Recent riots in the Israeli town of Acre have attracted unwanted attention towards its Arab residents, Palestinian citizens of Israel who make a third of the city’s population. The disturbances began after Jewish extremists attacked a Palestinian man for driving during the religious holiday of Yom Kippur, when traffic in Israel largely comes to a halt. This was followed by an outbreak of violence during which Jewish mobs attacked the Palestinian neighborhood in Acre’s old city, throwing stones and torching homes.
These events have been interpreted by mainstream media as an aberration in Israel’s model “democracy.” The BBC echoed official Israeli discourse, emphasizing that the so-called “Israeli-Arabs” “have full rights as Israeli citizens.” Meanwhile, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Acre “a shining example of co-existence.” However, the latest disturbances have brought to the fore a deeper issue: the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from inside Israel by Israeli Jewish extremists. According to Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, the violence at Acre was reminiscent of Bosnia, with mobs dehumanizing and inciting hatred against the Palestinians.
Historically, the Zionist state has been in the forefront of the efforts to suppress its Palestinian citizens, through a complex legal framework that circumspectly discriminates against them, but allows for Israel to sustain a “democratic” facade. One example of state discrimination is Israel’s policy of expropriating land from Palestinians and reserving it for “the Jewish people in perpetuity” and allowing the Jewish National Fund to administer these properties. This is matched by a separate, but related, policy of house demolitions linked to severe restriction on building permits that are designed to contain Palestinian urban growth within Israel. Therefore, the state has acted as a guarantor of the fragile and often contradictory relationship between democratic values and Zionist’s racial doctrine.
Israel provides political representation for its Palestinian citizens, as well as other social and economic rights, but only to the extent of their submissive acceptance of Jewish domination of the public sphere. This means that only the Zionist establishment can dictate the rules of the game for which the Palestinians are allowed to maintain their citizenship rights. In turn, the Israeli state displays its Palestinian citizens as a token of its democratic principles and practices to the rest of the world.
In spite of these measures, Palestinian citizens of Israel have progressively consolidated their capacity for political mobilization and have demanded equal rights under the banner of “a state for all its citizens.” There has also been a growing recognition of their common faith with their Palestinian brethren in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. This connection was evident in October 2000, when Israeli security forces killed 13 of its own Palestinian citizens who were protesting in solidarity with Palestinians under occupation in the first month of the second Palestinian intifada.
As a result, the Zionist state found itself having to deal with a “Palestinian problem” in the occupied territories and it became increasingly anxious about the “demographic threat” that its own Palestinian citizens came to represent. Israeli politicians on the left and right of the political spectrum have tried to devise solutions to contain the growing political and demographic strength of its Palestinian citizens. Some have advocated the “transfer” of the Palestinian citizens residing close to the internationally-recognized armistice line marking the boundary between Israel and the West Bank as part of a land swap with the Palestinian Authority in final status negotiations. Tzipi Livni, the prime minister delegate, argued that a Palestinian state would also provide a national solution for the Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state, hinting that they should voluntarily move to the Bantustans if unhappy with the Jewish state. More recently, there were proposals for a national service program as a means to compel Arab loyalty to the state.
The Zionist state however, in its efforts to maintain international legitimacy, has been incapable of devising a radical “final solution” for its Palestinian citizens, mirroring the ethnic cleansing of 1948, which would appease an increasingly impatient electorate. Jewish Israelis have progressively shifted their views to the far right and are increasingly prone to hold extremist views. A 2007 poll by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel shows that half of Jewish Israelis want their government to encourage Jewish emigration from Israel and 75 percent of Jewish youths said Arabs are less intelligent and clean than Jews. These results echo other similar surveys that indicate widespread racism within Jewish Israeli society and these voices have been growing inside government, too.
Extremist elements inside Israel have thus successfully mobilized to bypass the state and take matters into their own hands, for the state is increasingly seen as incapable of silencing Palestinian demands for full equality. The settler movement, long known for operating in this manner, have pioneered this model in the occupied territories. A settler pogrom on the village Asira al-Qabaliya last month alarmed the Israeli establishment by openly demonstrating its inability to control its most extremist citizens. This rift has now crossed into Israel, signaling a new struggle.
