Israel is preparing to deploy soldiers to quash riots after attacks by gangs of rightwing Jewish men on Arabs escalated into the worst communal violence in the country’s recent history.
The clashes erupted as Israel kept up its air campaign against Hamas, while the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip fired at least 500 rockets towards Israel overnight — about half as many as the night before.
“I intend to bring in military forces to restore order,” said prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday. “We have seen Arab rioters set fire to synagogues and vehicles and attack police officers — it is anarchy.”
He called for Jews to respect the law: “I do not care if your blood is boiling. You cannot take the law into your own hands. You cannot grab an ordinary Arab citizen and try to lynch him — just as we cannot watch Arab citizens do this to Jewish citizens.”
He spoke after groups of rightwing Jews were seen roaming the streets of Arab neighbourhoods, including in Lod, Haifa, Acre and Jaffa, where they nearly beat to death a man they mistook as an Arab. The incident was caught on a live news broadcast. Arab-owned shops were vandalised.
Arab protesters also took to the streets, triggering confrontations with Jews. On Tuesday, they burnt cars and assaulted Jewish residents of mixed cities, according to police.
Yair Revivo, the mayor of Lod, where most of the violence took place, compared it to a “civil war”, saying the police had lost control. More than 400 people were arrested, local media reported, and more than a dozen were injured.
Israel has positioned additional troops — including two infantry brigades and one armoured — near the Gaza border. “No order has been to execute a ground operation by the Chief of the General Staff,” said Lt Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an army spokesman. “But military preparations are indeed under way.”
The communal violence has escalated after weeks of stand-offs between Palestinians and Israeli riot police in the compound of al-Aqsa mosque, East Jerusalem.
Israeli police stormed the compound at least three times in the last week, using rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. At least 600 Palestinians were injured in the clashes.
Hamas stepped into the fray on Monday, firing long-range rockets towards Jerusalem as Jewish ultranationalists celebrated the 1967 capture of the Holy City at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, which adjoins the mosque. Hamas had earlier demanded that Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem stop harassing Arab residents who were awaiting eviction orders from the Israeli courts.
Israel responded with hundreds of air strikes on Gaza, including 600 Hamas military targets according to Israel’s military.
In Gaza, at least 67 people have been killed, including 24 children, women and elderly, according to local authorities. Israel claims that at least 30 of those were Hamas fighters, including a handful of senior commanders.
The death toll in Israel stood at seven, including a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile.
Incoming flights were rerouted from Tel Aviv to a smaller airport by the Red Sea, far from the reach of Hamas’ rockets.