Rebecca Bardach
Rebecca Bardach

Anatomy of a riot

Broken car windows
The neighbors' broken windows, after the riot in Abu Tor, Jerusalem, on Jerusalem Day at the start of May's violence.

The police report was tersely worded: “Three suspects were arrested following violent riots which included stone-throwing, throwing fireworks, batons and setting trash cans on fire. In addition, a municipal inspector was attacked while pepper sprayed, and a police officer present at the scene fired in the air after he was exposed to danger following his attack. The police investigation is continuing.”

These three sentences described a riot which was the escalation of an event lasting roughly 90 minutes from start to finish. It took place on May 10, Jerusalem Day and the eve of May’s violence within Israel and between Israel and Gaza, on my street in Abu Tor, a seam line neighborhood of Jerusalem that is home to both Jews and Palestinians. I had witnessed almost the entire event as it unfolded. And yet there was still much that was unclear about what exactly had happened and why. But the sparsely detailed police account left me with more questions than answers.

Determining what happened is more than a matter of curiosity. Violence heightens fears and rivets attention. But then the violence subsides. Calm descends. We clean up the shattered glass and the blackened marks on the street. The flow of traffic returns, the birds’ chatter resumes and our attention wanders back to life’s daily details. But that is precisely when we need try to understand what happened, and what could be done to prevent such events from recurring.

I had been cleaning up from dinner when shouts from outside pierced the sounds of running water. I walked out to the porch of our third-floor apartment and looked up the street. Some two dozen men were scattered across the intersection about half a block from our building, some with kippot and white shirts, others in various everyday colors. Red and blue lights flickered. Police in their solid blue uniforms, their cars taking up half the street, were standing talking to some of the men. I could hear snatches of words in Hebrew and Arabic, in tones fluctuating between quiet and frustration.

It had been a long day of accumulating tensions. In the morning I’d noticed billowing plumes of smoke and successive popping sounds rising up in the distance from the Old City. Newspapers later confirmed what I had sensed – confrontations, not celebrations. Throughout that day, Jewish groups marched through our Jewish-Palestinian neighborhood, as part of the annual and increasingly provocative March of the Flags. Some traipsed through with youthful hubbub; others shouted and raised voices or fists at passing Arab cars. Some sang “Am Yisrael Chai”; others chanted “Burn down the village”. “You’re just making trouble in our neighborhood,” my son had told a group he encountered on his way home from school that afternoon. A bit after 6 PM the air-raid sirens had begun their wailing. I didn’t have to hear the news to know it had to be Hamas missiles from Gaza; we’ve been through this more than once over the past years. By this point, not even two hours after the sirens and missiles, the shouts rising up from our street below didn’t surprise me.

As I watched the police and the knot of men arguing, I noticed several young men walking purposively up the street from the Palestinian part of Abu Tor. Then I realized others were coming as well, mostly in clusters of two and three. Many were in black t-shirts. They slowed, then stopped some fifty feet away from the action. Word must have gotten out that something had happened.

More police arrived, this time on motorcycle. The heated voices continued rising and falling. My son joined me, hopping from foot to foot and exclaiming about the action below. Cars and vans, unable to pass, began to pile up on either end of the men and police. Some drivers got out to see what was going on; others turned around. I realized I was holding my breath, though the rise and fall of the argument seemed contained; I even heard a fragment of laughter.

Sudden shattering shredded the air. Men began to race down the street, throwing and smashing things as they went. Then, from the blur of action, one man emerged clearly as he ran towards our next-door neighbors’ building and planted himself behind the cars parked just in front. He raised his arms high above his head, his hands gripping a stick which extended his reach even higher. “Noooo…!!!!” a woman’s cry sliced through the chaos. And then – down came the stick – smash. Two others raced over and with quick sharp movements they shattered the back windows of the other parked cars.

“Get inside,” I yelled at my son, who went in reluctantly and then raced from window to window to still watch. This was not the first time our neighbors’ car windows had been broken. It had happened during previous rounds of tension between Israelis and Palestinians, in 2014, in 2015, and at other times as well.