Last month, Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, a member of Peace Now, was the victim of an ideologically-motivated bomb attack by Zionist extremists who oppose any governmental “concessions” with the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Not only are the latest mob riots in Acre an expression of a deeply-rooted antagonism towards the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but they also signify a shift within Israeli society, where Zionist zealots bypass the state to articulate their supremacist ideology.
Thus, the Israeli establishment now has to deal with its own intra-communal conflict. Since its creation, Israel has tried to reconcile its image as a “democracy” with the Jewish exclusivist ideology of Zionism and must now contend with its own extremists, who do will not hesitate to wage war against the state in order to further redeem the land of “greater” Israel for an exclusively Jewish population. This rift is slowly disintegrating Israel’s facade of co-existence and it is only a matter of time before Israel’s internal contradictions are laid bare to the eyes of the world.
Ziyaad Lunat is a long-term activist for Palestinian rights. He is currently on the organizing committee of the Nakba60-London, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Palestinian dispossession and on the coordinating committee of Emory Advocates for Justice in Palestine, in Atlanta. He can be reached at z.lunat A T gmail D O T com.
Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 15 October 2008
Acre, a mixed city of approximately 52,000 people in northern Israel, recently witnessed four days of violent clashes between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jewish residents.
Israeli national leaders, including caretaker prime minister Ehud Olmert, prime minister designate Tzipi Livni, and President Shimon Peres, called for calm and for “both sides” to refrain from violence. They portrayed the events as being local, religious and communal in origin. Peres visited Acre and convened a meeting of Arab and Jewish civic and religious leaders aimed at restoring peace. Palestinians in Israel view the events as the product of widespread incitement and organized efforts by Jewish extremists to force them out of their homes.
While the facts and meaning of these events have been heavily contested, one of the underreported factors is the extent to which militant Israeli settlers from the West Bank, funded by donors in the United States, have instigated tension in Acre and other cities in an attempt to reduce their Arab populations. The Palestinian residents of Acre are amongst the 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel, who unlike Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have Israeli citizenship, though their rights are severely curtailed. They are the survivors and descendants of the 1948 Nakba during which most Palestinians were expelled from their homeland. These Palestinians are often referred to generically as “Arabs” within Israel both in their own population and by Israeli Jews.
The proximate cause
The disturbances began after a Palestinian resident of Acre drove into the eastern, predominantly Jewish neighborhood around midnight on Wednesday, 9 October, during the observance of the Yom Kippur Jewish holiday. This prompted a violent reaction from Jewish residents and soon, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported, “Police warded off hundreds of Jewish rioters, chanting ‘death to the Arabs,’ and trying to storm the city’s main road” (Jack Khoury, Nadav Shragai and Yoav Stern, “Acre sees worst violence in years as Jews and Arabs resume clashes,” Haaretz.com, 9 October 2008, update of 21:29). As word spread of the attack on the driver, Arab youths came to the scene.
According to Acre resident Tawfiq Jamal’s own account, he drove with his son and a friend, at around 11pm in order to pick up his daughter from the home of relatives where she had been helping prepare baked sweets for a wedding. When they arrived, according to Jamal, “I asked my son to take the baking dishes out of the car and proceeded to walk [toward the house] when [the Jews] suddenly began hurling stones at us” (Sharon Roffe-Ophir, “Arab motorist: I narrowly escaped lynch in Akko,” Ynet, 9 October 2008).
Jamal described how he and the two young men narrowly escaped a lynching. He strenuously denied accusations he had been drinking and deliberately started the incident by playing loud music. Acre police commander Avraham Edri confirmed much of Jamal’s account, telling the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee that:
“When my officers arrived at the scene, they had to handle 300-400 people who had already lifted the driver’s car in the air. Our first mission was to prevent casualties. We released the driver from the mob and helped him into an apartment nearby … My staff served as a barrier between him and the excited mob; the policemen were hurt but not one civilian was injured” (“Acre driver apologizes for incident,” The Jerusalem Post, 12 October 2008).
