Jewish residents of a town in central Israel have formed an armed group they say is for self-defense, after a series of Palestinian attacks across the country raised fears of a new wave of internal violence.
The mixed town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, has become the focus of communal bloodshed that erupted in Israel last year, with government and police struggling to control clashes between Arabs and Jews.
“So far, I personally haven’t seen the need to carry a weapon, but there are friends who have weapons, certainly. There are weapons, doctors and medics,” said Michael Lichtenstein, who calls himself the group’s “security coordinator.” More than 50 volunteers serve in the group, based in Ramat Elyashiv, a Jewish neighborhood in the city that is a stronghold of right-wing religious nationalists.
Lod residents say they have yet to see the group on the streets. But according to its organizer, volunteers are already active in deterring the alleged harassment of Jewish children by young Arabs, but without using firearms.
The city’s Arab residents see the new group as a militia that could target them, accusing Lod Mayor Yair Revivo of supporting its creation.
For some on Israel’s far-right, the potentially volatile development should be hailed as a strengthening of the police.
“A citizen’s obligation and right to defend themselves comes first and I have a problem with anyone who thinks these people are criminals,” said Knesset member Simcha Rothman of the opposition Religious Zionism party. , who temporarily moved to Lod from his colony in the occupied West Bank to, in his own words, bolster a Jewish community threatened by Arabs.
Last month, after the bloodiest attack in greater Tel Aviv in years, Israel’s far-right prime minister called on citizens with gun licenses to arm themselves. “What what is expected of you, Israeli citizens? Vigilance and responsibility,” Naftali Bennett said in a video statement. “Anyone who has a firearms license, now is the time to carry it.”
There has been a dramatic increase in applications for firearms licenses in Israel, according to the local Channel 12 newscast.
Following the attacks, Israeli troops have responded with deadly raids across the West Bank that are killing civilians as well as activists and, critics say, adding fuel to the fire.
Lod, known for its crimes and gun violence among a minority of its Arab residents, offers a microcosm of how Arab-Jewish tensions are rising again across Israel, and not just in the occupied Palestinian territories. As Rothman’s relocation shows, the conflict in the West Bank is being imported into Israel proper by the same hardline religious Jewish nationalists who fuel tensions in the area captured by Israel in 1967.
For Lichtenstein and diehard nationalists, Israel’s future hangs in the balance. “It worries me that [Arabs] are not afraid of the police, that the police do not collect their weapons and that the army has lost its deterrent force,” he said.
Chen Masika, a history professor who supports Lichtenstein’s efforts, said the two sides had entered into a battle in which the very existence of Jews in Lod and throughout Israel was at stake. only Judea and Samaria,” he said, using biblical terms for the West Bank.
Leaders of Lod’s Arabs, as well as left-leaning Israeli Jewish observers, say the formation of militias can only help push the city toward a new outbreak of violence.
“How can we live together if their goal is to keep us away from the Jews and scare us? asked Fada Shehada, an Arab city councilman. Last year, the streets of the city looked like a war zone, with Arabs and Jews attacked, Muslim graves vandalized and synagogues burnt down.
Lod’s Arab community is made up of the descendants of Palestinians who remained in the country after the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel, when around 700,000 others were expelled or fled. While life was once relatively calm in Lod, known as Lydda in Arabic, today Arab and Jewish residents say the Israeli police are not doing enough to protect them.
Lichtenstein, who served more than 10 years in the IDF, part of it as a logistics officer, said his new force would only use weapons in accordance with the law. Its supporters say the group is in regular contact with the police.
Mayor Revivo’s office and Homeland Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev’s office did not respond to questions about this article.
The armed force was prepared to protect Jewish residents precisely because there could be a new outbreak of violence, Lichtenstein said. “I know that if things erupt suddenly, the police won’t reach me in the early hours, so I’m ready for the early hours until the police arrive. The question is what should I do to protect my neighborhood and the families who live there?
Lod’s group of security volunteers had distinct vests and hats, Lichtenstein said.
A resident coming out of a mosque who said he was a close relative of Musa Hassouna, an Arab resident of Lod who was shot dead last year, said he expected further violence and, pointing to a nearby Jewish neighborhood, added, “Because of the settlers.” A Jewish Israeli, Yigal Yehoshua, was also killed in the May violence after stones were thrown at his car.
Jewish residents of Lod recall overstretched police forces last year failing to respond to their cries for help. They say policing has since improved but fear they are still not up to the challenge. Meirav Cohen, a 25-year-old teacher who lives in a mixed apartment building, hosted Jewish residents organizing for self-defense. “There is no choice. We don’t want to be where we were a year ago,” she said.
Eran Nissan, leader of the left-wing Israeli group Mehazkim, said the formation of militias in Lod reflected the fact that Israel was at a very dangerous time, especially in light of the current escalation.
“When you arm a society, it’s very difficult to disarm it,” he said.