I turned off the porch lights and went back outside. Police were now gathering at the top of the hill, this time riot police, in their khaki-grey uniforms, black straps and boots, and plastic face shields. They got into a line standing shoulder to shoulder, and began to walk, neither marching nor rushing, but just moving down the hill. As they did, the rioting men descended too, until they disappeared around the corner. The police then moved back up the hill, alone. Some minutes passed and the young men reappeared. The police marched down the hill again. As the two groups ascended and then descended, so did the noise and tumult.

Until, at last, the street lay still and dark.

From the first shouts to this quiet aftermath, the event had unfolded over approximately an hour and a half. I’d seen almost everything as it took place. But what had actually happened?

Filling in the gaps

I wasn’t the only one asking. Most days our neighborhood is quiet and uneventful. However, escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often see some sort of violence – broken car windows mostly; sometimes an incendiary device leaving black streaks and fear in its wake. But we’d never seen this sort of rioting. Now, between calls and exchanges on the neighborhood WhatsApp group, my phone was popping with people’s questions, explanations of whatever fragments each had witnessed, as everyone tried to work out the events and their order, and to determine what was cause and what effect.

“It all started with a group of Jewish guys who were harassing some Arab guys and then threw a stone at them,” explained one neighbor who had seen the very first exchanges. Others verified this.

“When the police came and the Arab guy explained that the Jewish guys had thrown a stone at him, the police said, ‘Here’s a telephone number, you can call and file a complaint.’ The Arab guy got annoyed: ‘If I were the one to have thrown a stone you would have arrested me!”

Others confirmed having heard this exchange. Some acknowledged that the man had a point, and if the roles had been reversed, then the reaction would have differed.

Another neighbor reported seeing one of the Jews brandishing a gun. Others added that Jewish groups had been going through the neighborhood all that day as part of Jerusalem Day, some with aggressive threats. Who were the Jews who had started this incident? Some described them as religious; as settlers; as young delinquents from the religious sector. Another said a message had gone out on Tiktok while the episode was unfolding, which seemed to explain the many young men who had come up from the Arab part of Abu Tor.

A few days later I ran into another neighbor, who had witnessed the events up close and was able to fill in more of the picture.

“All day long I could hear the Jewish groups going through the neighborhood as part of Jerusalem Day. Some were calm and respectful, but others were rowdy and heckling the Arabs who passed them, and a few even picked up stones and threatened to throw them. So tensions were already high that day. Then at around 7:30 or 8 that evening I heard shouting, singing and banging,” he told me. “I saw a group of some 10 or 12 Jewish settler-looking types – big kippot, payot, white shirts. They were looking rough and ready. Some were carrying sticks, one had a shield, and they just planted themselves in the middle of the street at the intersection and were sort of standing there posturing.

“Then I saw three Arab guys walking up the street. They weren’t doing anything special, just walking. I don’t even think they were together, they just happened to be walking in close proximity of each other. But then when they saw this group of guys they stopped and kind of looked at each other like they were trying to figure out what the hell was happening. The Jewish guys began taunting them. Then at some point one threw a stone at the Arab guys. The three Arab guys just looked at each other, but they didn’t do anything. The taunting continued and there was still no response from the Arab guys. But at some point it went on long enough that they finally began yelling back and gesturing to the Jewish guys to get out of the way.

“Then a man who lives across the street came out,” my neighbor continued, “and he began yelling at the Jewish group, ‘I’ve lived here for four years, we all live here and get along! Don’t come making trouble!’ He was trying to get these Jewish guys to go away, and at the same time he was indicating to the Arab guys not to react, he would deal with it.

“Then someone from the Jewish group threw another rock or two. At this point one of the Arab guys picked it up and threw it back, not hard, just in their general direction, and it hit a sign and then bounced off a car. Another Jewish neighbor came out and also tried to get the Jewish group to leave, but they were just getting more and more aggressive in response.

“The police showed up. They began to clarify what had happened, and seemed calm and professional. But when they told the Arab guy that he could call and file his complaint, he got annoyed that that they were treating this differently than they would have if he had been the one to throw the stone.

“Suddenly I realized there were some 30-35 young Arab guys coming up the street and they seemed angry; some had sticks in their hands. At some point some of them started to flip over the big green trash containers onto the street. The first Jewish neighbor – who was still actively trying to defuse the whole thing – as fast as they flipped over a trash bin, he would flip it back up. They’d flip it over and, zip, he’d flip it back up again. One of the Arab guys was trying to help him as well.

