Wall Separates Arabs And Jews In Israeli City

Authorities in the Israeli city of Lod have finished erecting a wall in the largely Arab part of the city, and the increasingly religious Jewish part. The authorities claim it is part of an effort to reduce crime. The city has the highest homicide rate in Israel, which police say is due to infighting among Arab families. But the Arab families who live there say it is a stark example of racial segregation.

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In the Israeli city of Lod, Arabs and Jews have lived together for hundreds of years. But in one part of the city, they are no longer living alongside each other. A new wall has been built between the two communities, highlighting what residents say is increased segregation of Arab and Jewish populations throughout the country.

Reporter Sheera Frenkel visited Lod and sent this report.

SHEERA FRENKEL: A single bulldozer shovels dirt on one side of this wall - or the mini separation barrier, as local Jewish residents call it. The three-meter-high, concrete wall bears little resemblance to the elaborate, high-tech barrier that winds its way in and around the West Bank. But locals here say that the goal is the same: to separate Arabs and Jews from each other.

Fida Azhali(ph), a 27-year-old resident of Lod, drives along the nearly mile-long stretch of wall to work each day. She points out bulldozers finishing work and clearing the rubble around the concrete.

Ms. FIDA AZHALI: (Through translator) We have two types of Arab societies in Lod, one which is trying to realize their rights as citizens, and the other which has turned to drugs and crime and are burying their heads in the sand.

FRENKEL: It is because of the second type that Israeli officials say they built the wall in Lod. The city is notorious in Israel for having the highest crime rate in the country, much of it is attributed to criminal activity and feuding by Arabs.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The proposed bill would require all new citizens of Israel, not residents, to take a loyalty oath.]

Like many other communities in Israel, where Jews and Arabs mix, tensions have risen in Lod in recent years. Many blame the largely right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several pieces of pending legislation have been hotly protested by minority groups in Israel, such as a bill that would allow small Jewish towns to reject residents based on ethnic group; and the loyalty oath, a proposed bill that would require all new residents of Israel to swear allegiance to a Jewish and democratic state. Critics say it targets the 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel, particularly those who want to marry non-Jews from other countries.

David Nezrahi(ph) is a 37-year-old Jewish resident of Lod who works for a largely Arab construction firm. He said he's felt immeasurable anger among his co-workers at new laws like the loyalty oath.

Mr. DAVID NEZRAHI: (Through translator) The situation in mixed cities like Lod, Ramla, Java is getting critical because the government is perpetuating it rather than improving it.

FRENKEL: Ibrahim Codura(ph) has lived in Lod since 1952. He remembers when the city was known as a unique melting pot of Jews and Arabs.

Mr. IBRAHIM CODURA: (Through translator) Until the 1967 Mideast war, there was a sort of co-existence between Arabs and Jews. They lived alongside each other quietly.

FRENKEL: Lod's history as a mixed city dates back thousands of years. It's mentioned in both the Old Testament and the Quran. During the 1948 war, Israeli forces occupied the city. In the years that followed, thousands of Arab refugees made their way to Lod as they were displaced from other parts of the country. They were far outnumbered by Jewish immigrants who were moved to the city by Israeli authorities.

But in the last 20 years, mixed neighborhoods have become a rarity. Highly guarded, Jewish-only building projects have sprung up across the city, most of them sponsored by religious Jewish groups. One such project was launched several months ago, in the heart of the oldest part of Lod. Codura says that construction there was announced the same week that the proposed loyalty oath was given preliminary approval by the Israeli cabinet.

Mr. CODURA: (Through translator) It was all part of the same build-up. I will never recognize such a law or what it represents. If they try to force us to accept them, we will never do it.

FRENKEL: A chain-link fence separates one of the new Jewish housing projects from a bustling commercial street, where a local Arab family runs a popular eatery called the Restaurant of Peace. At noon, a mix of Jews and Arabs can be seen elbowing for a table. Sixty-year-old Chayyim Benalom(ph) was born in Lod but left because of the high crime rate in the city. Now, he only returns to eat at the restaurant.

Mr. CHAYYIM BENALOM: (Through translator) There is no law here, no safety. That's why I left the city. I know more than 200, 250 families that have left.

FRENKEL: Co-existence, he says, is limited to tableside conversations over food at the restaurant. Then each patron walks to his car and drives away - to his own part of Lod.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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Correction Feb. 8, 2011

Our story said a requirement of a loyalty oath called for "all new residents [of Israel] to swear allegiance to a Jewish and democratic state." We should have said that all new citizens of Israel must take the loyalty oath.

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