Something fundamental was shattered in the riots on Yom Kippur in Acre: the possibility of Jews and Arabs to live together. Reportage from a bleeding city
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Acre city hall courtyard (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Chronicle of chaos

PUBLISHED IN |  Oct 17, 08

1. Sunday, 9 P.M., the eastern neighborhood of Acre

An 8-year-old boy, riding his bicycle, suddenly breaks at the entrance to the Basel pizzeria. His shirt is pale blue, his face adorable. “A normal kid,” as the media like to say. “Death to the Arabs,” he suddenly blurts out. “Let them go to hell, those sons of bitches.”

“You see?” says K., pointing at the child. “This is what happens, this is what the Arabs have achieved through their Yom Kippur riots. They didn’t think we were united. But they don’t really have any clout in Acre. Up until now, their only strength was that they were united. This time, we gave it right back to them, we showed them that we are also united.”

K., 24, refuses to give his full name, let alone agree to have his picture taken. His friends sitting beside him at the pizzeria call him “one of the neighborhood’s young leaders.” This is Acre’s eastern quarter, a flashpoint of confrontation between Jews and Arabs, which ignited on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Everyone was right here when the rioting started. Everyone also has a great deal to say about the city’s Arab residents. Still, when asked if they joined the “Jewish response,” they reply in the negative. “I had to protect my elderly parents,” says K. “I was at home, watching my nephew,” says another.

Journalists are no welcome sight at the small pizza parlor on Rabbi Lopez Street, especially those from Haaretz. Residents accuse the media of being one-sided and anti-Jewish, of only showing the Arab side and seeking to “suck up” to it. “Since Thursday, we keep hearing about those poor Arabs, about how the Jews hurt them,” says K. “But nobody talks about what happened here on Wednesday night. I was here, I saw everything. What happened was unprecedented in Acre, a real pogrom.”

“The children are traumatized,” he continues. “One couple in our building was so scared, they went down to the bomb shelter. Other neighbors put out the yahrzeit candle they had lit for Yom Kippur, fearing that they might be spotted and that their homes might be broken into. And they better not tell us that the Arabs didn’t plan this. Five minutes after the driver [Tawfiq Jamal] drove in here on Yom Kippur, there were already hundreds of masked Arabs armed with sticks and stones and knives. We first saw them at the Lily Sharon Park, next to the neighborhood. How were they there already? They were ready. This was all planned.

“They were screaming like maniacs, ‘Itbah al-yahud, itbah al-yahud’ ["Slaughter the Jews"]. I saw it with my own eyes, from the window of my home. How they beat police officers and overturned cars.” Wearing a white knitted skullcap and using clear, cutting language, K. insists that the events of this past week are just the beginning. “This is not over,” he says. “They declared war on us, and we will not yield. In a few more days, the police will leave and then the Arabs will come back again. Only they don’t know who they’re dealing with. They messed up. This is Acre, and we’re not going to bow down. This time, we got them back. We showed them that we are not suckers. This whole time we have lived in fear of the Arabs. Now let them be the ones to live in fear.”

2. Monday, 10 A.M., Acre city hall courtyard

Al-Bahr Mosque in Acre (photo: James Emery)

Al-Bahr Mosque in Acre (photo: James Emery)

Last night was the first without rioting. Police officers and Border Policemen are still present everywhere. Senior police officials drive through the city in jeeps, patrolling the streets, while mounted police on horseback stand at the ready, full gear in hand. Parking lots at Acre’s southern entrance have been turned into makeshift recruiting stations for police officers who’ve been brought in from around the country.

In the Old City of Acre, Jewish police officers still buy pomegranate juice from Arab street peddlers. Druze and Jewish policemen embrace one another and plant kisses on the cheeks of Arab waiters. On the other side of town, in the eastern neighborhood, as elderly Jewish women drink tea on their patios, police officers sipping Turkish coffee are posted on the sidewalk. Laughter from an Arab kindergarten can even be heard, coming from the area near the hesder yeshiva in the Wolfson neighborhood, the very place Arab residents blame for whipping up the frenzy. For the time being, the violence has been replaced by anger and resentment.

Both sides continue to blame the other for fanning the flames of the riots. But there is widespread agreement about the sequence of events. It all began when Tawfiq Jamal drove his car into a Jewish neighborhood on the eve of Yom Kippur. Contrary to his account, nearly everyone in the city – both Jews and Arabs – says he drove very fast, with music blasting at high volume. Residents of the city’s eastern neighborhood – most if not all of whom are Jews – pulled him out of the car and beat him.

