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 www.jkcook.net.
This article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.