Shlomo Shalom insists he would “take a bullet” for his Arab friends. But after Hamas’s devastating attack on southern Israel, he suggests “everybody” in the country should be put through a citizenship test so “we know who is with us and who is not”.
“It’s changed how I look at Arabs. It’s different. I don’t think everyone is a terrorist, but I don’t know if their brothers or fathers support Hamas, so we are careful,” says Shalom, a butcher in Jerusalem. “We have to be very suspicious.”
In East Jerusalem, Adam, a Palestinian-Israeli taxi driver who didn’t want to give his surname, is smarting over the insulting messages he says he received from Jewish Israelis on the car-hailing app he uses, including: “Fuck off Arab people, I want Jewish drivers”.
“It made me so angry I cancelled the app,” the 22-year-old says. “I don’t want to work with them anymore.”
The two positions reflect the unprecedented level of fear, anger and suspicion coursing through Israeli society in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 assault and the Jewish state’s thunderous retaliatory offensive against the Palestinian militant group in Gaza.
For 75 years, Jews and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have endured a fragile coexistence, often working side-by-side but rarely delving deep into, or understanding, each other’s lives. It is a relationship that was fundamentally conflicted from the start: Jews celebrate the state’s founding in 1948 as the embodiment of the Zionist dream; Palestinians consider it the Nakba, or catastrophe, as some 700,000 were displaced in the first Arab-Israeli war.
They have different languages and separate sources of news. Each has their own sense of victimhood and a competing version of a shared history blighted by conflict — the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, through two Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, to the bloody explosion of communal violence in 2021.
Yet despite friction and acrimony, coexistence inside Israel — where Palestinians with Israeli citizenship make up a fifth of the population — has survived.
But rarely — if ever — has there been such a stern test as the eight-week Israel-Hamas war. Both Jews and Palestinians are mourning unprecedented numbers of dead from their respective communities and each is enraged by assaults on their people.
“The level of bad emotion is something we have never seen,” says Ron Gerlitz, executive director of aChord Centre, an non-profit group that specialises in the social psychology of intergroup relations. “If we end this war without [communal] violence, the social scientists will have hard work to explain why.”
The trigger was Hamas’s attack on kibbutzim, military posts and a music festival in southern Israel on October 7, which killed about 1,200 people, including women, children and the elderly, and is described by Israeli officials as the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
The assault on homes, with gory glimpses of the militants’ attack played out in videos posted on social media, tore at the promise of a safe Jewish homeland where its people would be protected.
Nearly every Israeli Jew has been touched, either losing a relative in the attack or knowing someone who did. Most have relatives and friends called into the military after a record mobilisation of reservists — some 300,000 out of population of nearly 10mn — to support Israel’s onslaught against Hamas in Gaza.
A survey conducted by aChord after October 7 showed a significant rise in fear, mistrust and hate among Jews.
“Many of them [Jews] feel this existential threat. And at this time, the inability to see the other side, the complexity of the other side, and the fact that the other side is not homogeneous but heterogeneous, is very dangerous,” Gerlitz says.
In the other corner, the 2mn Arab-Israelis, most of whom identify as Palestinians and are sympathetic to the decades-old Palestinian cause, have been outraged by the death and destruction caused by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
Some 16,000 Palestinians have been killed in the strip, most of them women and children, according to Gazan health officials. Israel has also laid siege to the enclave, causing severe shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine. Some 1.8mn people out of a population of 2.3mn have been forced from their homes.
The aChord poll showed there was increased fear among Israeli-Arabs, but also a decrease in hate and distrust towards Jews. That could be partly explained because many Palestinians were fearful of speaking, but is also possibly a sign of empathy towards Jews after the October 7 attack, Gerlitz says.
How far coexistence within Israel is set back could depend on whether communal violence breaks out, adds Gerlitz. “We don’t know what is waiting for us,” he says.
‘We’ve gone 80 years backwards’
The grim mood is palpable among Israeli Jews of all political shades in a society that has veered ever more to the right over the past 15 years as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has towered over the nation.
The left has been marginalised and those pushing for a political settlement to the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become an ever decreasing minority. And even those who consider themselves peace activists have struggled with their emotions in the wake of the Hamas attack.
“More than I fear the anger, I fear the fear . . . because even me, I can say that things that were really very natural for me at the shared life scene [Jews and Palestinian Israelis working to improve relations], became harder the day after,” says Galit Raz Dror, a 42-year-old Jerusalem resident who describes herself as a “wannabe activist”. “I fear Arabs in the street more than I used to.”
Tears welling, she says the October 7 attack “broke my heart, my body and my soul”.
