations by the Israeli police and the mobilization of local public figures, Jews and Arabs, were able to allay fears.”
Maha al-Naqib, a former council member and activist with the left-wing Hadash party, also sees the march as part of a larger strategy to make life unbearable for Arab residents of Lydd. “Inside Arab society, violence and crime are rising, every family is struggling to survive and save itself and its children,” she says. “On the other hand, the political agenda of ‘Judaizing’ the city, which actually means cleansing the city of its Arabs, is gaining strength and is led by a small and organized group that controls budgets, public buildings, and key positions.”
“This parade is another tool for repression — it is a demonstration of power against an already weakened and neglected population,” al-Naqib continued. “The people of Lydd know what is happening and where all of this is leading, but most have no strength to confront it. With all of their exhaustion, and despite the political consciousness that has risen since May, the strong side still has an insatiable instinct to fight, to shed blood. They very much long for another round of fighting — and for victory.”
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.