Recent clashes between Jews and Israeli Arabs in the northern Israeli
city of Acre have highlighted tensions that exist between Arabs and
Jews - even in areas of the country where the two have coexisted
peacefully for decades. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Acre that
Arabs in Israel want equality and an end to discrimination.
Conflict is no stranger to the ancient Mediterranean port city of Acre. In millenniums past, the city has been the scene of a bloody rebellion against the Assyrians, been conquered by the Crusaders, and resisted Napoleon.
Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the picturesque city - on the list of the UNESCO world heritage sites - has been touted as a shining example of coexistence between its 70 percent Jewish majority and 30 percent Arab minority. That image was shattered this month, when Jews and Arabs went on a rampage.
It started on the eve of Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, when an Arab, Tawfiq Jamal, drove his car, blaring loud music, through a Jewish neighborhood. Angered, Jewish youths chased and besieged the man.
Rumors that he had been killed spread quickly through Arab neighborhoods, drawing hundreds of mostly young Arabs to the Jewish neighborhood to retaliate. This man, a Jew, was inside his home when it was surrounded by Arab youths.
He says hundreds of Arabs arrived at his house in the middle of the night, faces covered, turning over cars, breaking windows. He says his mother and father in law were terrified as hundreds surrounded the house, yelling "God is Great" in Arabic.
Jewish youths retaliated by setting fire to homes of Arabs and attacking their cars.
Most of the smashed cars have been hauled away and broken store windows repaired, but Acre remains a city in fear.
Police have been posted to the main thoroughfares to check cars coming in and soldiers patrol the streets.
Acre's old city and waterfront, usually crowded with tourists during the Jewish holidays, is nearly deserted. An Arab and owner of a souvenir shop, says he has not sold a thing in days.
He says the situation in Acre is very bad and reminds him of the Palestinian uprising eight years ago, when for two years he opened his shop in the morning and closed at sundown without selling one thing.
He and other Arab businesspeople on the Acre waterfront say tensions have been rising in recent years as the local authorities promote a plan to gentrify the old city.
He says he believes the Jews clearly want to push the Arab merchants out in order to bring investors in.
Arab activists say that while Israeli Arabs have full citizens' rights and are entitled to public health and other benefits, they continue to suffer discrimination in city services, education, and housing.
Sami Hawari is an Arab community advocate and writer.
"The façade of coexistence in this city between Arabs and Jews, it is false advertising and I believe there is a lot of conflict between Arabs and Jews," he said. "Actually, Acre is representative of Israel. It is a microcosm of what is happening between Arabs and Jews in this land."
In the days after the riots, some Jewish factions distributed leaflets urging Jews not to patronize Arab shops. This 66-year-old Arab woman in Acre's old city says actions like these are doing little to heal wounds.
She says those who distributed the leaflets should be ashamed of themselves. Arabs, she says, make money off Jews and Jews make money off Arabs. Both should avoid attacking each other. But at the same time, she says if any Jew attacks an Arab, the Arabs will strike back.
Unlike their fellow Arabs in the Palestinian territories, Israeli Arabs consider themselves Israeli citizens. They enjoy democracy, the benefits of Israel's national health system, access to Israeli education, and the opportunities that Israel's strong economy offers. Virtually all Arabs interviewed in Acre say they would never consider moving to newly independent Palestinian state.
Near the scene of the riots, young Israelis - Jews and Arabs - gather for a quiet peace rally. A 30-year-old Jewish man attending the rally says both sides have no choice but to coexist.
"There is sort of the reality that it will never change. [Both] people live in the place and I cannot see them going out of the place. So even if there will be two states, I believe that Arabs will live in Jewish places ... and we will have to both learn how to make it happen," he said
Israelis disagree on how best to ensure peaceful coexistence. On the left, some politicians urge greater spending on social services for Arabs. On the right, some are calling for tougher law enforcement and penalties for those who disturb the peace, while extremists call for deportation of all Arabs.