Speaking before the Knesset committee on 12 October, Jamal apologized for driving into the Jewish area and said he had “made a mistake.” Despite this, Israeli police arrested Jamal for “harming religious sensitivities, speeding and reckless endangerment,” and remanded him in custody (Jack Khoury, “Police arrest driver who sparked Acre riots for ‘harming religious sensitivities,'” Haaretz, 13 October 2008). There were no reports of arrests specifically for the attempted lynching of Jamal and his companions.
Violent clashes between Jewish and Palestinian residents continued for several nights as police intervened with riot control methods including water cannon. According to Israeli police, many Arab Palestinian families had to be evacuated and about a dozen of their homes were set on fire.
In the end, 54 people — Jews and Arabs — were arrested, about 100 cars and several dozen shops were damaged. Several minor injuries were reported. While Jews and Arabs took part in the violence, on 12 October, on the third day of the disturbances, Major-General Shimon Koren, commander of Israel’s Northern District police, said the riots had been instigated by Jews (“Police official says instigators of Akko riots Jewish,” Ynet, 12 October 2008), and, “The majority of rioters causing disturbances in [Acre] are Jews” (Sharon Roffe-Ofir, “Northern District police commander: Majority of Akko riots [sic] are Jews,” Ynet, 12 October 2008).
The settler connection
Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews live in close proximity in Acre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, as they have done for generations. But in recent years, extremist Jewish groups affiliated with West Bank settlers have moved in with the stated aim of making the city more Jewish.
Palestinians are concentrated in the central old city and near the harbor, while Jews are established in the eastern part and outer rings. The vast majority of the Jewish residents of the city are Mizrahim — working-class Jews whose first generation came as immigrants to Israel from Arab countries. Mizrahim, although Jews, also faced severe discrimination by an Israeli state dominated by European Ashkenazi Jewish elites. Both communities are disadvantaged in different ways. Many Palestinians in the city are the survivors and descendants of those who were forced to leave their homes when Israel was established in 1948. All but 3,000 of the town’s 13,000 Palestinian citizens in 1948 were forced out. Today, Palestinians comprise about 27 percent of Acre’s population. Like all Palestinian citizens of Israel they have experienced systematic legal, social and economic discrimination and political exclusion. As Joseph Massad points out in The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, Mizrahim were often pushed to the edges of Israeli Jewish society and in many cases were housed in the former homes of expelled Palestinians. Culturally marginalized, and much poorer than Ashkenazi Jews, the Mizrahim have became the base constituency for the right-wing Likud party, Shas and other overtly racist anti-Arab parties.
Given the numbers of people involved in the troubles, long-time Jewish residents were certainly among them. But some Arab residents blamed the worsening tension not on long-time residents, but on an influx of militant youth affiliated with the national religious West Bank settler movement. Indeed, Baruch Marzel, a settler leader from near Hebron in the West Bank, visited Acre during the riots and vowed to help Jews in the city to set up a “defense organization” (Sharon Roffe-Ofir, “Peres visits Akko, urges side to exercise tolerance,” Ynet, 13 October 2008). Barzel was leader of the banned Kach party founded by the late Meir Kahane which supports the expulsion of all Palestinians, and he remains a prominent leader of racist settler groups.
Yeshiva Hesder-Akko, founded in 2001, is a pro-settler national religious school in the midst of a now majority Arab neighborhood called Wolfson. Over the years, many of the area’s Jewish residents had become more affluent and moved out, and poorer Arabs moved in. This hesder-yeshiva, a school for Israeli Jewish men who combine military service with religious study, often attracting strict adherents of the militant settler movement, is run by Yossi Stern, a rabbi from the militant West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh. Stern, who is also on the Acre city council, told The Washington Post last year that he and his associates were working on projects designed to “attract Jews to Acre,” including a 350-unit housing complex designated for Jewish military families, and another yeshiva (Scott Wilson, “Israel’s Arab Citizens, Isolation and Exclusion,” 20 December 2007). The Washington Post also reported that Palestinian residents and leaders consider these efforts to be part of a systematic assault on their presence in the city using tactics long deployed against Palestinians in the West Bank. Some accuse Acre’s Likud mayor of supporting the efforts.
