Michael Katz

The Role of Civil Society Organizations in Israeli Resilience

By Sara Haetzni Cohen, CEO of the "My Israel" movement

Sara Haetzni Cohen
June 1, 2022

The State of Israel and Israeli society changed in May 2021. In the year since the May riots, there have been significant changes in the collective tapestry of Israel's national resilience. The national and civil society organizations in Israel, which are the focus of this article, have matured and changed over the past year: From organizations that dealt with "soft" civic issues such as advocacy, research and analysis, popular protest, political or social lobbying, they have become mission-driven pacesetters on the issue of national resilience and emergency civilian preparedness.

The month of May 2021 will be remembered as the first time in recent decades that the Armageddon scenario was realized, where the State of Israel faces a double danger simultaneously: from within and from without. At the end of Ramadan, which was a tense month riddled with Arab violence against Jews, Hamas launched a war against Israel from Gaza that it called the "Battle of the Sword of Jerusalem" and, linking its actions to the tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, it launched missiles at Israel's capital city. In parallel to the brutal missile attack, Israeli Arabs started a violent revolt against the state and its Jewish residents.

Until May 2021, a fragile and delicate coexistence prevailed in the mixed cities in Israel. On the evening of May10th, it was broken to smithereens when the Arab residents in essence declared war on their Jewish neighbors.

On the streets of Lod, Ramle, Jaffa and Acre, Jews were physically attacked by Arabs who burned symbols of government connected to the municipality or the police, and aimed most of their fire at Jews and every Jewish symbol. Arab rioters set fire to synagogues, smashed Jewish cars, burned Jewish businesses, shot Jews with illegal weapons they possessed, and attempted to carry out mass lynchings of Jews who just happened to pass them by. Yigal Yehoshua was murdered in a brutal lynching in Lod, Avi Har-Even was murdered when Arab rioters burned down the hotel where hewas staying in Acre and he was unable to escape, three men in Acre were seriously and critically injured in a series of barbaric attacks in the heart of the city. The elderly Destao Bisset was also murdered in a serious incident in Ramle that has yet to be solved by the authorities. A similar situation prevailed in the Negev and Galilee, where major roads were blocked, cities and towns were besieged by Arab rioters, police stations in Arab cities were burnedto the ground, cars were attacked with stones on the roads, and attempts were made to lynch both male and female drivers.

What is happening today is comparable to the worst nightmares of pre-state pogroms. The men had to leave their families and repel the rioters. Hundreds of Arab rioters faced off against just a few Jews, families with children who were abandoned on the front lines - a front that is in the very heart of Israel's cities. For five days, the Jewish residents of mixed cities, as well as residents of the Negev and the Galilee, were left on their own, forsaken. The police, who are supposed to provide basic protection, collapsed under the overwhelming number of incidents and the massive surprise of it all. The Police's 100 hot-line broke down, the forces on the ground failed, and the senior command was helpless. Residents reported long waiting times, and the lack of an effective response on the ground when they finally received a human response to their calls for help.

The procedure of drafting reserve troops for the Border Police and augmenting the forces was also too little and too late when the civilians craved immediate aid. What we have feared has come to pass: the state disappeared. The Israeli police did not have then, and still does not have now, skilled personnel capable of dealing with a violent and large-scale Arab uprising throughout the country. Certainly not when thousands of missiles are simultaneously being fired at population centers across the land.

National civil society organizations were summoned to the front lines of the internal war by local residents. They answered the call immediately, and those organizations that in normal times help in “soft” ways suddenly found themselves in hands-on roles filling the vacuum left by the state and the police. The organizations not only helped with the media effort in these cities and were the voice of the residents to the outside world, they also recruited hundreds of armed volunteers to help guard apartments, schools and pre-schools, synagogues and population centers.

In the heart of Lod, an actual command center was even set up by the residents and civilian organizations that came to the area, mobilizing civilian resources such as defensive equipment, drones and means of transportation and, of course, volunteers. It was a war zone through and through, a war to protect the home.

These organizations were a breath of fresh air for the residents who were fighting for their homes, as they brought their experience in recruiting and managing volunteers, their contacts with the authorities, and their media clout on social networks. They provided the brave residents with broad organizational support and national backing. They proved to those residents that even though the police had abandoned them, they were not alone. There were those who would stand with them and fight together with them to protect their homes and property.

With a year’s hindsight, we can see that the world never returned to what it once was. The level of personal security since May 2021 has declined drastically, a fact that is reflected in the huge increase in applications for a personal firearm license, as well as requests from citizens from all over the country who want to organize communally for emergency situations and protection. The lack of a decisive resolution to Operation Guardian of the Walls, both vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza and the internal enemy, has led to a rise in Arab violence throughout the country. They like to call this an issue of “governance”, but it is also possible that we are in the midst of a second, ongoing war of independence.

In these new circumstances, and in light of the new-old dangers that have exploded in our faces, it would be only right to understand and encourage the new structure of civilian resilience in Israel. It is a structure in which civil society groups not only have a healing role, but also provide physical protection and prepare civilians and communities for emergencies. The vast majority of the organizations strive for full coordination with state authorities. We are not here to form independent militias or a subversive force, but a combined force, one that works together with the state, the police and local authorities.

Policymakers in Israel would do well to see this as an asset and an opportunity, not a burden. The invisible hand of decision-makers should take advantage of the new reality that was created here in May 2021, and recruit the civilian organizations as a significant force multiplier for national resilience in Israel, both during routine times and, God forbid, in an emergency.

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