In Lydd, Palestinians fear tinderbox of Israel’s war, threat of expulsion


Lydd, Israel – One week after Israel began bombing Gaza last October, Ghassan Mounayer received a call from the Israeli police.

An officer warned him not to write any critical Facebook posts about the war or call for demonstrations in Lydd [Lod in Hebrew], where Palestinian citizens of Israel like Mounayer live alongside Jewish Israelis.

“They said, ‘We’re watching your Facebook’, and not to write anything ‘Satanic’,” said Mounayer, who is a human rights activist. “I said, ‘Do you have any examples of posts like this?’ He said, ‘Don’t be smart. You are being watched’.”

Since Israel launched its war on Gaza following Hamas’s deadly attack on October 7, tensions in mixed Palestinian and Israeli cities have approached boiling point. But few places are as tense as Lydd, a city run by far-right Mayor Yair Revivo and where relations between Palestinians and Israeli Jews have been fraught for years.

Palestinian activists say they fear for their lives, living in the shadow of the Israeli authorities and heavily armed Jewish Israeli citizens, many of whom belong to supremacist movements. They are warning that the city could “explode” into conflict and lead to the persecution and even expulsion of Palestinian residents.

“Palestinians know that Israelis are looking for any situation to kill us or arrest us, because right now it is war time,” Mounayer told Al Jazeera.

“Israel is just a democracy for Jewish Israelis and many Jewish Israelis want us to leave Lydd and go to Arab villages.”

‘Living under constant threat’

Palestinians in Lydd make up about 27 percent of the city’s population, many of whom live in urban and impoverished neighbourhoods and whose families have lived in Lydd for generations, pre-dating the Nakba or catastrophe, when 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their homes and villages during the creation of Israel.

Some are the children and grandchildren of Palestinians who fled the village of Majdal, which is roughly 62km (38 miles) from Lydd, during the Nakba. Others from Majdal – now called Ashkelon in Israel – went to Gaza. Entire Palestinian families remain split between Lydd and Gaza today.

Maha al-Nakeeb, a Palestinian human rights lawyer in Lydd, has lost 16 of her relatives in Israel’s relentless bombing campaign in Gaza. Despite the trauma, she has refrained from commenting or critiquing the war on social media out of fear that she could be arrested.

In the first two weeks after October 7, at least 100 Palestinian citizens of Israel were arrested for social media posts expressing sympathy or anger over Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed more than 30,000 people to date, the vast majority of whom are children and women. Thousands more are lost under the rubble of the war, presumed dead.

“Palestinians are living under constant threat … all Arabs here live in fear,” al-Nakeeb told Al Jazeera. “The Israelis want us to think that we live in their house. That this city – this place – does not belong to us.”

Mounayer added that Israel has historically tried to punish or crush expressions of solidarity between Palestinians who live in Israel and those who live in the occupied territories. He added that Palestinians in Lydd are holding in their anger over all the reports of Israeli atrocities coming out of Gaza.

“Israel does not want us to feel solidarity with our brothers and sisters. They don’t want us to ask for collective rights,” he said.

‘We are not treated as citizens’

Israeli extremists have long viewed Lydd – and other mixed cities – as a battleground on which they are fighting to increase their numbers and gradually erase Palestinian existence.

This is the explicit mission of Garin Torani, or Biblical Seeds, an Israeli supremacist group that intentionally settles in Palestinian neighbourhoods across Israel. With most Palestinians unable to acquire building permits, members from this group and other far-right Israelis exploit this discriminatory policy to build new homes in heavily populated Palestinian districts.

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, many settlers relocated to Lydd and other mixed cities. Illegal settlers from the occupied West Bank have also strategically relocated to Lydd to “Judaise” the city, often resulting in acute gentrification and soaring tensions with Palestinians.

But whenever a dispute erupts, the security forces and Mayor Revivo solely protect Jewish Israelis, according to Nisrine Shehada, a Palestinian activist in Lydd.

“We are citizens of this state, but we are never treated as citizens,” she told Al Jazeera from her office.

Shehada recalled Lydd’s solidarity protests with the Palestinians who were being expelled from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and attacked in Al-Aqsa Mosque in May 2021.

Back in Lydd, far-right Jewish Israelis responded to the protests by attacking and shooting at a group of Palestinians on May 10. They killed 32-year-old Musa Hassuna, a Palestinian resident in the city.

After the incident, protests escalated as did ethnic violence between Israelis and Palestinians. A Jewish Israeli man, Yigal Yehoshua, was killed by a Palestinian mob a week later.

According to Human Rights Watch, Israeli authorities handled the killings of Hassuna and Yehoshua very differently. All Jewish Israeli suspects were released on bail within just two days of Hassuna’s killing and were then later cleared of all charges. However, eight Palestinian men were swiftly arrested in connection with Yehoshua’s killing and accused of “murder” and “terrorism”.

Police also failed to protect Palestinians from violence by far-right Jewish Israeli groups and arrested 120 Palestinians in Lydd, compared with just 34 Jewish Israelis.

“The protests were understandable and expected, but the government made all Palestinians pay a price for it,” said al-Nakeeb.

‘We know they want to kick us out’

Palestinian residents of Lydd told Al Jazeera that they do not want any confrontations with far-right Jewish Israelis in the city, despite Israel’s continuing atrocities in Gaza. Many fear that Palestinian communities could be gunned down or expelled from the city altogether if tensions boil over.

Since October 7, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has handed out thousands of assault rifles and other weapons to Jewish Israelis across the country and to illegal settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. Many people walk around openly carrying these weapons in Lydd.

“Israel distributed guns like they were candies here,” al-Nakeeb told Al Jazeera.

The tense political climate, coupled with the arming of civilians, has compelled moderate Jewish Israeli and Palestinian community leaders to form a committee. Their mission is to deffuse communal tensions and avoid conflict.

Shehada is part of this committee, which frequently attempts to dispel fake news in the hope of maintaining a cautious calm in Lydd. Despite cooperating with Jewish Israeli colleagues, she explained that she does not have any close Jewish Israeli friends.

“I never heard anyone in the committee say that we should all live together in peace and love. Everyone is just really scared and we need calm in our respective neighbourhoods,” she told Al Jazeera.

But with Islam’s fasting month of Ramadan approaching next week, the committee’s efforts could be in vain. Most years, during the holy month, Israeli authorities tend to crack down on Palestinian worshippers going to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Violence in the mosque could trigger a new deadly conflict in Lydd.

“If we see problems in Al-Aqsa, it’ll spark a war,” Shehada said. “We all know what could happen. “We know [Israeli extremists] want to kick Palestinians out.”__Al Jazeera