Akko Riots: Arab-Jewish tensions flare
Riots came last week to Northern Israel as Arab-Jewish tensions flared. We report from a city in fear.
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Across the blue-collar housing projects in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Akko, the squares are strewn with chunks of bricks, fragments of tiles and shattered glass.
Police guards are stationed outside the homes of Arab families and patrolling street corners. Five days of rioting have left this city, with 72 per cent of its 53,000 residents Jewish and 28 per cent Arab, swamped with fear.
Mirvat Osman, an Arab social worker who lives in a mostly Jewish neighbourhood, says she is refusing to let her three-year-old son play outdoors. "I don't feel it's safe," she says.
Dina, a Jewish owner of a grocery shop in the housing estate where most of the riots took place, says that when the clashes began, her daughters, who were playing outside, "were so frightened they knocked on strangers' doors seeking a place to hide".
The mayhem erupted on the eve of Yom Kippur, when Tawfik Jamal, an Arab resident of Akko, drove into a mostly Jewish neighbourhood, allegedly playing loud music and smoking. He was attacked by a Jewish crowd and escaped from his car just before it was wrecked. Rumours that he had been killed swiftly reached the Arab quarter in Akko's Old City and around 400 people hurried to the Jewish neighbourhood, smashing cars and shop windows on their way.
The violence continued when a Jewish mob stoned and set fire to Arab-owned cars and buildings, aiming mainly at families living in Jewish areas. Three houses were burnt down.
Jewish residents said stones had been thrown from Arab houses and heard cries of "Kill the Jews".
Footage showing rioters shouting "Death to the Arabs" were broadcast on Israeli TV. More than 100 cars were damaged, and 40 shops. More than 50 arrests were made of both Jews and Arabs.
Ms Osman is angry at extremists from both sides, but especially at racist calls to boycott Arab business.
"I'm very disappointed by the indifference of my Jewish friends," she says, pointing out that Arab leaders apologised for the Yom Kippur incidents, while Jewish leaders refused.
Indeed, a municipality spokesman confirmed that in a meeting on Saturday night to try to stem the violence, Akko's chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar, called the Arab leaders present "Nazis", and refused to sign a conciliation paper.
In the grocery shop facing a burnt-down Arab house in Shedlitz Street, Dina recalls the fear she felt during Yom Kippur. "They came over, 200-250 Arabs, veiled, calling ‘Allahu Akbar' [God is Great] and ‘Itbach el Yahud' [kill the Jews]. They begun to hit everything, to break and shatter. Our kids were in the streets, but because it was Yom Kippur they had no mobile phones. We were so worried."
She adds: "I wasn't pleased to see the Arab houses burnt down. Stupid kids did that. The Arab vandals were probably not from Akko, but from neighbouring villages. I hope it will get quiet, and we will make a fresh start."
A teenager comes in to the grocery shop. He tells her: "I wish that only Jews would remain here."
On the doorstep of a shabby, two-storey house in Kibbutz Galuyot Street, Avraham Buzaglo chats with the police guard. The Arab inhabitants were taking care to stay indoors. Buzaglo says he came over to show solidarity, and the former factory worker accuses the young generation of Jews and Arabs of breaking the town's spirit of co-existence, though he mainly blames young Arabs for "creating provocations".
In the Old City, most shops are closed due to the absence of visitors. The atmosphere is gloomy. This part of town, which in 2001 became a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the traditional home for the popular Succot Theatre Festival.
The decision of Akko's mayor, Shimon Lankry, to cancel the festival is received here with much regret. Muneer Issa, eating lunch at Osman's hummus joint, one of the few shops in the bazaar that are open, says that the cancellation was intended to punish Arabs by cutting their main source of income.
"No violence was taking place in Old Akko, it's perfectly safe here," he says.
Issa admits that on Yom Kippur "there was a cry for help in the mosques" which inflamed the riots. But, he continues, he thinks the Muslim tolerance here is much greater than the Jewish one. "A couple of years ago Ramadan fell precisely on Succot, but we accepted the visitors who came to wine and dine at the entrance of our mosques."
In the wake of the riots, public figures flocked to Akko to call for co-existence, including President Shimon Peres, Israel's two chief rabbis and senior Muslim clerics.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Akko residents were "turning into hostages of small groups of zealots from both sides". Nevertheless, a police force of 500 officers during the day and 700 at night patrol the city throughout Succot.
On Sunday, Jamal apologised for breaking Yom Kippur's sanctity. He was arrested the next day on suspicion of reckless driving, endangering lives and offending religious sensibilities, and released to house arrest.
Tension and sadness remains in Akko, and the damage clearly runs deeper than mere attacks on property.