Honor in the city

Along with its illustrious history and location in central Israel, Lod is one of the country’s poorest and most violent cities.

lod (photo credit: sarah levin)
(photo credit: sarah levin)
IT HAS BEEN FOUR DAYS SINCE Amira al-Baba decided to don traditional Muslim dress and wear a hijab and robe. Poised and straight-backed, she sits behind her desk in her storefront office located alongside a small strip of businesses on the main road between Lod and Ramle. An attorney with experience in criminal law who has recently begun her own practice, Baba, 26, is striking in a black robe embellished down the front with eyecatching red embroidery and a black scarf neatly framing her pretty face.
“There is so much insecurity on the outside – I need a sense of security on the inside. The power of this Arab tradition gives me that sense of security,” she says.
From Baba’s computer screen a photograph of her sister, Amal Halili, 27, all dressed up and celebrating at their cousin’s wedding, smiles out at Baba. Halili was murdered on October 4, the second murder victim in Lod that month.
“I feel much safer and am clearer about things than I ever was,” Baba says. “I feel this [the traditional dress] has returned my sense of safety.”
Her sister had been a divorced mother of three, who worked as an accountant. She was shot and killed in front of her 8-year-old daughter and 15-year-old brother on the way home from that family wedding.
Two days earlier, Sami Hijazi, a 41-year-old contractor and father of two, was murdered in his car next to his daughter near the municipality building.
Lod, with a mixed Arab-Jewish population of some 70,000, approximately one-third of whom are Arabs, boasts a rich, culturally mixed history dating back thousands of years.
Lod is located just outside Ben-Gurion International Airport, only 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the affluent central region, but is one of Israel’s poorest, roughest and most deprived cities. According to data provided in a recent government report, there have been nine murders in Lod out of a total of 109 murders throughout the country – a startlingly disproportionate 8.2 percent of all murders. Furthermore, according to the report, while Israel’s eight largest cities have experienced an 8 percent decrease in violent crimes over the past few years, Lod has seen an increase of 15 percent.
Maxim Levy, brother of the ruling Likud party’s political icon David Levy, served as mayor from 1983 until 1996 when he was elected to the Knesset. Though he is much beloved by Lod’s Jewish residents for the new neighborhoods he built and services the city provided during his tenure, the Arab community recalls Levy as the man who tore out what they consider the heart of their city by destroying some 100 Old City buildings rather than restoring them, leaving the area a virtual ghost town. The Jews of the Old City flocked to the new apartments, while Arab residents had nowhere else to go.
Following Levy’s departure, Lod’s situation continued to decline and crime, often drugrelated, increased. Within months of assuming their new municipal positions, the mayor and 11 others, including the mayor’s wife and sons, were arrested on charges of fraud and suspicion of criminal business dealings. The city finally reelected Levy as mayor in 2002, but he died unexpectedly a few months later. After subsequent municipal governments were unable to improve the situation, the government appointed Ilan Hariri, a reserve brigadier general, to take over as mayor in 2008.
TWO BORDER POLICE COMPANIES were deployed in the city following Halili’s murder, in response to Hariri’s threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to close down the city if the government did not take immediate action to help patrol it. The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) was also sent in to assist police in confiscating illegal weapons from residents.
The temporary presence of more police and border police did not make the residents feel any safer. “Waves of border policemen and special forces have been sent to Lod over the years,” says Buthanya Dabit, an architect and urban planner who is coordinator of the Mixed Cities Project, sponsored by Shatil, an NGO allied with the New Israel Fund. “Why do we need the army in Lod? We need people to speak to Lod residents with respect because the only ones who can save Lod are the people who live here.”
“I am afraid to go out at night – that I will be standing next to someone [whom gunmen are targeting]. I only allow my children to play on our street or in our backyard,” says Manal Albana, a 32-year-old mother of six, standing in front of her home in a mixed Arab-Jewish middle-class neighborhood as she holds her 2- year-old daughter, Mariam, in her arms.
Police have linked the four recent Lod murder victims, who, in addition to Halili and Hijazi, were Jawdat Jasus, a 23-year-old unmarried woman who was killed in August, and Abir Abu Katifu, a 33-year-old mother of five. According to police officials, the murders were committed because the victims had “brought dishonor on the family.”
But Arab activists say police use the term “honor killings” all too often to absolve themselves of any responsibility for finding the perpetrators of murders within the Arab community in Lod and other Arab communities. Police say that it is hard to get information about the crimes because people in the Arab community won’t talk to them, and therefore, lacking intelligence information, they can’t apprehend the criminals.