Yeshiva Hesder-Akko’s own website states that “[f]rom a luxuriant Jewish neighborhood it [Wolfson] has turned into a decrepit Arab neighborhood.” The school’s purpose is “to try to return and strengthen the Jewish character of the city.” Although the city was “almost lost” to Jews, the site states that “The long awaited salvation has begun.” According to the website’s “About Us” page, the yeshiva was built with funds from a donor in New York. Volunteers have also raised funds from synagogues in the US, for the “special aim of the yeshiva [which] is to attract more young Jewish families by strengthening and maintaining the Zionist Jewish character of this ancient Jewish city” (Abigail Klein Leichman, “Back from Akko to help hesder yeshiva,” The New Jersey Jewish Standard, 21 June 2006).
Two years ago, similar, but much less serious disturbances occurred in Acre during another Jewish holiday. Arab Knesset member Abbas Zakour had previously written to Israel’s public security minister appealing for police protection for the Arab communities against harassment by Jewish extremists, including the stoning of Arab cars during Jewish holidays.
The events in Acre coincide with an upsurge in violence by the radical settler movement against Palestinians across the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and a pipe bomb attack against an Israeli left-wing professor. While those actions have received more attention, the activities of affiliated groups against Palestinian citizens of Israel have been largely ignored beyond that community.
Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of Israel’s Islamic movement, accused Israeli political and religious leaders of facilitating the actions of extremists over a long period of time with the goal of heightening tensions so that Palestinians inside Israel could eventually be expelled. He said Acre’s Palestinian population was being targeted for “cleansing,” and that Arabs in other coastal cities including Haifa and Jaffa could be next (Palestinian Information Center (Arabic site), 13 October 2008). Salah added that Palestinians in Israel were aware of the threat and would not be driven out. The fear that events in Acre were evidence of a concerted effort to expel them was widely echoed by Palestinians citizens of Israel.
An almost identical hesder-yeshiva was recently founded in the Arab Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, also with the goal of increasing the Jewish population of that city (Eli Senyor, “Jaffa: Yeshiva to be built in heart of Arab neighborhood,” Ynet, 24 Septemer 2008).
Some of the Israeli politicians who have been most outspoken in calling for the expulsion of Palestinians and supporting radical settlers did their best to confirm such fears, engaging in the kind of incitement that has been escalating in recent years. Knesset member, former cabinet minister, and settler Effie Eitam called the events “an anti-Semitic pogrom at the heart of Israel on the holiest days of the Jewish people.” Another member called on the authorities to “respond harshly to the Arab pogrom on Yom Kippur.” Esterina Tartman, a Knesset member of former deputy prime minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, called for the removal of Palestinians citizens from Israel on the grounds that “the pogrom in [Acre] is yet another confirmation that Arab Israelis are the real danger threatening the state” (Amnon Meranda, “MK Eitam slams ‘anti-Semitic pogrom in heart of Israel,'” Ynet, 9 October 2008).
Some Jewish residents of the city circulated calls for Jews to boycott Arab businesses to punish the Palestinian population.
The violent actions of settler groups against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have gone unchecked by the Israeli army. There is now clear evidence of similar organized, planned violence being directed at Palestinians inside Israel amidst a generalized atmosphere of racist incitement. There is no sign that the Israeli state is prepared to confront this phenomenon any more than it does in the West Bank. Unless this changes, there is a strong likelihood that racist violence may resume and spread. This may destroy the remaining threads of coexistence inside Israel. Jewish extremists would see that as a great success if their goal is to lay the ground for the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli- Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006). This article is adapted from a longer version published by The Palestine Center.
“Death to Arabs!”
The Acre Riots
By JONATHAN COOK
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 neighbourhood. 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 centre and smashed shop windows in a display of anger.
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 to flee.
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 neighbours.
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 neighbourhoods.
But the situation has grown especially strained in Acre, where some Arab residents have escaped the deprivation and overcrowding of their main neighbourhood, 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 “Judaised” neighbourhoods has revived talk of the need for Acre to be cleansed again of its Arabs.
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 neighbours.
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 organising a boycott of Arab businesses. They have apparently been joined by the mayor, Shimon Lankri, who cancelled 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 antagonising 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 Jewish counterparts.
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 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 rubber bullets.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jkcook.net.
This article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.
Extremism is a tool used by elites to destabilze peace loving peoples.extremism