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Can Jews and Palestinians live peacefully in Israel? Here’s a closer look.

Three things to know about Israel's "mixed cities."

street scene in Jaffa, Israel. Jaffa is a mixed city, where Palestinian Israelis live a less-segregated life than Palestinians in Gaza.
View of Retsif ha-Aliya ha-Shniya Street, in the Israeli city of Jaffa, a “mixed city” that is home to Palestinian Israelis (cc) Bahnfrend via Wikimedia Commons

Editors’ note: With the war between Israeli forces and Hamas continuing into 2024, we revisit an earlier piece by Stephanie Dornschneider and colleagues. Their article, published in the Washington Post in May 2021, is based on earlier surveys in Israel’s mixed cities, where Jewish and Palestinian Israelis remain highly segregated, yet are in daily contact with one another.

As the May 2021 war between the Israeli army and Hamas escalated, Jewish and Palestinian Israelis clashed violently across Israel. In Lod, fighting between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis became so severe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a state of emergency — the first time since 1966 that a Palestinian community in Israel was placed under emergency law. One resident of the mixed city of Ramle said, “It was like a war here,” while an Israeli police chief likened the violence to levels during the October 2000 Palestinian mass uprisings known as intifada.

Mixed cities” in Israel denote cities shared by Jews and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They are a unique setting in a conflict marked as much by geography as by politics. Most Palestinians live strictly separated lives — segregated in besieged Gaza or the Occupied Territories — or abroad in exile. In Israel’s mixed cities, Jews and Palestinians remain highly segregated but can have daily contact with one another.

We surveyed contacts between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis

To Israeli policymakers, the recent violence in mixed cities could support arguments for separating Jews and Palestinians. These arguments imply that peace in highly segregated mixed cities is fragile: If contact between Palestinians and Jews leads to conflict, it’s wiser to keep both groups apart. Yet our survey of Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants of mixed cities, conducted before the recent outbreak of violence, shows that these interpretations fail to capture the full picture.

We conducted our research in 2019 in seven Israeli cities, each of which saw violent clashes in May 2021 — Lod, Ramle, Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Upper Nazareth and Ma’alot-Tarshiha. Our study, implemented by the B.I. and Lucille Cohen Institute, surveyed 315 Jewish and 287 Palestinian Israelis from 96 mixed neighborhoods. This sample size is significantly higher than that of other studies on this challenging topic. Existing studies typically address mixed cities rather than mixed neighborhoods, where contact between the two groups is more likely to occur.

The survey relied on telephone interviews conducted in Arabic for Palestinian Israelis and in Hebrew for Jewish Israelis. Despite the difficulty of accessing inhabitants of mixed neighborhoods, we obtained a response rate of 24 percent for each group. Although we cannot exclude sampling bias, our unique data provides interesting and novel insight into Jewish-Palestinian relations in mixed neighborhoods.

In total, our questionnaire covered about 80 questions addressing contact between the two groups, attitudes, identity, political views, collective action and demographic information. Our findings on the quantity and quality of contact (positive, neutral, negative contact) come from descriptive statistics. To evaluate relationships between contact and attitudes, we conducted regression analyses, controlling for demographic variables and neighborhoods.

Our data shows that, before the current violence, Jewish and Palestinian residents of mixed neighborhoods reported frequent, positive contact with one another. Perhaps surprisingly, they reported little or no negative contact. “Contact” means a face-to-face encounter, such as having a chat or waving at one another. The survey evaluated positivity and negativity based on how respondents felt about their encounter.

Our findings stand in stark contrast to current reports of communal violence, suggesting that the situation preceding the current unrest was less volatile than news stories report or than opponents of integrated cities suggest. We even found that contact between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis may facilitate conflict resolution: Among Jewish respondents, positive or neutral contact with their Palestinian neighbors is associated with support for a two-state-solution acknowledging Palestinian statehood.

But negative contact can poison positive relations

How did peaceful coexistence turn into violence? As we know from conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, contact is not a panacea. Research shows that negative contact can poison positive interactions by increasing prejudice, which political psychologists link closely with conflict. Theories on the spread of social unrest, for instance, might suggest previously low levels of negative contact in these Israeli cities increased after the sudden outbreak of unrest in other parts of the country.

Our data also reveals that despite frequent positive contact, a majority of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis in the survey reported feeling physically threatened in the past. The recent tension in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood could have fueled these feelings, with increased threat perceptions encouraging wider support for community violence.

Those in violent hotspots previously supported nonviolent resistance

What is the fallout of this communal violence? Influential approaches have suggested that separation is the best solution once conflict has begun. Mixed settlements create a security dilemma, in which opposing ethnic groups believe they must defeat each other to create a safe environment for themselves. In the words of Chaim Kaufmann, for instance, “mutual security for Jews and Palestinians requires … substantially separating the populations.”

Critics of partition have countered that ethnic mixing may be a promising alternative. A large research literature from psychology and other social science disciplines shows that contact between opposing ethnic groups can promote peace-building by reducing prejudice. And research on Israel confirms this positive outlook, though the encouraging findings in this case refer to organized contact programs between Jews and Palestinians, which do not capture daily interactions on the ground.

Based on unique data from mixed neighborhoods, our research offers new empirical support for the benefits of intergroup contact in the Israeli-Palestinian context, despite the current communal violence. Importantly, the survey identifies previous support for nonviolent resistance among the residents of the current hotspots of communal violence. This suggests that there is a potential for future peace, after the violence ends.

Stephanie Dornschneider is assistant professor at University College Dublin and author of Exit, Voice, Loyalty … or Deliberate Obstruction? Non-Collective Everyday Resistance under Oppression (Perspectives on Politics 2021). Find her on Twitter @dornschneider.

Miles Hewstone, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Oxford University, has published widely on intergroup relations, especially how intergroup contact can reduce prejudice and improve intergroup relations.

Oliver Christ is professor of psychological methods and evaluation at the University in Hagen, Germany, and is researching ways to improve intergroup relations and reduce conflict between groups.

Sarina Schäfer is a lecturer at the University in Hagen, Germany, where her research focuses on the effects of having mixed contact experiences with outgroups on intergroup relations as well as on consequences of social status, with a focus on minority health.

Samer Halabi is associate professor of psychology at The Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo. His recent work examines reconciliation processes, willingness to reconcile and effects of intergroup apologies.

Danit Sobol-Sarag is the head of Psychology Laboratories at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, in Tel Aviv.

Funding for this research comes from the German Foundation for Peace Research.