The Women of Lyd (Lod)

Hili Greenfeld, Pastel, oil and collage on wood, 70X90 cm
Teaser Image Caption
Hili Greenfeld, Pastel, oil and collage on wood, 70X90 cm

The events of May 2021 left deep impressions amongst the Arab-Palestinian society in Israel, especially in Lod, as well as among the Jewish residents in town. In many ways, the violent events undermined existing norms and habits on multiple levels – social, political, economic and national – while raising inter-community awareness and thought on these diverse issues.

In this article, I will review the impact the events had on the lives and statuses of Palestinian women in Lod’s mixed urban space. With gender lens applied on social, professional, family and personal aspects, I chose to bring the words of the women themselves, and thus give voice to an entire group whose diverse life experiences, points of view, and values leading it often remain transparent and excluded. The following information and quotes were collected through interviews conducted over a period of 3 months, with 12 women and 4 women’s groups.  

The city of Lod found itself at the heart of May 2021 violent evets that span over more than two weeks, and reflected the various complexities of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. The first Arab victim of the riots, Musa Hasoneh, was shot in Lod in May 11th, a murder that increased the flames and was followed by a strong protest of the Arab community. This protest brought dozens of Jewish activists and settlers who rioted across the city. At a certain point, the city went into lockdown of over a week. The riots left destruction in the streets, severe damage to private and public property, physically and mentally hurt victims, 39 arrested (38 Arabs and one Jewish) and one Jewish victim, Igal Yehoshua, of a group lynch. In the following months, and after the visible violence ended, Lod’s residents remained in deep trauma, which was not properly addressed. The polite and fragile daily relations were cracked and the delicate atmosphere became hostile. It seems that until now, 6 months after the events, the residents live in silence and fear. The following paragraphs document the impact the events had on the city’s disempowered population, namely the Arab children and women in Lod.

In order to understand the impact May 2021 riots had on women in Lod, one should be aware of the data and the situation prior to the events. Lod is home to 80,000 residents, out of which 30% are Arabs, mostly residing in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, in illegal constructions, and in high density neighborhoods, such as Ramat Eshkol which is inhabited by Arab families, young couples, Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia and former USSR countries, and, in the last decade, with families who belong to the group of the religious settlement (Gar’in Torani).

Arab women make 40% of the women supported with municipal welfare services, and most women in public housing are Arab single mothers. In Lod, there is a group of women who have no formal status, who do not qualify for basic welfare benefits. Many of these women arrive at NA’AM organization (Arab Women in the Center) and its assistance center.

Unemployment among women in Lod stands at 60%. 14% of the women are graduates of higher education institutions. On this note, it should be acknowledged that during the last decade there was a significant improvement in the education parameter among young Arab women in the city. The level of Violence against Women in the city is higher than the national average. In 2020, the numbers of threatened women was doubled and the number of women and teenagers victims of violence increased by 30%. 38% of women’s murder (femicide) cases occur in central Israel (in Ramla, Lod and the southern triangle area). Most murders are executed by criminal organizations using firearms. Out of the last 10 murders in the city, only one reached an indictment.  

In Lod, women’s political and public level of engagement is low, in accordance with their local socio-political status. This way, for example, out of six Arab city council members, only one is a woman. A non-formal body called “the people’s committee” is also active at the local level, yet it is not elected, and processes of joining it or leaving it are not transparent. The committee has membership of dozens from across neighborhoods and political affiliations, among them are two women. The committee represents a leadership that is conservative and generally does not encourage the engagement of women in the public sphere. This discouragement reflects the phenomenon of exclusion of women from formal and non-formal positions of power in the Israeli society in general and the Arab community in particular.

In terms of population – the Arab residents of Lod include Muslim and Christian Palestinians, who lived in the city before 1948, and refugees from the surrounding villages who fled to the city after the war. Out of the Arab population, 30% are Bedouins from the Negev area who migrated to Lod for political and economic reasons.

During the past three months, I interviewed 12 women and 4 women’s groups across the city. The interviews focused on the six following themes:

Mental, family and social trauma

All the women I spoke with mentioned that their main task during the events was to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their children and elderly family members, and related to the events in terms of unprocessed, silent mental, family and social trauma. They were concerned that this trauma will continue to be part of their family and mentioned sights, memories and daily coping with the events, alongside ongoing financial distress. This way, for example, a young woman was mentioned, who cannot go out of the house since May, an elderly woman, a 1948 refugee, who is not able to speak since the events and a third grader who escaped the city with her family and since coming back suffers behavioral regression.