Baba insists that the murders were not an issue of family honor. She notes that in such cases it is normally a brother or male relative who commits, and admits to, the murder. And even if they were “honor killings,” she contends, “If a person is murdered, no matter the reason, even if it is with the stigma of family honor, the police have to do their work and find those responsible.”
Based on her experience as a criminal lawyer, Baba argues that the police are capable of apprehending the perpetrators. She recalls that several years ago the police were able to trace and capture a man who murdered a Jewish soldier from the city “all the way to Dubai” during a six-month investigation. “If the police brought a murderer back from Dubai, I suspect it can’t be difficult to find a murderer under their nose,” she says.
Though three of Abu Katifu’s relatives, including her husband, were arrested in connection with her murder, a week later they were released to house arrest for two days due to lack of evidence. Two other brothers from nearby Ramle were linked to the other murders and arrested on suspicion of hiring themselves out as hit men to people who wanted to attack family members. One of the suspects was released to house arrest. The police have not released any new details about the investigation or suspects.
“Now there are no suspects, no one is in jail, everyone is free. And just like that the investigation is over and we don’t know who the murderer is. From our experience it is very rare that the [police] will catch the murderer, unless he turns himself in,” says Maha al-Nakib, Lod activist and faction secretary for the Hadash party in the Knesset. “No one is going to stand up and say they know who the murderer is in Jewish cases, either. No one wants to endanger themselves or their families. It is the role of the police to conduct the investigation and find the perpetrator. That excuse is ridiculous.”
Nakib notes that in Lod police discrimination against the Arabs is more a matter of neglect rather than outright violence and many of the Arab residents equate the police with house demolitions that are carried out on homes built without permits.
“Of the 10 murders last year in Lod – all of which were in the Arab sector – there was only one arrest and that was because the man killed his wife in front of his children,” says Nakib. “They didn’t catch him because of any kind of investigation that they did.”
Albana sums the situation up more succinctly. “Security-wise this is a racist city. There is complete contempt towards the Arab population on the part of the police. The police come in without any respect for the Arab residents,” she says.
Jewish Lod activist Mira Marziano, 40, a fashion designer and leader of a scout troop, agrees that police and Jewish residents of the city have more of a “let them kill themselves” attitude towards murder and other crimes among the Arab population.
What frightens her most about her city, she says, is the ease with which people can obtain illegal weapons and the numbers of such weapons floating around freely in the city.
In a written statement to The Jerusalem Report, the spokesman’s office of the Dan Police District in the central region notes, in contrast to the government report, that this is the fourth year in a row in which there has been a decline in crime and shootings as well as a significant decrease in the number of drug dealing locations. “The handling of these cases are top priority and hundreds of police are contributing their best efforts in order to reach the perpetrators of the crimes,” the statement, which did not provide any comparative statistical data, reads.
ON OCTOBER 31 – AFTER the politicians had finished their photoop visits to the city following the murders and the temporary contingents of border policemen sent to restore order to Lod had left – the government passed a wide-ranging five-year, 160 million shekels ($44 million) plan aimed at reducing crime in the city and improving social support for residents. Included in the plan is the rehabilitation of Lod’s poorest area, the Arab neighborhood of Pardes Snir; an expanded anti-violence program including installing closed-circuit cameras throughout the city; increased cultural activities; and improving social services by adding five social workers to the city’s welfare office, an unspecified number of whom will be Arabic speakers. (Today there are reportedly only two parttime Arabic-speaking social workers in the entire city where almost one-third of the population needs assistance from the welfare department.)
The plan also addresses issues of tourism, transportation, and improvements of the functioning of local government, while the Public Security Ministry was given a month to come up with a detailed plan of how to curtail the level of crime and violence in the city as well as the responsibility to enforce laws against illegal construction and trespassing.
“In plain Hebrew that means house demolitions,” notes Nakib wryly. Though according to reports the plan also speaks about offering several thousand housing units for Arab residents of the city, Nakib says that as of now the only new housing developments are slated for the Jewish ultra-Orthodox and national religious publics and for former residents of the Gaza Strip settlements, which, she contends, the city is trying to attract in order to bolster its Jewish population. No Arab neighborhood has been planned and constructed in the city since the early 1980s and today that neighborhood suffers from extreme overcrowding.
And by tying in the issue of illegal construction with crime, the report seems to insidiously blame the Arab community for the high crime level, she says. “Instead of helping the weakest strata of the population, the plan will continue to hurt them even more [with the home demolitions],” Nakib accuses.
