Israel has been suffering its worst bout of inter-communal
violence since the start of the second intifada, with a week of what has been
widely presented as "rioting" by Jewish and Arab residents of the
northern port city of Acre.
The trigger for the outbursts occurred on the night of Yom Kippur, or the Day
of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. The country effectively
shuts down for 24 hours as religious Jews fast and abstain from most activity,
leaving secular Jews little choice but to do likewise.
According to reports, an Arab resident, Tawfik Jamal, outraged a group of Jews
by disturbing the day's sanctity and driving to relatives in a predominantly
Jewish neighborhood. He and his teenage son were pelted with stones.
The pair sought sanctuary in the relatives' home as a mob gathered outside
chanting "Death to the Arabs." Israeli police who tried to rescue
the family fled when they were attacked, too.
With news of Mr. Jamal's death mistakenly broadcast over mosque loudspeakers,
Arab youths marched to the city center and smashed shop windows in a display
In subsequent days, Jewish gangs have roamed Acre's streets and torched several
Arab homes, forcing dozens of Arab families living in Jewish-dominated areas
An Arab member of the Israeli parliament, Ahmed Tibi, observed that what is
occurring in Acre is not a riot but a "pogrom," conducted by Jewish
residents against their Arab neighbors.
Communal tensions are always high in the half a dozen "mixed cities"
like Acre, the only places in Israel where Jews and Arabs live in close proximity,
even if in largely separate neighborhoods.
But the situation has grown especially strained in Acre, where some Arab residents
have escaped the deprivation and overcrowding of their main neighborhood, the
walled Old City, by moving to Jewish areas. Acre's Arabs are also numerically
strong, comprising a third of the local population.
Despite pronouncements from Israeli leaders that the violence is damaging Acre's
image as a model of coexistence, the reality is of a deeply divided city, where
the wounds of the 1948 war have yet to heal.
During the war, most local Palestinians were either killed or forced to leave,
with the remainder penned up in the old city. Jewish immigrants, brought to
settle the empty houses, were encouraged to see themselves as reclaiming the
city for Jews.
In recent years the movement of Arab families into these "Judaized"
neighborhoods has revived talk of the need for Acre to be cleansed again of
The problem has been exacerbated by the relocation to Acre of some of the fanatical
settlers withdrawn from Gaza three years ago and by the founding in 2001 of
a hesder yeshiva, a school for religious men that combines army service.
The police have stated that the violence in Acre caught them by surprise, but
there was little justification for their complacency.
Abbas Zakour, an Arab member of parliament and an Acre resident, had written
to the public security minister days before Yom Kippur warning that it would
offer a pretext for Jewish extremists to attack Arab residents.
He was concerned that, as in previous years, Jews would throw stones at Arab
cars breaking the unofficial 24-hour curfew in the Galilee region, where Arabs
are a majority. The failure of the police to intervene, he added, "leads
the Arab public to believe that police are deliberately allowing the young Jews
to attack innocent Arab residents who drive by."
In a society where the grip of Jewish religious fundamentalism is tightening
– stoked by the high birth rate of ultra-Orthodox Jews and the state's generous
support of a separate religious education system – such incidents regularly
occur on Yom Kippur and less frequently on Saturdays, the official day of rest.
The local media reported that over Yom Kippur ambulances and paramedics were
stoned. At one point Acre's ambulance station was surrounded by Jewish youths
who smashed its windows. As a result, the service's local director, Eli Been,
ordered staff to wear helmets and bulletproof vests.
Given the failure to punish, or even rebuke, Jewish extremists for such acts
of vandalism, it is hardly surprising that in places like Acre they are emboldened
to vent their indignation at Arab neighbors.
What has particularly disturbed the Arab minority, however, has been the response
from politicians and the police to events in Acre.
Israeli leaders have tried to calm tensions by paying lip service to the idea
of coexistence. But at the same time, rather than denouncing the Jewish mob,
they have intimated that Acre's Arab residents provoked the attacks.
During Sunday's cabinet meeting, Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister,
stressed, in reference to the Yom Kippur violence, that the wider Arab population
must act "according to the norms of a democratic state."
His probable successor, Tzipi Livni, added of Yom Kippur that "every citizen
has to respect this day" – a reprimand to Arab citizens for driving rather
than to extremist Jews for turning into a lynch mob.
Such indirect condemnations roused others to greater provocation. Yuval Steinitz
of the Likud Party called the violence a "pogrom" against, rather
than by, Acre's Jews. The local chief rabbi, Yosef Yashar, compared the city's
Arabs to Nazis. And on Monday Jewish far-right activists arrived in Acre from
Hebron to stir things further.
Mr. Jamal, the hapless driver who provoked the violence, has been widely blamed
– apparently without evidence – for playing his music loudly and smoking while
driving, as though this justified the attack.
He was finally brought before the parliament on Sunday to demonstrate his contrition.
To much abuse from right-wing legislators, he asked for forgiveness and told
the parliament he was ready to "sacrifice his neck" to restore good
relations between the two communities.
The next day the country's president, Shimon Peres, reminded community leaders:
"There is one law and one police."
As if to disprove him, the police arrested Mr. Jamal the same day, accusing
him of offending religious sensitivities, speeding and reckless endangerment
– though it was unclear whom he had endangered apart from himself. He was released
to house arrest two days later.
Mr. Tibi, the parliamentarian, sounded a rare note of sanity when he observed:
"I wonder if they will start to arrest Jews who eat and drink during the
month of Ramadan."
Meanwhile, Acre's Jewish residents are organizing a boycott of Arab businesses.
They have apparently been joined by the mayor, Shimon Lankri, who canceled the
annual drama festival due to be held in the Old City in a few days. His move
was widely interpreted as a way to "punish" Arab residents, who are
major beneficiaries of the event.
Articulating popular sentiments, a senior police official told a local website:
"The Arab public will pay dearly for the events of Yom Kippur eve. They
have succeeded in greatly antagonizing the Jewish population and I don't see
them being forgiven for the next few years."
In what looked like a desperate move to avert further damage to the Old City's
already weak economy, Arab community leaders issued a condemnation of Mr. Jamal
and a plea for tolerance – though the gesture was not reciprocated by their
Few in the Arab minority share their president's confidence about the legal
system. They see that there are two sets of laws, one for Jews and another for
Arabs, and that the police have two faces, depending on who is doing the stone-throwing.
They know that when Jewish settlers attack Palestinians in the West Bank, or
even Israeli soldiers, they do so with impunity. Equally, they remember that
in 2005 when a settler opened fire on a bus with his army-issue gun in the Galilean
town of Shefa'amr, killing four Arab citizens, the police's priority was chasing
the Arab men they suspected had overpowered and killed him.
Even more painful are memories of the events at the beginning of the intifada,
in October 2000, when Arab citizens protested against the military whirlwind
unleashed against their Palestinian kin in the occupied territories. The worst
violence inside Israel occurred at the town of Umm al-Fahm, where Arab demonstrators
threw stones at cars driving along the nearby highway.
Politicians did not talk about Arab sensitivities, or the need for calm, at
that time. Instead they sent in a sniper unit. In the ensuing crackdown 13 Arab
demonstrators were shot dead, and hundreds injured with live ammunition and
A version of this article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.