The Akko riots were just the tip of an iceberg

Israel’s mixed cities are pressure cookers waiting

By Nathan Jeffay, November 13, 2008

On Yom Kippur, wild rioting broke out in the Israeli city of Akko. Four days of clashes between the Jewish and Arab populations resulted in damage to 50 Jewish-owned shops and 150 Jewish-owned cars, along with 11 cases of arson at Arab homes. Akko was a warning. Cities of mixed Jewish-Arab populations are the pressure cookers of Israel, and the question is not whether there will be more clashes, but when and where they will occur.

People talk in positive tones about "mixed cities". This makes them sound quite idyllic. It gives the impression of two populations getting on splendidly, popping into each other's homes for cups of sugar. Sadly, examples of such blissful co-existence are few and far between. Mixed cities tend rather to be what one parliamentarian recently termed: "islands of the Third World" in Israel.

This does not, however, describe Haifa, one place where residents are relatively prosperous and inter-communal relations cordial, but it is a perfect summing up of places like Lod and Ramle, the two central-Israel cities that could well be the next places to explode. They are home to poor Jews and even poorer Arabs. Turf wars over which neighbourhoods are Jewish and which are Arab are common. Jealousy is rife among Arab residents since they feel that whatever little the Jewish residents get in terms of municipal services, they do even worse - a fifth of Lod Arabs do not have sewage disposal. Youngsters on both sides anticipate bleak futures, and believe they have little to lose by engaging in violence. They say themselves that, if things erupted here, the Akko clashes would look like child's play in comparison.

The government has forgotten cities like these. Its own task force, the Or Commission, convened in the wake of the notorious riots at the start of the Second Intifada in October 2000, noted that the sorry situation in such places can easily lead to violence. Yet its recommendations have not been implemented.

Lod and Ramle may be just outside Tel Aviv and close to Ben Gurion airport, but there are no real plans for redevelopment. Since the Or Commission, things have got worse rather than better. Today, on some crime-ridden estates, you can buy a two-bedroom flat for around £14,000. The only culture neighbours of different ethnic backgrounds share is a violent drug culture.

The government's failure to sort things out is reprehensible, but unsurprising. Israel's leaders are uniformly short-termist, and routinely sweep social problems under the carpet once they are out of the headlines. But where is world Jewry, which has long helped in areas overlooked by the state? Millions of dollars pour into Israel every year from American Jewish Federations, but community activists in Lod and Ramle say that not a single project in their cities receives support.

Funding in other mixed cities is patchy, to say the least. The New Israel Fund, one of the few organisations involved in mixed cities (another is the UJIA, which does some work in Akko), says it has a hard time raising money for them.

The sad truth is that diaspora donors are faddish. On Purim, the children of Sderot, currently a favourite destination for foreign funds, were sinking in mishloach manot, sent from across the world - and rightly so. When things "actually happen" - here and in other border communities - diaspora donors dig deep. But they also need to think long-term, and help to change the reality for both communities in mixed cities - a far more difficult cause to market. Mixed cities do not fit the clear-cut "Israel under attack" model. The need is more complex, and many donors are averse to helping Israel's Arabs, even though gaps between the communities serve to increase Arab anger towards Jews.

The mixed city cannot remain an almost-lost cause for utopians who believe in blissful co-existence. It is time for it to be seen as the surest investment for anybody who cares about Israel's future and wants to play a part in preventing bloodshed.

Last updated: 11:25am, November 13 2008