Since the events, the city went back to routine, but there was no municipal response to the trauma of the women or the children. For example, Arab school teachers were not guided on the appropriate ways to communicate with children and their parents, while having to cope with the events and their consequences in their own homes, and while expected to get everyone back on track.

A school teacher, mother of three young children said:

“In school I have an 8 year old from Ramat Eshkol, whose home was attacked by a group of settlers. She and her brothers moved to relatives in another neighborhood and came back 4 days later to a battlefield, a broken home, with burnt cars and bullet holes around it. The girl started to wet during the nights, asks to sleep with her mother out of fear and cannot stay by herself. The child describes difficult dreams and an emotional overwhelm. She fears that the police or the army will take her younger brother. This child, and dozens like her, are not receiving any kind of therapy. The school did not hold any consultations regarding the children’s emotional state. And if the kids are not treated, how will they take care of us, the teachers?”.

The principal of Al-Razi School (450 students), located at the heart of Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, where most riots raged and where dozens of the outside settlers’ groups stayed, said:

“This is pure persecution. They blame the Arab kids on throwing stones, take their pictures, and once demonstrated in front of the school claiming that a fifth grader was throwing stones at them. In fact, instead of hugging, teaching and take care of the children, my job now is to keep the people belonging to the religious group away from the school and guard the personal safety of the children, talk to the police and the security forces”.

It seems that the damage to the women and children’s mental health after May 2021 events does not get public attention, let alone institutional attention, and there are no formal structures offering professional mental support to assist in processing the events. The other group, on the other hand, receives media coverage and public support.

Economic implications

The delicate relations between Arab and Jewish citizens was damaged, hostility levels and mutual suspicion increased. The labeling of Arabs as “ungrateful”, for identifying with the Palestinian people, became legitimate. As the Arab leadership declared a national strike in protest of the events, employers started to let their Arab employees go, alongside public statements by major companies opposing these acts. Some corporations even published manifests against separation and in favor of continuing to work together to avoid escalation.

Women, mostly those who are older and less educated, usually work in smaller enterprises and are not protected by strong workers’ unions. Many women, mostly from the weaker neighborhoods and many times single mothers, work in unprofessional jobs of care work, cleaning, services, and other low-income positions.

Development of political awareness among young women

Most women I interviewed testified that the events of May 2021 were politically-nationally ‘eye opening’ for them, during a critical short time. During the events, they were flooded with information, messages, photos, videos and articles. There was a significant gap between what was shown on mainstream media and the experience in city neighborhoods. Many women were occupied with their children participating in violent demonstrations, fearing arrests and injuries, witnessing busses of settlers’ supporters coming into the neighborhood, while experiencing abandonment on the side of the authorities. This gap brought many women to be active on social media to fight for the story, and bring their perspectives. One of the women said that her cell phone became her weapon, reflecting how documentation became an important tool.

These women, closed within their homes, became activists and found themselves appearing on Arab media outlets. As the events unfolded, one could notice a beginning of change in women’s roles within the family and community. While at the outset of the events, many women closed in with children and family members, as men went out to guard the streets and mosques, soon the same women became active on social media, mainly on WhatsApp and TikTok.

Maha Al-Nakib, the first woman to serve in Lod’s city council, said:

“Women in my family and in the neighborhood became, unwillingly, politically active. They became more aware of the political environment and the power relations within the city. Of course, they knew these things before, but the severity and amount of violence and hate made us all stop and think about our status in the city”.

Young women protested in demonstrations that started at the funeral of Musa Hasoneh. The event was the first time where women participated in a funeral, together with men, against the custom according to which only men participate in the funeral march. As the march started, dozens of women marched forward through the crowds, ignoring voices calling them to stay back. This was a thrilling moment of feminist defiance against gendered conventions.

There are, until now, groups of young women and mothers who are leading a continuous protest against violence and the public presence of firearms. Despite attempts to silence those emerging voices, and internal criticism, the protest continues with a double purpose – against weapons and murder and against patriarchy.

It seems that up until May 2021, the common perception among the women in Lod, was acceptance of things the way they were. A kind of aware repression of power structures, discrimination and silent racism.

