New York Jewish Week 10/12/2008
by Joshua Mitnick, Israel Correspondent
Acre, Israel — Five days after a wave of Arab-Jewish rioting first broke out on the eve of Yom Kippur, the garrisons of law enforcement officers turned this northern Israeli city into one under occupation to restore a measure of order.
While hundreds of blue-uniformed municipal police carrying batons and paramilitary border police toting M-16s patrolled the streets, busloads of reinforcements were stationed at road junctions outside of the neighborhood.
But the huge police presence in this mixed Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab coastal town of 50,000 didn’t ease the smoldering tensions many likened to the nationwide clashes that broke out at the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in October 2000.
Although the municipality had cleaned up the smashed glass window fronts
from businesses and cars, Mayor Shimon Lankri called off an annual theater festival scheduled for the Sukkot holiday.
And while national dignitaries like President Shimon Peres made a public visit on Monday to the city to ease tensions, both Arab and Jewish residents accused each other of pogroms, warned of a Jewish economic boycott of Arab-owned shops, and wondered aloud whether true coexistence would ever be possible.
Acre Chief Rabbi Yosef Yashar compared the anti-Jewish violence in the city to the infamous Kristallnacht riots against German Jews 70 years ago. “This brings us back to the darker chapters of our history,” he said.
Bertha Ahmed said she and her husband Mohammed and six children lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood for 25 years in relative harmony until neighbors torched her house last Friday.
“Now I have a different attitude,” she said. “Eventually things will go back to the way they were, but we’ll always have this wound.”
The couple has been living in a hotel paid for by the municipality and has not returned to their second-floor apartment since the first night of the riot. Following television news reports of attacks against Arab citizens it was unclear whether they would be able to return at all.
At a traffic circle in the blue-collar district where the Ahmed family lived, a banner hung with spray paint read, “Jews, buy from your brother!”
At the Ahmed family residence on Borochov Street, where the windows were empty and charred black, a group of Jewish residents and policeman chuckled among themselves at the sight of a foreign reporter.
“Are you an Arab? We’ve already kicked a camera crew of Al Jazeera out of here,” said Etti Ohayon, the 45-year-old downstairs neighbor. “There shouldn’t be any Arabs in our city, the Arabs should go to the territories.”
The violence was touched off last Wednesday night when an Arab resident of Acre, Tawfik Jamal, drove into a Jewish neighborhood amid the observance of Yom Kippur, a holiday on which even secular Israeli Jews don’t use cars.
Accusing Jamal of violating the sacred observance, dozens of local Jewish youths gathered outside the apartment of a relative of Jamal. After rumors spread through the Arab community that Jamal had been killed, a group of Arabs began vandalizing storefronts of Jewish businesses and shattering car windshields.
The rioting touched off stone-throwing by masked Arabs and Jews, looting and the burning of houses by crowds that proved too much for the police, who used water cannons to control the crowds.
And even though each side touted its own version of the violence, both agreed that the police were too weak or hesitant in re-establishing calm.
“There are Arabs with ammunition, with knives and with bats,” said Ruby Luzon, an Orthodox Jewish activist in Acre. “The police don’t know how to operate when facing Arabs. They are scared that they will be dragged in front of a state inquiry committee.” She was referring to the committee set up to investigate the October 2000 riots in which about a dozen Israeli Arabs were killed.
Ahmed Mursi, a shop owner in Acre’s city center, said his brother’s house had gone up in flames on the third night of the riots. “If [the police] used their tools, there wouldn’t have been a problem.”
Police spokesperson Mickey Rosenfeld said the police had succeeded in its main goal of avoiding any deaths, but added it was virtually impossible to stop property damage in a mixed city like Acre. Over the four days of rioting, 154 people were arrested, 500 reinforcements were brought in and dozens were injured.
Israeli commentators warned that the Acre violence could serve as a spark to a new round of intifada-like clashes reminiscent of the October 2000 demonstrations. Groups in Gaza like Islamic Jihad picked up on the cue as well, praising the Arab rioters and vowing to “liberate” Acre from Israeli control. The city is two-thirds Jewish, one-third Arab.
Yet Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Achronot, told Israel Radio that the fact that the clashes never spread to other Arab cities in Israel was an indication that the violence of the last week was essentially local in nature.
Nevertheless, both Jewish and Arab experts agreed that to create more stable relations between Arabs and Jews in mixed cities — and in the country in general — the government needs to eliminate the inequality between the two populations. Israeli Arabs have long complained of being second-class citizens in Israel; some on the Jewish side have seen the Arabs as a fifth column.
“In a Jewish kindergarten you find all of the facilities, and in Arab kindergartens you don’t find all of them,” said Shimon Akun, the former head of the parents’ association of kindergartners in Acre. “Until we reach a realization that a kid is a kid, then we won’t be able to avoid what has happened. Until the government of Israel changes its policy [toward the Arab minority], what happened in Acre is only a symptom of what will happen in mixed cities like Jaffa, in Nazareth and Haifa — it’s going to happen, it’s only a question of time.”
Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, went a step further, arguing that establishing true coexistence is a complicated, two-sided equation.
“Two things have to happen to create genuine coexistence between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis,” he said. “The first initiative must come from the Jewish side because we are the majority: that is an offer of full and unequivocal equality, along with a painful national dialogue on the meaning of Israeli identity for non-Jewish Israelis.”
Klein Halevi continued: “On the Arab side, there needs to be a credible expression of reassurance to the Jews who are a minority in the Middle East that the Arabs of Israel want to be loyal citizens of a state that must define itself as both Jewish and democratic.”
In calling off the annual Acre fringe theater festival, Mayor Lankri said that the municipality couldn’t be sure that the cultural event wouldn’t become a target for extremists looking to reignite violence in the city.
While Jewish actors and directors protested, Arab residents of the city griped that the decision to cancel the festival — a major tourist draw for the predominantly Arab Old City of Acre — was meant as a punishment for Arab participation in the riot.
“This is an economic war,” said Sami Hawari, a columnist for the Kul El Arab newspaper and a consultant for nonprofit groups. “The mayor has surrendered to the demands of the extremists by canceling the festival.”
Hawari insisted he had lived for decades in harmony with Jewish neighbors until the recent violence, but he accused Lankri of paying lip service to the notion of Arab-Jewish cooperation.
“The mayor hasn’t invested a shekel in coexistence in Acre, so why are we surprised when this happens?”
Back at the torched Ahmed apartment on Borochov Street, Robert Amzaleg bragged to his Jewish neighbors about being interrogated by police, who accused him of involvement in the violence. Though he said he wasn’t involved, he claimed to know those who did torch the apartment.
“The restraint has been washed away. I’m with those that want to continue” the violence, he said. “If we didn’t respond, it could be tomorrow that I might not be able to walk down the street with my wife. [The Arabs] have taken over everything.”