Bringing new groups into the cauldron which is Lod, such as the new Jewish communities it is trying to woo, is detrimental not only to the Arab sector but also to the Jews already living there, notes Dabit. “Bringing in new settlers for demographic reasons only increases the tensions already here,” she says. “The authorities need to invest in the Jews who are already living here and raise the quality of life of Jews and Arabs alike, not bring in outsiders.”
In addition, rather than funding more security forces, the budget should have earmarked larger sums for welfare services, with at least 20 social workers added instead of the five promised in the plan, comments Dabit.
Nakib and Dabit say it’s hard not to be skeptical about the plan. In 2002, during former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s tenure, an allencompassing plan for the city had been formulated, acknowledging that it would be impossible to carry out any mass demolitions of illegally built houses. But following Sharon’s stroke and incapacitation, nothing came to fruition.
SOME 3,000 RESIDENTS, MANY of them Bedouin whose families were resettled in Lod by the government after they relinquished their rights to land in the Negev, and families of Palestinian collaborators from the two intifadas, live in the crowded Pardes Snir neighborhood.
The unrecognized neighborhood was built largely on agricultural land without permits and is therefore considered illegal by the municipality. Receiving no municipal services, the residents do not pay any municipal taxes, either. The residents themselves paid for the only paved road that rings the neighborhood. There is little or no public housing available for Arab residents – and much of what is available is substandard and neglected.
Visually, Pardes Snir resembles a refugee camp. Private homes, which range from multilevel apartments to single-family villas, have been built haphazardly, squeezed next to and on top of each other. Huge holes and trenches make the dirt paths winding inside the neighborhood, which pedestrians and cars are forced to share, treacherous. Young children scurry along the edges of the paved road as a pair of drug addicts stumble into each other, making their way hesitantly down the road. At one end of the neighborhood raw sewage stagnates in an open drainage ditch, where refuse from the train station garage collects and remains unattended. Laboratory tests conducted some six years ago by Adam Teva V’Din, a human rights NGO, found that the oil floating atop the water and sewage contained dangerously high levels of bacteria, including strains of the extremely toxic anthrax, notes al-Nakib.
The municipality is responsible for dealing with the situation, says Nakib, but the ditch still remains uncovered and when it rains the toxic liquids rise dangerously near to the edge. At the other end of Pardes Snir, near the “Railroad Neighborhood,” an Arab area that is only partially recognized by the municipality, is a railroad crossing with nine parallel tracks. It takes two minutes to cross by car and even more on foot – and if you are caught in the middle when the barriers go down it can be very dangerous, says Nakib. There have been numerous accidents at the crossing, many of them involving children.
Only a few years ago, Pardes Snir was nationally infamous for its “drive-through” drug stations, where a criminal could simply drive up to a closed door and slide money through a slit; in return, he would receive any number of drugs, according to a pre-arranged price list. Apolice crackdown has mostly eliminated the drive-throughs, says Nakib, but drugs still remain a problem.
Four years ago the municipality decided to confront the issue of illegal construction with a three-million shekel “amnesty plan.” However, the District Planning Commission conditioned the plan upon the construction of a 3 meter (10 foot) high, 1.6 kilometer (1 mile) long concrete wall separating Pardes Snir from the neighboring Jewish community in Moshav Nir Zvi, which had initiated the idea. Despite a legal appeal from neighborhood residents, the Supreme Court eventually ruled that state funds could be used for such a wall and the wall was built.
Yet the rest of the amnesty plan was never instigated. Mounds of huge broken concrete blocks and jagged metal rods, construction debris of unknown origin, are piled up along the wall in one section.
There is no community center for the Lod Arab community, no health clinic or playgrounds in their neighborhoods, and a generation of young people have grown up in conditions of deprivation and poor education, says Nakib. While Arab residents are able to participate in Lod’s five community centers in the Jewish neighborhoods, all their programs are offered only in Hebrew. If she wants to take her children to a play in Arabic, she takes them to the Arab community center in Ramle, Nakib says, but not all parents have the wherewithal to do that. “It is clear that youth who grow up under these conditions will go straight into delinquency and crime,” she warns.
THE MAJORITY OF THE ORIGINAL Arab residents of Lod were expelled or fled during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, leaving behind only some 1,000 out of 40,000. They have since been replaced by Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, North Africa, Poland, Georgia, India and Romania.
According to Dabit, much of the city’s decline is connected to Israel’s early attempts to erase the historical Arab presence of the city.
“Since 1948, Lod has lost its heart. [Israel] has tried to destroy the Arab identity of the city but that has had a devastating effect on the dynamics of the neighborhoods,” she says. “There is a continuing war against the presence of the Arabs in this city. This is dangerous not just for the Arab population but also for the Jewish population.”
