The night of May 12 should have been one of celebration for Dib Jurban and Osmat Shab, but instead of going home after work to enjoy a meal with their families to mark the end of Ramadan, they spent five harrowing hours, hidden away in darkness, unsure if they would live to see the morning.
Their bosses, Naaman Stavny and his mother Shoshy, became their protectors; concealing their hiding place from an angry mob of Jewish men who had surrounded the gas station his family had run for generations.
As violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza began to escalate last month, another kind of conflict emerged on Israeli streets. Angry mobs of Jews and Arabs roamed the streets, attacking and beating anyone from the other side.
It was the kind of ethnic violence not seen in Israel in decades. But what shocked so many, including staff at the gas station, is that the violence wasn’t contained to traditional hotspots like the occupied West Bank or mixed cities like Lod.
It spread to every corner of the country, including those where small pockets of peaceful coexistence had been carefully stitched together over the years.
‘Why us of all people?’
Shoshy Stavny’s grandfather opened the Paz gas station in 1952. It became a meeting place for Arabs and Jews, situated at a busy intersection not far from Caesaria, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjanmin Netanyahu has a home. There are also smaller Jewish and Arab towns nearby.
Jurban and Shab have worked there for years. They knew customers by name, so to suddenly be hunted simply because they’re Arab had them in disbelief.
“We said to each other, what do they want from us?” Jurban told CBC News through an interpreter.
“Both of us have worked here for over 15 years and everybody knows one another, so why us of all people?”
As he saw the mob of Jewish men approach that night, Naaman Stavny could immediately sense trouble. He had seen the violence in other parts of the country so his first thought was to protect his workers.
“They were prosecuting Arabs just because they were Arabs,” he told CBC News.
That night, he said, had echoes of the Holocaust, of Jews hiding from the Nazis. Except now it was a Jew hiding Arabs from other Jews.
“It was pure hatred driven by ideology,” he said.
“When they did find someone they suspected was Arab, they hit windows with clubs. They had planks of wood; they broke the windows, and I saw drivers escaping terror,” Naaman said.
‘Any Arab we see here is dead’
Meanwhile, Shoshy tried to talk to the men in the crowd.
“They said, ‘you don’t have to worry, you’re Jewish but any Arab we see here is dead,'” she told CBC News.
She watched in horror as the crowd attacked an Arab man who was walking nearby.
“Everyone was all over him and just kept beating and beating and beating him. He was already on the floor and they kept going,” she said. “I’ve never witnessed such violence.”
Luckily a nearby business owner rushed in and stood over the man, pushing the crowd back as Shoshy got police who were stationed nearby. Two Arab men were taken to hospital that night.
As fires raged from barrels and the crowd swarmed anyone they suspected was Arab, Naaman said even he didn’t feel safe.
“I was shouting, ‘I’m a Jew, I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish.’ And that was really terrifying,” he said, noting some in the crowd asked about his political opinions, a sign he said that they were targeting anyone with left-wing views.
A symbol of coexistence firebombed
The seaside town of Akko is often held up as a beacon of coexistence in Israel, where about 21 per cent of citizens are Arab-Israeli. A popular tourist destination, it’s home to Uri Buri, a famous seafood restaurant owned by the colourful Uri Jeremias.
The night before the violence at the gas station, and less than a week after he hosted an Iftar dinner to celebrate the end of Ramadan with community members of all faiths, Jeremias’s restaurant was firebombed by a group of Arab rioters.
“It’s partly because I’m Jewish and partly because I’m representing the co-existence. Both of them together, it makes me an enemy of the radicals,” Jeremias told CBC News standing in the blackened ruins of the restaurant.
Just before the attack, 20 guests and some of his Arab staff, including his chef and sous chef, hid in the back of the restaurant until it was safe to come out. But despite what they went through, Jeremias said he wouldn’t be drawn into a never-ending spiral of retribution.
“I decided on the spot that I’m not going to start to open accounts with all the world and not be led by anger or revenge.”
Now, as he begins to rebuild his restaurant, he said repairing the delicate balance between Arabs and Jews will be a long and gruelling task.
“One radical with the match in his hand can create the fire that 1,000 brave fire brigade people cannot extinguish.”
Coexistence but not equality
In the aftermath of the terrible night at their gas station, a key question nagged at the Stavnys: why weren’t more people talking about it? It came amid larger riots in other cities and the peak of violence in Gaza, yet local news didn’t seem interested in covering the attack. Only one paper wrote up the story.
“I think that because it was Jewish rioters attacking Arabs, it was less interesting than an Arab mob attacking Jews,” Shoshy Stavny said.
That the violence was so widespread was at least partially the result of a polarized political environment fomented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to some analysts.
“For 11 out of the last 12 years, it’s been polarizing, polarizing to the point that Israeli society is ripping apart today,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“What we need to do is a lot of domestic healing in Israel, not just what happened in the last few weeks with violence between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities.”
In Israel, there were hundreds of arrests and more than 500 people charged, but the majority of those brought in and facing prosecution are Arab-Israelis. Six were arrested for the gas station riot, but only one person was charged, leading critics to accuse Israel of unequally applying the law.
Weeks after the event, Naaman Stavny said he has trouble sleeping and anxiety. He said he believes some of those involved in the riots have returned to the store, acting as if everything was normal.
“If I see an Israeli flag, sadly it triggers me because it reminds me of the people who orchestrated these riots,” he said.
Dib Jurban said he didn’t come to work or leave his home for three days after it happened. Even now, he said he looks at customers with a suspicion that wasn’t there before.
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“I felt disorientated, afraid of everything that I see,” Jurban said.
But despite what they experienced, he and Shab cling to a hope that the delicate fabric of coexistence can be slowly stitched back together.
“I don’t hate anyone. I don’t know what happened to those people; some of them we knew, some of them we see all the time, serve them,he said. “I don’t know what went through their minds.”