Riots fracture rare Jewish-Arab ties in mixed Israeli town

Israeli President Shimon Peres led a reconciliation effort Monday after four days of ethnic violence.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Acre on edge: Violence between Arabs and Jews in Acre, which Premier Ehud Olmert called a 'shining example of coexistence, started last week.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

After four days of ethnic rioting that has torn apart one of the few Israeli cities where Arabs and Jews live and socialize together, Israeli President Shimon Peres brought together political and religious leaders of both communities in an effort to restore a sense of calm and coexistence.

Community activists and Israeli analysts say the worst domestic clashes since 2000 were a local symptom of the troubled relations between the Jewish state and its one-fifth Arab minority.

Since last Wednesday, dozens have been injured on both sides, Arab houses torched, and Jewish businesses vandalized. Now Acre (pronounced AH'-koh), a city of 50,000, is patrolled by paramilitary policemen with M-16s and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told them to show "zero tolerance" toward rioters. Streets remained calm since Sunday.

Trouble started in Acre, a city Mr. Olmert called a "shining example of coexistence," when Tawfiq Jamal, an Arab, drove into a Jewish area at the start of Yom Kippur, setting off a mob that accused him of desecrating the holiday.

After rumors spread among Arabs that Mr. Jamal had been killed, masked groups went on a rampage of vandalism throughout the city. Both sides blame the police for not doing enough to stop the violence that demonstrates just how fragile relations are between Arabs and Jews throughout the country.

"The state of Israel creates inequality. One population gets more and one population gets less. In a Jewish kindergarten you find all of the facilities, and [in] the Arab kindergartens you don't find everything," says Shimon Akkun, a Jewish community activist who warned that the same clashes could be repeated in other mixed cities in Israel.

"Acre is a microcosm of what could happen in Israel and the Middle East. Everyone knows there is going to be a war, but no one knows when," he says.

Many residents in Acre said that the two communities, with two Jews to each Arab, have lived for decades in relative harmony together. While Israeli Arabs and Jews reside in separate municipalities, in Acre the two sides often have business ties, sit together in cafes, and take care of each others' kids.

Mahmoud Simri, who lives in public housing in a largely Jewish neighborhood near the epicenter of the violence, says his 15-year-old son, Salah, spends most of his time with Jewish friends from the apartment building. But now the boys only see each other in the stairwell and the Simri family keeps off the streets.

"At this hour we don't go outside. Soon we'll close all the windows," says Mr. Simri on Sunday, as dusk faded into a night of uncertainty of whether there would be more violence. "There are good Jews and bad Jews, but more are bad. They don't want Arabs here."

While Jewish commentators have wondered aloud if the fighting would touch off an internal intifada, or uprising, among the Palestinian citizens of the country, Arabs say that the violence was evidence that Jews hoped to expel them from the city.

Sami Hawari, a journalist for the Arab newspaper Kul el-Arab, cited the municipality's cancellation of an annual theater festival that is centered in the predominantly Arab Old City as evidence of an "economic warfare" against the Arab community.

"The mayor wants to teach the Arabs a lesson: You [lift] your head up and we will break you," he says.

Mr. Hawari says that only when the municipality sponsors a joint Arab-Jewish school and other cultural institutions will a true sense of shared community develop.

In addition to the widespread economic discrimination that Arabs live with, there is the loaded problem of creating a national identity.

While Jews have never defined what it means for Arabs to be equal citizens in a Jewish state, Arabs need to reassure Jews that they aren't waiting for Israel to be replaced by something else, says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

"That's the deal to make this a long-term viable society," he says. "An Israel where one-fifth of citizens feel disenfranchised from the most basic elements of the national identity cannot create a healthy society and, in the long term, not a viable one."

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