“It crushed many of the things I believed in or wanted to believe in,” she adds. Raz Dror sends her children to a YMCA kindergarten, one of the few in Jerusalem that admits Arab and Jewish children.
She still believes in political settlement with the Palestinians, but “there are things that will have to wait”.
Palestinian population in Israel and Palestinian territories
Number of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship living in Israel, total population: 10mn
Population of the Gaza Strip
Population of the West Bank
“Things that even if I feel them so strongly, it will be so not the time to say them, because I would only push away people that may be my partners,” Raz Dror says.
At the other end of the spectrum sits Ilana Benyamin, who has two grandchildren in the Israeli army fighting in Gaza. She is angry that the “world doesn’t understand Israel”.
“I’m 65 years old and I cannot count the amount of wars I’ve been through,” she says. “My father grew up in Iraq with Arabs and he used to say, ‘You can never trust them’. I would say, ‘Please give them a chance’.”
In an indication of the rage that many Israelis still feel weeks after the attack, Benyamin adopts some dramatic rhetoric. Now “I pray they disappear, all of them,” she says. “Maybe there will be a miracle, but it won’t happen.”
Asked about Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, her response is blunt: “They’re even worse”.
“If they have a chance, they will not leave one Jew in this place,” Benyamin says. As she speaks, the Palestinian man who has worked at her family grocery store for more than 20 years walks in and out of the shop, sometimes within earshot.
“I’m afraid of him,” Benyamin says. “I speak to him but he hates me — all the Jews. I can tell by the way he looks at me.”
Shalom, the butcher, says he always thought security came first, but also that Israel should not occupy Palestinian territories. But “how we saw things, it’s broken, no matter if you’re left wing or right wing”.
“Everything we thought is irrelevant, it’s a restart and nobody knows how it’s going to go,” Shalom says. “We’ve gone 80 years backwards.”
He used to oppose mass gun ownership because he “didn’t want us to be like Texas”. But after October 7, the 42-year–old is planning to buy a gun. Weapon stores have seen a surge in sales.
“I’m not scared, I’m angry. I saw many things but I always believed in humanity, the good of people, not the political, now that has stopped,” says Shalom. Posters of some of the 240 hostages seized by Hamas are plastered on a bus shelter outside the butchery.
Palestinian-Israelis sense the rage and fear — hostile stares, people crossing the road, the rising number of guns on the streets. Many worry they risk losing their jobs or criminal charges for expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause or the 2.3mn people trapped inside Gaza.
It is a minority that has endured decades of institutionalised discrimination, according to rights groups, and has good reason to be alarmed.
Sawsan Zaher, legal adviser at the Emergency Coalition for Arab Society, says her organisation has recorded more than 200 arrests, most for social media posts expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza or critical of Israel’s bombardment of the strip. It also reports more than 100 job dismissals and scores of cases of disciplinary action at academic institutions.
She believes the real figure is much higher, adding that if Palestinian-Israelis post messages on social media “that don’t come in line with the Israeli mainstream, it’s enough to regard you as supporting terrorism or encouraging terrorism”.
“My phone doesn’t stop . . . even if they don’t have issues with work or aren’t arrested, they constantly need legal advice because they are always afraid,” says Zaher, who lives in the mixed city of Haifa. “What happens if they do X in their work, or say X in their work?”
And just as Jews are suffering from collective trauma, so too are Palestinian-Israelis, many of whom have friends or relatives in Gaza or the West Bank. Israeli forces have killed more than 240 Palestinians during raids and unrest in the occupied territory since October 7 and arrested about 3,000, while there has also been a surge of attacks by emboldened Jewish settlers.
“It’s immediate fear, collectively and individually. We are also asking ourselves, ‘Is there going to be another Nakba, not only in Gaza but also in Israel? Are we going to be deported? Are we going to be assaulted?’” Zaher says. “How [are] my relations with my Israeli peers going to continue?”
Jewish and Palestinian activists blame members of Netanayhu’s far-right government — which has vowed to wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth” — for stoking the tension. Israel’s police has authorised a march by 200 right-wing Jewish activists through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City for Thursday.
But activists point particularly to the inflammatory remarks of religious Zionists Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, and Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister.
Days after October 7, Ben-Gvir, who in 2007 was convicted of anti-Arab incitement, said his ministry had purchased 10,000 rifles to arm civilians in Israeli border towns, mixed Jewish-Arab cities and West Bank settlements.
“We will turn the world upside down so that towns are protected,” he said, adding that preparations would be made for a “Guardian of the Walls 2”, a reference to the communal violence of 2021.
