Akko riots get buried by credit crunch

Reports rely on the wires — and fail to recognise Israeli police’s role in keeping the peace.

By Alex Brummer, October 23, 2008

Reporting from the Middle East has become more scarce in the British press in recent weeks, with the credit crunch and the American elections taking up the column inches. But, not for the first time, the Hebrew month of Tishri has proved to be a period of tension between Jews and Arabs. The Yom Kippur War erupted on Judaism's most solemn day in 1973 and it was an erev Rosh Hashanah walk on the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon that sparked the Second Intifada in 2000. This year, while we were seeking news about our savings, Akko (Acre), a city of 45,000 people where Jews and Arabs generally cohabit peacefully, was the scene of severe inter-communal violence.

UK press reports on these troubles have largely been based on news agency material. James Hilder in The Times noted that it all began "when an Arab man drove through a predominately Jewish neighbourhood playing his car stereo loudly, prompting a group of Jewish youths to attack him for disturbing the sanctity of the Day of Atonement holiday".

Donald Macintyre gave a fuller account in The Independent under the heading, "The Arab driver, Yom Kippur and how a city was inflamed". This appeared on October 15, several days after the riots, and sought to reconstruct the events. He described the initial incident and reported that the Arab driver's son was slightly injured.

Rumour had spread that the driver, Tawfil Jamal, had been killed, which provoked retaliatory attacks on Jewish properties by hundreds of Arabs. Jewish shops and cars were attacked. Three nights of violence against Jewish targets resulted in 64 arrests.

In a spiral of retaliation, Jewish rioters attacked Arab homes, from which the residents fled. Macintyre quoted Israel's northern commander of police, General Shomon Koren, suggesting that Jewish "dominant elements" were the main instigators of the rioting. A massive police presence has now been stationed in Akko. The Independent article ascribes this to the recommendations of the 2000 Or Commission inquiry into similar violence in which 13 Arab demonstrators died.

Poignant on-the-ground reporting by Macintyre records how Akko's Arabs and Jews normally co-exist quite happily. He quotes one Arab woman as saying that she intended to return to the Jewish neighbourhood in which she lived despite a fire in their home. "I am not blaming everyone for what one person has done," she says.

The riots' broader political significance was examined by Jack Khoury in Ha'aretz. Israeli Arab groups, he argued, have sought to exploit the events by claiming the events were "a premeditated attempt at ethnic cleansing".

In Syria, the riots were reported in the state-run Tishrin Daily as evidence "of the spreading of racism through Israeli society". But there also have been efforts to encourage reconciliation. The Akko Theatre Festival, which was initially cancelled, is going ahead, featuring a play in which Israeli Arab actor Mohammed Bakri appears. The kibbutz movement erected a "peace succah" in Akko's old city area, inviting Jewish and Arab teens to visit.

Although the violence received low media coverage for such events in the region, The Telegraph did comment that it drew attention to the claims of human rights groups that Israeli Arabs "frequently suffer discrimination in the Jewish state".

As for the driver whose loud excursion precipitated the riots, his arrest and subsequent driving ban was seen as heavy-handed by most commentators - though most also failed to observe that, had not the Israeli police learned the lessons of the past, things could have been far worse.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 12:15pm, October 23 2008