“Do you know who built Tel Aviv? The Gazawi workers.” Gadi Algazi, an Israeli historian, is sitting at a coffee shop table; behind him, the construction sites for new skyscrapers are at a standstill. Tel Aviv, a city barely a hundred years old, has never stopped growing: its architecture says it all, a mixture of dizzying mansions, four-lane roads and decaying housing.
You can’t find the overwhelming beauty of Jerusalem in Tel Aviv; for that, you have to go a few kilometers farther north to Jaffa, the port city that was the beating heart of the Palestinian economy before the 1948 Nakba.
For the most part, Tel Aviv was built by Palestinian workers – and still is. The tens of thousands of suspended work permits have brought construction sites to a halt. “Gazawis were the largest contingent of workers in the 1970s,” Algazi continues. “Young Israelis don’t know this, they can’t even imagine it. They see Gaza as something far away, across the border.”
In the streets of Tel Aviv, Gaza does not exist. The permanent sit-ins of the families of the hostages in the hands of Hamas and their supporters mention Gaza only to call for its destruction, or to call for a prisoner exchange, then “we will see.” Gaza does not exist on TV either: for the past month, the main TV channels have been constantly running the images of October 7, of the brutal Hamas attack that left 1,400 dead in the south, at an unyielding pace. But nothing is being shown of what came afterwards. Israelis live as if frozen in time, pushed to the edge by a steady stream of images of bloodshed that inflames and ignites tempers.
Even the traffic is down, with fewer cars but more aggression. Yossi, a young engineering student, tries to joke: “Motorists’ anger has always been the thermometer of the country’s mood.”
His family is originally from Massachusetts, and he offers a good example of the enormous distance separating Israeli and Palestinians. He has no Palestinian friends, maybe only a few acquaintances, “working people.” “Before October 7,” Algazi explains, “this society was not only fragmented but segregated. In all of Israel, there is only one NGO, Hand in Hand, that is promoting mixed schools. Otherwise, Palestinians and Jews never share a classroom. There are shared workplaces, hospitals, universities, but these are not places of exchange or encounter.”
“Jewish Israelis have no idea about life in Palestinian communities in Israel. Maybe they go to their shops because it’s cheaper, maybe they go to an Arab restaurant, but they have no idea what these people think or what conditions they live in. Here, the geographical division is ethnic-based: we’ve had ghetto communities since the founding of the country. We are the only country in the world where a town can decide who to admit and who not to. They exclude not only Palestinians, but also the poor, or single mothers.”
It has always been said that Israeli society is complex, fragmented along multiple lines: religious, ethnic, social. These different “islands” hardly ever meet. This is what many people tell us: there’s no mixing, the ultra-Orthodox are separated from the secular, the Ashkenazi from the Mizrahim, Russian Jews from European Jews, Jews from Arabs, the upper and educated classes from the working and poor classes. They are all living in different neighborhoods, in different cities, with different lifestyles.
One element that keeps them apart is the enormous social gap that makes Israel the most unequal country among those of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): 27 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, almost a third of a country famous for its start-ups and cutting edge technology.
It’s difficult to mix when renting an apartment just outside the center of Tel Aviv, of around 60 square meters, costs 8,000 shekels, almost €2,000. Not even the very long protests against the Netanyahu government that began in January and broke down after the October 7 tragedy managed to piece the country back together.
In the streets, the protests had brought together different political perspectives (the liberal right and the left) and a more varied mixture of social classes (reservists, intellectuals, office workers, students). “That’s all over,” Algazi continues. “People who were shouting ‘democracy’ are now going to war. But the drama had already been set in motion: all those people in the streets never mentioned the occupation. Like Netanyahu, they thought it was enough to manage it. They forgot about it, yet it is part of their lives.”
In Israel, it’s as if the occupation does not exist; it is not part of the picture. Algazi blames this absence on the loss of hope: “This applies to both peoples. When political hope disappears, only brutality remains. Hamas wanted to terrorize the Israelis, to ‘light up’ their awareness that they were present there. Which is what the Israeli army has been doing in the Territories for decades.”
An important factor has been the gradual shift to the right post-Oslo, the disappearance of a left-wing alternative that has affected the entire region and the world. The militarization of society makes it obvious: one can hardly walk down the street without encountering passersby with guns on their belts. “They’re trying to fill up the security vacuum with weapons, even setting up armed civilian militias as Minister Ben Gvir is proposing and as was done unofficially after the May 2021 clashes. The settler agenda has entered Israeli territory; it has brought frontier logic inside city neighborhoods.”
“The war united us again,” says Yossi. “After the war we will be divided again. That’s how we are.” Bits and pieces of a society clustering together, and which are likely to emerge even more distant afterwards – that, at least, is the fear of the few who are trying to raise their voices for the need for peace. “It’s difficult now to think about the long term, to imagine it, or even wish for it.”
Rebecca works for an Israeli human rights NGO which she asks us not to name: “Here we’re living in the short term, in the present reality. And it is a reality of brutalization. It’s a painful moment for those like me who think living together is possible. We have never really lived together.”
“We are not capable of it, because, quite simply, we have denied the existence of the other, pretended that they weren’t there, that it did not concern us,” Rebecca concludes. “And the ‘other’ is so many people; it is also the south of the country, which we’re now saying we want to defend. The poorest people live there, the Arab Jews, the migrant workers, the lower classes. The Tel Aviv bourgeoisie has cut them off too.”
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.