One of the women told the staff at NA’AM:

“I knew that they (the Jewish neighbors) can’t stand us, especially the settler group. The old Lod residents got used to the reality of neighboring Arabs. The Russians, Georgians, Ethiopians, Morrocans and others. They are not as hostile. But the religious group came in order to forcefully take over the municipality, neighborhood, jobs and everywhere. The Arabs here never wanted to fight or confront them, really, most Arabs in Lod are fighting to get basic products and live. For years we stood by, watching how resources – financial resources, structures and spaces – are being moved to one direction, but no one really wanted violence”.

These days, most women describe relationships of silent mistrust with their Jewish neighbors:

“Once I got a recipe from a Kurdish neighbor, we exchanged recipes; with this group I don’t even have that. After the events we are actually fear each other when meeting in the elevator and stairs, and try to avoid any contact”, says A., a mother of six from Ramat Eshkol.

The women repeat the motive of hate and violence imposed on them in the street, the mall and market, so the labeling of the violent Arab is hard to escape.

S., from the mixed Banit neighborhood describes:

“We became like any village in the West Bank, war all the time, and no silence, if a Jewish neighbor from the religious settlers group decides that they are afraid of me, of my daughters with their Hijab, they will start shouting, hitting, we have enough problems and not too much power to fight back, and they refuse to understand that”.

Her friend, aged 46 from Ramat Eshkol adds:

“Somehow the religious groups identified that the Arabs in Lod are not as organized as those in the north or the Palestinians in the west bank, we don’t have real political parties or movements. A bit of noise before the municipal elections and that’s it. Now we have to understand that the situation necessitates that we get organized in order to survive”.

Confusion of good and evil

Lod has more cases of murder and severe crime than any other city after Tel Aviv. Obviously, it has weapons held by organized crime. During the years. Dozens of women, youth and men were killed in Lod.

In the first days of the riots, those who dared to show their weapons were the Jewish participants. These weapons were used in the killing of the riots’ first victim. As days went by, the scope of illegal weapon possession among the Arab community, and the legal weapon possession among the Jewish community and their collaborators unfolded. The appearance of firearms in the shared public space changed the sense of security of the entire community, and especially of women and children.  

An educator and activist shared that her neighborhood was attacked three consecutive times by youth groups trying to vandalize and threat her family and neighbors:

“My husband and the children went out with brooms to push those young men who were armed with bats and guns. The second time they went closer inside the neighborhood and on the third time, our neighbor went out with an automatic rifle and shot in the air to scare them away. They all fled like mice from a sinking ship. On one hand we had to react this way, and on the other hand, I suddenly discovered that I have an armed, dangerous neighbor. I did not know that the people I protest against are located at a walking distance from my home”.

This man, and others like him, are now considered heroes for protecting their neighborhoods. During the fights, the criminals we are all afraid of received honor and legitimization, and this changes the values of good and bad, of what is condemned and what is allowed.

Activism and organizing

The events in Lod in May 2021 strengthened, along residents’ awareness to the political situation of Palestinian community in the city, the need for community organizing and activism on different matters such as housing, inequalities in education, allocation of public resources, city planning, job distribution, culture and youth, political representation and more. During the lockdown, groups started to organize in order to reach out to the community and offer assistance and help. Together with the People’s Committee, social activists, city council members, youth and others organized to provide and distribute food to families in need. The crisis and adjacent events highlighted the difference between organized groups such as the religious settlers group, compared to long-term residents who are not as politically represented, do not operate as a pressure group and do not maintain parents groups, students, youths or mothers. Despite the fact that many individuals were active, as a group, it was clear that there is a major gap between the groups.

Light in at the end of the tunnel and closing

The sixth theme that came out of the interviews, and offers a closing to this article, speaks for a more positive perspective. Together with the political awareness and the change in Arab women’s status, with all the hardships and challenges Lod is experiencing, new voices are emerging. Since the events, and during the past months, there is a delicate internal discourse between various long-term resident groups on issues of social gaps and distributive justice, discrimination and belonging. One of the Jewish activists said in a demonstration against weapon and murder: “It is time to dig in and see what really happened here”. The desire is to find a common language to create a shared city that will serve everyone. This does not reflect a wish of the Arab residents only. As a matter of fact, other groups in town started to understand how discrimination and the preference of one group on the expense of the other creates feelings of hostility and alienation between communities. While these are still small and fragmented voices, they represent a sane majority in the divided city. These voices must be strengthened.