Lod's Arab residents fear influx of Jewish 'settlers' will drive them out
One must slog through a lot of mud and garbage to get to the entrance of Lod's old Muslim cemetery, and one can't miss the contrast to the modern new buildings opposite it, some still under construction.
This is the neighborhood of Ramat Elyashiv, 450 apartments being built at the initiative of the Garin Torani, a group of young religious-Zionist families who have come to actualize their Zionism in Lod. A sign on the access road reads "entrance to residents of the street only." Election posters for Habayit Hayehudi flap in the wind on some of the balconies.
This neighborhood was built on the ruins of the cemetery neighborhood, whose residents were evacuated. Not far from here, a similar project called Ahuzat Nof Neria is going up - also targeting religious-Zionist families.
Both these neighborhoods have generated deep resentment among the Arab residents of this mixed city, who could only dream of having such neighborhoods built for them. The local Arabs refer to their new neighbors as "settlers" and fear that their ultimate aim is to drive them out of the city, where they constitute a quarter of the population.
"There's going to be a confrontation here; it's only a matter of time," says Sheikh Yusuf Albaz, imam of the city's Great Mosque. "It has to be clear to the state that if anyone wants to get us out of here, they'll have to bury us here. We're not leaving here alive."
Meir Nitzan, who chairs the appointed committee that's running this distressed city - and who is its eighth mayor in 15 years - is trying to save it, and the new infusion of strong Jewish families is apparently part of the plan.
Not all the city's Arabs necessarily disagree with the strategy: Parts of Lod look like Gaza, some streets look like roads in undeveloped Africa, traffic signs are taken as mere suggestions, and gunfire is fairly routine. The Arabs understand that only an infusion of Jews will spur the city's development, which has suffered over the past 20 years as Jews fled for nearby Modi'in and Shoham. Thus, they watched quietly as the Chicago Community Center became the Garin Torani's day-care center, and as a Jewish school that had closed for lack of students was taken over by a mechina (pre-military academy ) and now has six Israeli flags flying above it.
But some of the local Arabs see the new arrivals as militant provocateurs. These simmering tensions rose to the surface last month when the Garin Torani took its Hanukkah celebrations to the streets, marching with flags and torches and singing, "We've come to banish the darkness."
The Arabs in the area were convinced the message was aimed at them, and one of them, a teacher, raised a Palestinian flag in response. Ten days ago, there was a rally of all the Arab youth groups in the city, whose members massed with Palestinian flags.
Aharon Attias, the director of the mechina and the driving force behind the Garin Torani, tries to allay the suspicions. A Lod native, he debated moving to a settlement after his army service but decided to remain in his hometown.
"To leave here is to run away," he says, adding that his goal is to rehabilitate Lod, not to "Judaize" it.
"If we don't take Zionist, pioneering steps, Lod will go down the tubes," Attias says. "We brought 400 religious-Zionist families to Lod, and we're infused with ideology and motivation. The Jewish people is important to us; it's important to us to maintain the Jewish character of Lod. If the Arab sector would read us right, it could benefit from our presence. With God's help we will build Lod."
Would he like to see Lod with no Arabs? "Let's deal with reality and leave each to his own vision," responds Attias. "Our vision doesn't include having to expel anyone. Lod has a Jewish majority. We want to preserve it and strengthen it."
In the crumbling offices of the local Hadash party branch, branch secretary Maha al-Nakib presents a different picture, of course.
"They came here with a clear agenda to enter Arab neighborhoods and liberate the downtown area from 'the Arab occupation,'" she says. "They got the land from the Israel Lands Administration for next to nothing. They have a covered sports hall, which no Arab school in the city has. We swallowed all this. But when they started with their parades, just like the settlers of Tel Rumeida [in Hebron], with guns and Israeli flags, singing 'Am Yisrael Chai' and 'We've come to banish the darkness,' it's not innocent.
"This wasn't a Hanukkah celebration. ... It was a provocation. There were never parades in the streets before; the Jews would celebrate in their synagogues."
"We very much want Jewish neighbors," she says. "That's how we know that the garbage will be collected and that there will be public transportation. But when they come with an agenda, that they want to expel us and Judaize Lod, of course they're settlers."
Later in the evening, in a one-story structure in the miserable Rakevet neighborhood, Sheikh Albaz, in fluent Hebrew, recites a litany of complaints against the police, which he says does not do enough to solve the many murders in his community. But before long, he gets to Ramat Elyashiv.
"They built a neighborhood here and started to fill it with settlers," he says. "These settlers came and started to dance in the streets, and sing all kinds of songs from the Torah and make provocations."
"In Jaffa, Acre, Lod and Hebron, these are the same people who uproot Palestinian olive trees," says attorney Khaled Azbarga, who, like the sheikh, is a member of the Islamic Movement. "It's the same destructive ideology. If they go on like this, we will not continue to restrain ourselves. We read the map very well and we know what their intentions are. The history of these people is destructive."
Smiling, the sheikh adds, "We're waiting for the trucks to come for us."