When I first heard of the October 7 attacks, I feared it would be the beginning of a war on several fronts: in Gaza, in northern Israel and in the West Bank. My biggest concern was that the high casualties from the retaliatory Israeli airstrikes would cause violence within Israel itself, as Palestinians in mixed cities such as Jaffa, where I live, took to the streets. This was exactly what happened two years ago, when mob violence erupted in Jaffa, Lod, Acre and other areas where Jews and Muslims live side-by-side, in response to the clearance of the Muslim neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. During those riots, three people — two Jewish and one Arab — were killed. In some of the most gentrified parts of Jaffa, Palestinian youths torched cars and set up barricades. Yet for now, despite the death toll in Gaza passing 12,000, the mixed cities remain quiet and peaceful.
For their part, Arab leaders in Israel have been quick to condemn the violence of October 7. I recently sat in on a Zoom meeting of around 400 Palestinians and Israelis from mixed cities across Israel, where Mohammad Barakeh, chairman of the Arab Monitoring Committee (who had been recently arrested over plans to stage a protest against the war) was unequivocal: “Even the prolonged suffering of the Palestinian people cannot justify the massacre of October 7.” There have also been various joint initiatives set up by Jews and Arabs, from blood donation drives in Shefa-Amr to hospitality centers for those displaced by the war. Amir Basharat, CEO of the Council Arab Authorities, lives in Jaffa, and told Israeli media that the Hamas attack, which “claimed Arab and Jewish lives indiscriminately,” increased the sense of a shared fate: “As far as Hamas is concerned there is no difference between an Arab and a Jew, they are all part of the occupying entity. That’s why they also monstrously murdered more than twenty Arabs and kidnapped five… This attack first and foremost harmed the chance of establishing a Palestinian state. This is not a legitimate Palestinian resistance; it only harms the chances of ending the conflict.” Basharat also argued that the 2021 riots contributed to the appointment of the ultra-nationalist Itamar Ben Gvir to security minister, and so “this time we are trying not to play into his hands.” Many Arabs are angry at the lack of protest, Basharat added, but plenty of others feel the measured response has been wise.
Another reason for the present quiet in mixed cities like Jaffa is the long-established social and economic link between Jews and Arabs. Right next to my apartment is the Siksik Mosque, which is 150 years old. Elsewhere on my street there are catering wholesalers and workshops, a remnant of the time when this was a solidly working-class area. The men who work there are middle-aged Mizrahi Jews, whose kippas are the only way to distinguish them from Palestinians. They have cordial relations with the imam, whom they have known for decades.
Old Jaffa had become one of the most popular tourist locations in Israel, as well as a hub for western expats, from tech workers to NGO activists. But many of these people left the country within days of October 7 and have not returned, the plants on their balconies brown and desiccated. For local Palestinian business owners, the past seven weeks have been tough. Most cafés and bars are shuttered. The local off-license run by Palestinian Christians, is usually packed with customers heading to Jaffa’s beach, but it is empty when I visit now. The man who runs my local fruit and veggies shop is reluctant to talk about politics, but tells me that he is worried for his livelihood if the current situation continues.
This economic interdependency extends to illegitimate businesses: the lucrative Tel Aviv cocaine trade is mostly run by Arabs, but their customer base is almost entirely Jewish. A friend shows me WhatsApp messages from his Palestinian dealer. Usually, they are full of texts marking important Jewish holidays, such as a photo of a shofar horn sent on Yom Kippur. After October 7, the dealer sent a message decrying the attacks, claiming he had many Jewish friends at the Novo music festival, and imploring: “May God give our people the strength and our soldiers the strength to win… Am Yisrael Chai.” The rumor in Jaffa is that organized crime leaders have ordered Palestinian youths to remain at home and avoid any violence, which would be even worse for their already struggling businesses.
These are difficult times in Jaffa, but there are hopes for a better future. Last Saturday I attended a joint demonstration held by hundreds of Jewish and Arabs in Charles Clore Park, built on the ruins of the destroyed Palestinian Manshiya neighborhood that once marked the historic border between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. This protest was the first of its kind to be held since October 7, after the High Court overruled an attempt by the police to ban the event. It called for an end to the war in Gaza, for a deal to return all the kidnapped captives in exchange for thousands of Palestinian prisoners, and for a peaceful solution based on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Sami Abu Shehadeh, the leader of Arab Balad Party, told the crowd: “We are in a very difficult place for everyone, Israelis, Palestinians and for humans in general. For anyone who believes in human rights, these are difficult days. And precisely in these difficult days what we do is much more important. We are fighting to maintain sanity, humanity and hope for a better future for everyone.”