The majority of those with economic means have escaped the crumbling city, so what is left is mostly a weaker population, Dabit says. Hariri, the new mayor, has yet to prove himself, Dabit maintains. “He has not solved any major problems and has not corrected any understanding of how to relate to the city,” she accuses.
In fact, notes Ehab Issa, 44, head of an ad hoc committee of the Lod Parents’ Committee that monitors problems in the Arab educational system, Hariri separated the Parents’ Committee into Jewish and Arab committees. Ostensibly, this was done so that the Arab committee would be better able to focus on its own specific and pressing problems, but the division is perceived as segregation. Indeed, says Issa, Hariri has routinely dragged his feet on some of the Arab sector’s more urgent needs.
In the al-Zahara Elementary School in Lod’s Old City, some 700 students study in a haphazard framework consisting of one old building, which houses the administration, two classrooms and a series of 14 dilapidated trailers.
Hariri has promised to build new premises for the school, says Issa. Then-education minister Yuli Tamir visited the school in 2006 and declared it imperative that the children be given a proper building for their school. Since then, says Issa, nothing has moved.
At al-Manar, another Arab elementary school in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, a wing of the building has been declared dangerous and closed off. For three years it has been awaiting demolition so that a new wing can be built in its place. “When they need to demolish an Arab house, they always find the manpower to get it done. When they need to demolish part of an Arab school to rebuild it, the whole process gets stuck,” says Issa.
HARIRI TELLS THE REPORT that he is “unflustered” by the criticism he receives from the Arab sector. “Let them criticize,” he says. “All the community centers are open to all of Lod’s residents,” he insists and scoffs at the demand for Arab-language programming. “I don’t want to do Jewish or Arab community centers. Do they [the Arab residents] actually want me to bring theater in Arabic?”
He adds that the city will soon receive the 3 million shekels that the government has promised, to be used for cultural events, and that work will soon begin on the community center in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood; many of the Arab residents used that center, but it was destroyed by fire several years ago.
With regard to the educational situation, Hariri notes that a new high school was opened for the Arab community last year, the first of its kind in the city, and that two years ago, a new elementary school was opened. “The Jews don’t have a high school [as nice as] that,” he says. Furthermore, he adds, in recent weeks, progress has been made at the two elementary schools, the dangerous structure at the Manar school has been demolished, and the city has received the government’s OK to begin construction at the El Zahara elementary school in the Old City and is already working with a contractor.
He has been “screaming” about the levels of violence in the city since he took over the position of mayor, he adds, and is glad that the government will finally be implementing a comprehensive plan. “I am saddened by what happened, they were terrible incidents,” he says. “But better late than never. Now we will move forward with the government’s decision and Pardes Snir will be the first neighborhood we deal with. We want to show both residents and outsiders that the city can live and breathe normally.” Once the government’s plan is implemented, residents of the illegal neighborhoods will be required to pay taxes, he says, and services will improve, he promises.
“I can’t tell you that all is perfect. And we do have to take care of things in Pardes Snir and the “Railroad” neighborhood,” Hariri tells The Report. “We are dealing with it. I can’t say all will be solved.
Amonth after The Report informed Hariri’s office about the open sewage canal in Pardes Snir, he acknowledges that he has “yet to look into it.” “The situation will improve,” he concludes.
TWO YEARS AGO, AVIV Wasserman, 36, an attorney and native of Holon, a city about 10 km (six miles) west of Lod, responded to a personal request from Hariri, his former commanding officer, to bolster the situation in Lod. The challenge appealed to Wasserman and he decided to throw in his lot with the city, eventually moving there. He helped establish the Lod Foundation and launched a grassroots campaign to brand Lod as a center of multiculturalism and a model of Jewish-Arab cooperation.
Taking Jaffa and Acre as examples, Wasserman believes Lod can become a successful tourist destination with the restoration of the Old City and its buildings. This includes the ancient Greek Orthodox St. George’s Church, which has roots reaching back to the reign of Constantine I (306-317), a mosque and the ruins of a synagogue, all within a few meters of each other. Tradition holds that the remains of St.George, believed to have been born in Lod and known for slaying the dragon, venerated as a Christian martyr and one of the most prominent military saints, are buried in the church.
With 8,000 years of continuous settlement, Lod, Wasserman claims, is Israel’s most ancient city, and it has been considered holy by all three religions. In addition to being the burial place of St. George, Muslims consider Lod the site where the End-of-Days war will take place and, during the time of the Mishna and Talmud, the city was an important spiritual center, named “Second to Jerusalem.”