“But it just wasn’t enough. Eventually police in riot gear came and at first they did nothing. As they formed a line the Arabs began to disperse, but as they did they threw things and lit a trashcan on fire – that was already in the Arab part of the neighborhood. That was when the police began to go down, but they were back again in five minutes and they began to take off their riot gear. But then some of the Arab guys began coming back up, so they regrouped and went down into the neighborhood again, staying for a longer period of time, and then came back up. The whole thing took about an hour and a half.”

Widening the lens

Even as these details provide a clearer picture, do they sufficiently explain why this riot happened? Riots can feel like a sort of spontaneous combustion. But how is it that at one moment everyone is going about their business, and then suddenly everything is engulfed in flames and rage? Some trigger can invariably be pinpointed as the apparent cause. And yet, in this case the initial provocation – the Jewish gang who harassed the Palestinian passersby –provides only a partial explanation. A lengthy process ensued between the apparent trigger and the actual start of the rioting, the gap between consisting of a chain of actions and reactions; emotional peaks and lulls; various provocations, some large, some small, met by relatively tempered responses.

It feels that things could have taken a different turn at many different moments. What if the Jewish neighbors who tried to intervene at the very beginning had succeeded in dispersing the Jewish provocateurs? The Arab guys would probably have continued on their way; the police would not have needed to show up; no call would have gone out on Tiktok, and so no angry young men would have come up from the neighborhood and taken violent action. Or what if the police had apprehended the Jewish guys who seem to have started the whole thing? Or if the Palestinian men who came up from Abu Tor had demonstrated their solidarity and frustration without violence?

A narrow focus on the apparent trigger event can obscure underlying root issues. Riots have a broader context. What if Jewish groups had not marched through the neighborhood all day demonstrating not just Jewish pride but an aggressive message of Jewish domination? Or if Jewish leaders had urged their youth to do nothing provocative, or to choose different routes? Or if it had not been Eid el Fitr, which ends a full month of fasting for Ramadan, and Muslims had not been turned away from prayer repeatedly at the Temple Mount, and confrontations had not taken place there? Or if the events of Sheikh Jarrah and the provocations of MK Itamar Ben Gvir and the Lehava activists there had not been taking place? Or if police were perceived as providing equal protection to Palestinians and Jews alike? Visible triggers only become so when connected to invisible conditions, hidden kegs of powder.

In the days that followed there were occasions on which Jews and Palestinians alike expressed their regret to each other about the misdeeds of their brethren in this episode, and mutual goodwill. Nonetheless, further violent events occurred – more broken car windows, two cars set on fire, pipe bombs thrown at two homes, an attack on the local Chabad, all by Palestinian perpetrators aimed at Jewish targets. Police presence was increased, bringing some sense of security to the Jewish side, though not necessarily to the Palestinian side, which often feels that police target them unfairly.

“It’s terrible!” exclaimed a Palestinian friend who is a teacher at a school in Jabel Mukaber, as we discussed what was happening in Jerusalem, Israel’s cities and Gaza. “My students are  now terrified of all Jews, which upsets me so much. And I hear about your neighborhood and can’t stand that it makes Jews afraid of all the Arabs. It shouldn’t be like this!”

Peace be unto you

Late on the night of the Abu Tor riot, one of the neighbors whose car windows had been shattered taped handwritten signs to the parking lot’s stone walls. The signs, written in Arabic, read: “Shalom, we are your neighbors, we ask you to preserve the peace and safety of the neighborhood”; and “A good neighbor is better than a distant brother”; and “Shalom Aleichem – peace be unto you…”.

His message had beauty. But I also felt it only partially addressed the issue. It’s no less true that “our side” – the Jewish side – must recognize the Palestinians’ need for safety, good neighborliness, fair treatment and equality. Not just on our street in Abu Tor, but also in Jerusalem, and this entire shared space of Israel and Palestine.

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach has worked on conflict, migration and development issues for thirty years, integrating policy, practice and people-oriented perspectives. For the last ten years she has worked on building Jewish-Arab shared society in Israel, including in a leadership role at Hand in Hand, a network of Jewish-Arab schools, and focuses now on writing and social change. She is a Schusterman Senior Fellow and holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU. She lives in Jerusalem with her family.
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