The day Asaf Ronel saw the images of his neighbor Mohamed, a 12-year-old Arab-Israeli boy, with burns on his torso and face as a result of the explosion of a Molotov cocktail thrown by extremists at his house, he decided to go out at streets of his city, Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, to understand first-hand what was happening during the worst wave of mass unrest to hit the country in more than 20 years.
Last May and for about two weeks, the shootings, stabbings, fires or lynchings between Jewish and Arab citizens took the headlines of the local and international press, which echoed the anarchy reigning in the cities of mixed population of Israel (Lod, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Haifa, Acre or Jaffa), as well as the new escalation of violence between the Hebrew state and the militias of the Gaza Strip, which emerged as a result of protests called in East Jerusalem by the imminent eviction of several Palestinian families in favor of Israeli settlers. The demonstrations were violently dispersed.RELATED
Asaf Ronel was a direct witness not only to the chaos that reigned for several days in his Jaffa neighborhood, but to the police repression that followed once the Government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decreed the deployment of hundreds of border police – with a presence in the West Bank, but not in Israel – or the intervention of units of the Shin Bet (internal intelligence service), which applied to the detainees, mainly Arab – Israelis, the same tactics (wiretapping, interrogation, use of informants) that they usually employ with the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. A police repression that, according to Asaf Ronel, was also intentionally covered up by the newspaper Haaretz, known inside and outside the country for his greater sensitivity towards the Palestinian cause.
You decided to leave the newspaper you had worked for 15 years because of your coverage of the riots in the cities of Israel. What led you to make that decision?
Check that what the newspaper was reflecting was not what I was seeing with my eyes, as a journalist and as a neighbor. See how it placed in the ghetto the Palestinian voices that it collected on its pages without showing those that spoke of brutal police repression, the presence of paramilitary forces in the streets, the fear they sowed and how they used that fear to control and oppress to the population.
In their chronicles, the response of the Arab-Israelis was addressed as “inexplicable anger”, they implied that their reaction was disproportionate, that they wanted to fight and that they had no right to react, when what my neighbors told me was how they were forced to stand at the doors of their homes with whatever weapon they had to defend their families in the absence of a police officer to protect them. They said that the security forces detained and interrogated any 50-year-old Arab for the simple fact of being an Arab. There were racist motivations that were not transferring.
The police, who were prohibited from using live ammunition, used hitherto unknown brutality instead. Most of the violent acts came from him, rather than from the Jewish settlers. When I understood that, I explained it to the editor of the newspaper, since there were no more Israeli journalists on the ground with a real desire to penetrate the bowels of the local population. However, the coverage did not change. I understood that in Israel not even the “left” press, and I highlight the quotation marks, it reflects the reality of Arab citizens, it always places them in the ghetto.
How did your professional colleagues react?
Some admitted that there was excessive use of force. Others said that it was a lesser evil, that the priorities were different while continuing to speak of the violence exerted by the Palestinians. The newspaper’s management adopted a very specific narrative in its pages, choosing the voices that it considered legitimate from those that were not, without showing the panic that the police were causing in the local population. He positioned himself on the side of the security forces, something common in the Israeli media, but perhaps something more subtle in the Haaretz. For example, voices as prestigious as those of the journalist Amira Hass are always on the opinion pages, never in the central information. They are very careful to choose the people who act as a mirror of what happens on the Palestinian street. However, sometimes the reality is different and this became unbearable for me. I left my post. Today I am still satisfied that I did.
What specific event contributed to your decision?
It was not a single thing, but the succession of several. When on May 12, a mob of Jewish extremists took an Arab driver out of his vehicle and lynched him to death near my neighborhood, I didn’t really understand what was happening. Three days later it was an Arab boy, my neighbor, who was seriously burned by another attack, this time by two Arab boys. It shocked me deeply. That day, when I was writing about Bangladesh or Costa Rica for the newspaper, I decided to go out and understand first-hand what was happening a few meters from my house. I spoke with dozens of people, I attended neighborhood meetings. Only then did I begin to understand.
And what was happening that was not being reflected in the media?
I saw fear in people’s eyes like never before. The entry into Jaffa of heavily armed Jewish settlers and police officers who looked more like soldiers generated rare terror. Arab residents reported how the police even threw stun grenades at some homes in the middle of the night for no apparent reason or detained any Arab under the age of 50 for the mere fact of being an Arab. If they complained, they were beaten or arrested.
The objective was to sow terror to seize the situation at a time when the country’s security forces were under great stress from rockets arriving not only from Gaza, but also from the attempted confrontations on the border with Syria or Lebanon. They felt that they could not deal with everything and were determined to use fear as necessary. No media outlet in Israel spoke of this.
What you relate is very reminiscent of the information that comes from the West Bank …
That’s how it is. The feeling was that the tactics of the occupation in the West Bank had reached the mixed cities of Israel. When the police entered Jaffa, they identified as attackers the kids who were on the street, boys with no future, victims of the rejection and abandonment practiced for decades by successive Israeli governments towards the Arab population. Young people living on the edge of society, perpetrators of bicycle thefts, of the sale of small amounts of drugs that one day, and in the absence of the police, felt that they had to defend their community from the radicals who entered the neighborhoods shouting “death to the Arabs”. They paid a price. They were brutally punished and some vented their frustration by burning or destroying Hebrew symbols such as synagogues. That image was the one that later appeared on television.
According to official data, in the following weeks the police arrested more than 1,500 people. Of them they said that 70% were Arab-Israeli and 30% Jewish.
Yes, of course, but my impression is that there were more arrests of Arab citizens than of Jews. Many were questioned by the Shin Bet (internal intelligence service), which used the same occupation tactics on them. I wouldn’t last a day for one of his interrogations. Some detainees were not allowed access to a lawyer for days, that is, the same as the Israeli army does in the occupied territories.
From the Government the message is that many of the participants in the brawls belonged to criminal gangs …
Yes, but I would not say that they were a majority. Criminal gangs today roam freely in Israel and, in fact, there is a huge problem with them and with the arms trade in Arab cities, they use the nationalist outbreak to perpetrate their own attacks. Historically, when crime affects only Arab citizens, both perpetrators and victims, the police have shown little interest. Now we are seeing the result of years of institutional neglect.
What happened to the dozens of young people who were charged for participating in the riots?
Those who did participate in blood crimes are already paying for it, of course, but many others with records of minor crimes have also ended up in jail. If you subject them to an interrogation by the Shin Bet, they will end up confessing whatever they want, also crimes of terrorism. And then what? They will go to prison and maybe put in the same cell with 3 or 4 other prisoners from Hamas or any other terrorist organization. The result will be their total disconnection from Israeli society, they may even become radicalized. It is a perfect example of how to ruin the future of guys who could have ended differently.
After what happened, at what stage is the country?
There is a new coalition government led by a religious ultra-nationalist and of which an Islamist party and another pacifist are also part, which has just approved at least the first budgets in 3 years. However, the political system has come to a standstill, there is no vision of the future in that the underlying question remains unresolved, the apartheid system that the State of Israel continues to practice and that determines its position before the world.
And the two-state solution? Is it clinically dead?
Yes, more than ever. The Zionist left has no real solution in this regard. The solution of the two states is today a lie known all over the world built from the maintenance of a corrupt government such as that of the Palestinian National Authority that ultimately supports the Israeli occupation for the sake of a false peace process.
What future would you like to see for your daughters?
One in which Israelis and Palestinians, we, begin to talk seriously about how all this is going to be because outside nobody cares about this conflict anymore. I would like to see for them a future in which the occupation is just a bad memory. That Jews and Arabs coexist, but really, with the same rights and the same opportunities.