Together with his former diplomat wife, Ruth Wasserman Lande, the young attorney began recruiting members from among leading citizens from all the various sectors of the city to develop the foundation, which is funded solely by donations. The foundation also boasts singer David Broza, judo champion Arik Ze’evi and Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department for Interreligious Affairs, among its leadership.
“Lod is getting a lot of attention now because of the latest murders,” says Wasserman. “But the murders are not the problem – they are the symptom of years of neglect.”
He believes that much of this neglect comes from a municipality that suffers from a lack of professional employees. Theoretically the new government plan appears to be a “good holistic strategy, which deals with infrastructure, education, illegal neighborhoods,” but the question remains whether a municipality without professionals can carry out the decisions reached via the plan. In past years funds, which were supposed to be earmarked for youth clubs and sports activities, “just dried up” when people lacking experience tried to organize programs without following professional procedures or without consulting economists and engineers, he says.
Faten al-Zenaty, 33, is a coordinator at the Ramle Community Center for Mediation and Dialogue, a center which has a community dialogue project to promote ties between different groups. Sitting comfortably in her kitchen with Marziano, they acknowledge that at first they, too, were skeptical when Wasserman asked them to come aboard.
“Many people have come to Lod as ‘supermen’ to save the city, and that is what I felt about Aviv at first,” Marziano says. But Wasserman’s optimism was contagious and in the end it has begun to give her hope for a different future for her native city. And what clinched the deal for her, she says, is when the young couple – who recently gave birth to their first child – moved to Lod.
“We are trying to create a real difference with cooperation with all the groups and trying to see the good side of the city,” adds Zenaty. “We still don’t know if it will succeed.” Nevertheless, people are a bit suspicious about the Foundation’s intent, Marziano admits, unable to believe that anyone would willingly come to Lod in order to help put it back on its feet.
AS ZENATY AND MARZIANO banter openly back and forth, a group of neighborhood girls bursts into Zenaty’s home, eager to set up for a surprise 13th birthday party for her daughter. Giggling and breathless, they reassure Zenaty that they will clean up everything.
A young Ethiopian girl fusses around the kitchen with the cake, another Jewish girl arranges snacks in the small backyard while a younger girl scampers to Zenaty, hugs her affectionately, and asks her in Hebrew for help setting up something in the back.
“OK, habibti,” says Zenaty, using the Arabic endearment for darling. After a while one of the girls appears wearing one of her daughter’s party dresses.
After attending the mixed Arab-Jewish elementary school in Neveh Shalom/Wahat al- Salam, a cooperative Jewish-Arab village some 30 km (20 miles) from Lod, her daughter could not adjust to the strict conventional teaching methods at the neighborhood Arab school, explains Zenaty, and insisted on going to the Jewish school with its more open education. She is one of eight Arab children in her class.
While interpersonal relationships between individual Jews and Arabs in Lod are cordial and generally correct, if not always friendly, underlying it all is a “very tense partnership,” acknowledges Marziano.
“When it comes to deep discussions between us, you feel the real gap,” she says. “In the situation we live in, I can sit in the kitchen with Faten as her friend, but when I get home and hear on the news of [an attack by a Palestinian]… I, Mira, as a Jew in Israel, fear for the future of the State of Israel, not from Faten but from extremists. In our heads we have to separate who Faten is and who the Arabs who are threatening us are.”
On the other hand, notes Zenaty, the Arabs of Lod experience a lot of pent-up resentment when they sit with Jewish friends, see their nice housing and the playgrounds for their children and then go to the Arab neighborhoods where the basic services are missing.
At the landmark Abu Michel humus restaurant run by 43-year-old Shukri Abu Tabick, a member of the Lod Foundation, business is bustling. He is glad to see the police out patrolling and pleased that a police officer prevents a teenage boy from trying to sneak in through the barricades in order to avoid a security check.
“That is what we need, strong law enforcement, but it must be done with equality,” says Abu Tabick, whose family is one of the 50 Arab families who live in the new prosperous Jewish neighborhood of Ganei Ya’ar among some 1,200 Jewish families.
Lod is like any other city, he says, pointing out that people are not walking around the city in bullet-proof vests or armored cars. Things need to be put into perspective, he says. Though organized-crime murders take place in Netanya and Bat Yam, and cars explode in Tel Aviv, nobody has branded those cities with the label as dangerous and life in those affluent cities continues as normal with their restaurants and theaters and after-school programs for their children.
However, says Abu Tabick, one cannot “accept the fact that you are living in a city which is not making progress.”