Last week, Smotrich said there were 2mn “Nazis” in the West Bank, “who hate us exactly as do the Nazis” of Hamas.
“You have to distinguish between the fear and suspicion among the Jews, which is really understandable, and people who are trying to create political consequences based on that, such as Smotrich and Ben-Gvir,” says Yusri Khaizran, from the Truman Institute at Hebrew University. “Despite the fear and suspicion among the Jews, the general behaviour of Jewish society is not like that, it’s not violent.”
To counter the extreme narratives, civil society groups, government and municipal officials, including from the right wing, and in the private sector have been working to keep a lid on the tensions, particularly in Israel’s mixed cities. Palestinian-Israeli political leaders have also sought to calm the situation, condemning Hamas’s October 7 attack.
Mansour Abbas, a prominent lawmaker in the Knesset, told Israeli radio last month that the attack did “not represent our Arab society” and was “against everything we believe in”.
Analysts also point out that Palestinian-Israelis, including health workers, helped respond to the Hamas attack — and that Bedouins were victims of the assault, as were Jewish peace activists.
Gerlitz adds that “enormous numbers of people have approached us to help them manage Jewish-Arab relations in employment, in academia, private companies, government ministries, public companies”.
In part this is pragmatism — bosses have businesses or government services to run and local officials are wary of their cities becoming battlefields.
Palestinian-Israelis play a significant role in many sectors, including health, where they account for about 40 per cent of the workforce, the pharmaceutical sector, construction, agriculture and call centres. But workplaces have become a prime source of tension, with demands by Jewish workers, customers and patients in hospitals to temporarily stop Arab employees working.
“Jews and Arabs come to work in the call centre or hospital or in a food chain, and the Jews are really afraid of the Arabs . . . They don’t differentiate between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian working with them,” Gerlitz says.
Still, his hope is that the pragmatic approach endures, as it has during previous conflicts.
“The majority of people in Israel believe, even in times of war, we have to maintain this relationship.”
Clinging to hope
Some also take solace in the fact that two months into the war there has not been a repeat of the 2021 communal violence that erupted when Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day conflict, spreading to nearly all of Israel’s mixed cities.
But in Lod, an epicentre of that violence, Fida Shehada, a former city councillor, says the atmosphere “feels 10 times worse than in 2021”.
“In 2021, it was the municipality, the government, the police, now everyone in the streets is political and wants to kill everybody in Gaza,” she says.
Shehada, who set up a civil society group to help manage Jewish-Arab relations after the 2021 violence called Influence, has been among those seeking to calm tensions.
After the Hamas attack, she helped organise meetings of leaders from both communities. The first week it went smoothly. But by the second, “[Jewish people in the meeting] were talking about wiping out Gaza”.
“It’s 2mn people and this is how they want to deal with Gaza? It’s scary,” says Shehada, who has lost nine relatives in the strip. That put an end to the meetings. “Three people from the Jewish side tried to talk again — but it’s three people,” she says.
She remains in regular contact with the city’s mayor, raising the problems Palestinian-Israelis are facing. About 40 Arab-Israelis have been fired in Lod for social media posts. Three people have been arrested, she says.
“They are planting fear in people to scare them from thinking or expressing themselves,” she says.
Some of her Jewish acquaintances have called her, “but you cannot have a conversation about politics”.
When she took her nephew to buy chocolate, the shopkeeper told her he didn’t serve Arabs. When they went to a children’s play area, she was shocked to see a woman sitting with an assault rifle by her side.
“They want everybody to understand they’re feeling anger and pain, but don’t understand any anger and pain on the other side,” she adds. “If you have family in Gaza and are feeling pain they cannot understand you.”
More optimistic peace activists cling to the hope that the war could ultimately cause Israelis to rethink resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how they live alongside Israeli-Palestinians.
“There was a need for reshuffling in this country,” says Michal Barak, co-chair of the board of Sikkuy-Aofuk, a Jewish-Arab advocacy group that seeks to advance equality. “My hope is this shock will change many things . . . and we need to make sure something good comes out of it.”
She acknowledges, however, it is a topic “most Jews in Israel don’t want to talk about”.
“We live in bubbles, my bubble is very much like me. But even my kids, who are adults and support me, there was a big argument during lunch yesterday about what we do,” Barak says. “It’s a very complex picture . . . It’s not trivial after such a shock, it takes time for people to see the complexity.”
The danger is the longer the war lasts, the greater the toll and the deeper the divisions.
“If people want to live together you find a way,” Shehada says. “But if you want to find a way you have to have equality. I don’t want to be a slave for anyone. To ask me to shut my mouth, I’m a slave.”
Source: Financial Times