Israel has twice been confronted with the nightmare scenario of having to rebuff simultaneous external and internal attacks: once in October 2000, when Israeli Muslims rioted in support of the PLO's war of terror (the "Al-Aqsa Intifada"), and then in May 2021, when they unleashed a tidal wave of violence in support of Hamas's rocket attack on Israel.
The second conflagration had a particularly traumatic impact because it followed on a decade of unprecedented government investment in the Muslim sector, including a $3.8 billion socioeconomic aid program, aimed at its greater incorporation into Israeli society.
Worse: unlike the 2000 riots, which were largely confined to predominantly Muslim areas, the 2021 ones became a nationwide, violent uprising that took place especially in the mixed Jewish-Muslim cities of Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Ramla, Lod, and others. In effective war zones, Muslims wantonly attacked their Jews neighbors. Arab rioters torched state and municipal institutions (notably police stations), set fire to synagogues, smashed Jewish cars, stoned Jewish cars, burned Jewish businesses, shot Jews, and attempted to carry out mass lynching of Jews they happened to encounter. Major transportation arteries in the Negev and the Galilee were blocked, cutting off Jewish localities.
Still worse, the state effectively left the victims to their own devices. With the IDF busy fighting Hamas, the police crumbled under the overwhelming magnitude and ferocity of violence. Their emergency hot-lines broke down; their forces on the ground were insufficient and unprepared, and the senior command was totally helpless. The Border Guard, the police's special unit tasked with handling such situations, found itself thinly spread across the country in a futile attempt to put down numerous, simultaneous flashpoints. Terrified residents seeking police help reported excessively long wait times and lack of effective response.
Into this vacuum stepped national civil society organizations, which swiftly swapped their "soft" peacetime civic activities (e.g., advocacy, popular protest, political or social lobbying) for hands-on support of local communities that found themselves all of a sudden on the receiving end of Muslim violence. Using their experience in recruiting and managing volunteers, their organizational resources and contacts with the authorities, and their clout on social media networks, they carried out a string of vital functions left lacking by the state.
These ranged from serving as the local residents' voice to the outside world and drawing media attention to their plight, to recruiting hundreds of armed volunteers to help guard synagogues, schools, and nurseries, community centers, and apartments whose residents had fled the cities. In the heart of Lod, for example, a command center was set up by local residents and civil society organizations, recruiting volunteers for local defense and humanitarian missions and mobilizing civilian resources such as first aid and defensive equipment, drones, and means of transportation. This provided a breath of fresh air for the besieged communities, which realized that despite their abandonment by the state, they were not alone, that there were others who would stand by their side and help them protect their families and homes.
More than a year after the May 2021 pogroms, many Israelis remain traumatized by this momentous event as evidenced by the huge leap in applications for personal firearm licenses and the communal organizing for emergency situations and protection. In these circumstances, and given the widespread consensus that domestic Muslim violence is likely to erupt with greater ferocity if Israel were to find itself fighting an all-out war on several fronts, the new structure of civilian resilience, whereby civil society organizations not only have a healing role but also provide physical protection and prepare civilians and communities for emergencies, is bound to play a crucial role in future national emergencies.
Having successfully passed their baptism of fire, civil society organizations have evolved into mission-driven pacesetters on the issue of national resilience and emergency civilian preparedness. Policymakers would do well to see this as an asset and an opportunity rather than a burden and use these organizations as a significant force multiplier for national resilience, working hand-in-hand with the state, the police, and the local authorities in both routine times and emergencies. They offer an important component for Israel Victory.
Sara Haetzni Cohen is CEO of the "My Israel" movement.