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Riots in Israeli city show Arab-Jewish tension

Riots in Acre, Israel, show how quickly tensions between Jews and Arabs in ethnically mixed towns can erupt, at a time when such mixing is growing in a number of Israeli cities.
An Israeli demonstrator is arrested during clashes with police at a protest by Jewish residents in the mixed city of Acre on Oct. 10.Muhammed Muheisen / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For three decades, Azia Abu Ali, an Israeli Arab, would chat with her Jewish neighbors and sometimes visit their homes.

The civility was wiped out by four days of rioting earlier this month by Arabs and Jews in this northern Israeli city, which has long been touted as a model of coexistence.

Arabs smashed Jewish shop windows. Jews hurled rocks at Arab homes and burned three. By week's end, 14 Arab families had fled their homes and were unsure when, or if, they would return.

The Acre riots showed how quickly tensions between Jews and Arabs in ethnically mixed towns can erupt, at a time when such mixing is growing in a number of Israeli cities.

Arabs are increasingly moving to mixed towns like Acre, Haifa, Jaffa and Ramle and even to historically Jewish towns like Upper Nazareth, Carmiel and Nahariya.

Much of the movement is due to Israeli policies that have made life hard in Arab villages, said Mohammad Darawshe, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives. He said friction can only be avoided though a national policy of coexistence that promotes equal budgeting for Arab towns, inclusion of Arabs in decision-making and education about shared living.

Arabs 20 percent of population
Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's population, but own only 3 percent of its land, mainly due to confiscation, Darawshe said. Arab towns on average get less state funds, and young people can't get mortgages or build new homes because of restrictive zoning plans.

While violence such as in Acre has been rare, tensions between Jews and Arabs are surfacing in current municipal election campaigns. Three Arab parties have formed a bloc in Upper Nazareth, a once-Jewish town that is now about 15 percent Arab. An Arab party is running for the first time in Carmiel, which has 400 Arab residents out of 46,000.

Right-wing Jewish parties in some towns are campaigning on keeping Arabs out.

"The far right list says look, the Arabs are invading our cities, they are going to take over, they'll change the character of the city," said Sammy Smooha, a sociology professor at Haifa University.

"And the Arabs say, this is racism. You find this in Carmiel, you find it everywhere. ... In Acre, half the children are Arab, so the Jews feel that they don't have control of the city."

One solution, he suggested, would be for the government to build new Arab cities.

The riots in Acre, a mixed town with a 30 percent Arab minority, began when an Arab resident, Tawfiq Jamal, drove into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. He was picking up his daughter, who was visiting her fiance, according to neighbors.

Yom Kippur incident
Israel comes to a virtual standstill on Yom Kippur, but many witnesses said Jamal was driving recklessly, listening to music and smoking in violation of Sabbath rules, according to police. His behavior was considered a religious slight and he was attacked by a stone-throwing mob.

When rumors spread in the Arab old city that Jamal had been killed, some Arabs rushed to the scene to clash with Jews. Others smashed Jewish shop windows.

Police arrested 80 people, and rioters damaged 40 shops and 120 cars. A week later, the city had put up 14 Arab families in hotels until they could return to their homes.

Arab leaders blamed the riots on efforts to force Arabs out of mixed neighborhoods.

"What happened, it is not a new situation, and I fear it will continue because the Israeli government is continuing the political and security jihad of its racist positions," said Sheik Kamal Khatib, a leader in the Islamic movement.

Jamal, the Arab driver, declined to discuss the riots but said he hoped the city would return to normal.

"There were a lot of people hurt by what happened and it didn't do any good," said Jamal, 48, a car mechanic in Haifa. "We're living in the same city and we need to learn to live together."

But interviews with Jewish and Arab residents suggested coexistence would be difficult.

Police had to escort Abu Ali and her family from their home after Jewish demonstrators chanting "Death to Arabs" lobbed rocks through their windows, she said. She and her husband lived above a Jewish family for 30 years, she said. Although she planned to return, she said she wouldn't see her neighbors in the same light.

'They didn't help us'
"They didn't help us. They didn't protect us," she said. "We are an Arab minority and they didn't stand with us."

Her downstairs neighbors declined to comment.

Walaa Ramal, 20, and her family spent six years as one of three Arab families in the apartment building where Jamal stopped to pick up his daughter, she said. In that time, her sister's car had been burned once and someone set fire to their apartment door three times, she said.

No one touched her family's apartment during the riots, but someone lit a fire in an Arab apartment one floor down. A week after the riots, its door was charred black, unable to close. Inside, soot coated the ceiling and walls, ringing framed photos of smiling couples and embroidered verses from the Quran.

Few of the building's Jewish residents would talk about what happened, and those who did wouldn't give their names.

"We had OK relations with them. Hello, hello, no more than that," said a woman in her 30s sitting in the courtyard with her family before the start of the Sabbath. Nearby, young boys kicked a soccer ball while girls shot marbles in a dirt courtyard.

"Now, relations are horrible, fighting all the time," she said. "It's time (the Arabs) go where they belong, the Old City," referring to an impoverished Arab section of town.

"I think most of the people in the building don't want them to come back," another resident said.