A short while later, following encouragement from the city’s central mosque, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Arabs made their way toward the neighborhood, crossing the railroad tracks that divide Acre in two. A Druze veteran police officer, who has worked the Acre beat for over 25 years, recalled seeing a deadly look in people’s eyes for the first time. Only 15 police officers were on active duty in the city that night; they were no match for the Arab rioters, who hurled rocks and smashed the windshields of almost every car in the vicinity. On their way back to the western part of town, Arabs broke the display windows of Jewish-owned shops and businesses in the city’s center.

The next evening, after Yom Kippur had come and gone, it was the Jews’ turn. A few hundred residents clashed with the by then beefed-up police force. Their main targets were the homes of Arabs living among them in the city’s east – some 15-20 houses in all. These riots continued into Saturday night, when the homes of three Arab families went up in flames. The inhabitants were evacuated by police, who cleared out an additional 10 Arab families, also threatened by the Jewish rioters. According to police, some 35 Arabs and 25 Jews were arrested during four days of disturbances. Magen David Adom reported that 14 people were injured and hospitalized, all of them Jews.

On Monday morning, Sukkot eve, President Shimon Peres met with representatives of the religious communities in Acre city hall. In the courtyard stood members of those families who had been forced out of their homes in the Jewish neighborhoods, demanding that city officials find a solution. They had been put up in a hotel in the Old City, but insisted that they be provided with a long-term solution.

Standing next to them was Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center. Farah continues to inflame the tense atmosphere. “They took us from our homes, they did not even allow us to take our clothing,” said Wala, who was forced to leave her home on Alkalai Street. “This was an organized crime against the Arabs. And their men? Jewish men are like women, they go around beating women and children.” Farah signals to her to sit down. This is not the message he would like to spread. Amal gets up instead. “This is our land,” screams the 24-year-old, who also lives on Alkalai Street. “Nobody will take it from us, the Nakba [the catastrophe, the term Palestinians use to refer to the creation of the State of Israel] will not repeat itself in Acre. Let all the Jews in Acre know that the Muslims will return to their lands. No repeat of ’48 will be committed against us.”

Acre resident Moshe Levy, 67, does not quite understand. “They are turning the entire story around,” he says. “They are turning themselves into poor victims, but they do not tell the whole story, just the end. They only remember that they were forced out of their homes. But when you read a book, you have to start at the beginning, not the end. The events of this past week were a provocation by the Arab leadership. Their goal is to make life difficult for the Jews, to chase us out of here. Without firing a bullet, they want to take the city from us. Do you know how many have already run away? Half of Nahariya is former Acre residents, as is half of Carmiel. The Arabs claim that they are being discriminated against, but nobody opposes them buying apartments wherever they want or opening businesses wherever they want. Acre’s main street, Ben Ami Street, once entirely Jewish, is now filled with Arab shops.”

In recent years, Levy witnessed a few assaults, committed by Arabs against Jews. Other residents tell similar stories of burgeoning Arab violence against Jews. Maria Tomarinson, 55, was pelted with stones while walking to Yom Kippur prayers. A 16-year-old girl recalled how her mother was verbally assaulted with curses and threats near the entrance to the municipal building, just before Rosh Hashanah. Levy says he saw a group of five or six Arab children with backpacks knock an elderly Jewish man to the ground about a year ago.

“Liar!” one of the Arab family members thunders in his direction. “Don’t listen to him, he is a liar! Where did all of this land come from? You took our cemetery and turned it into a Jewish cemetery. At home, I have documentation proving that the land is mine, it belonged to my grandfather, and it was my father’s, and now there is a Jewish cemetery there. We won’t let you take this land again. It is ours.”

“I don’t understand this,” says Yosef Petroshvilli, 70, who immigrated to Israel 35 years ago. “I live on an NIS 1,900 unemployment stipend. A few years ago, I couldn’t pay the rent, so I went to rent an apartment in Judeida-Makr [an Arab village located just a few kilometers east of Acre]. On my first day there, an Arab guy came to my home and told me that if I didn’t leave immediately, he would burn my house to the ground. I got cold feet and returned to Acre. Why didn’t anyone write about that in the newspaper? And tell me, who pays all these journalists to stand here and listen to everything they say? Here, whoever screams the loudest thinks he is more in the right.”

3. Monday, 8 P.M., Acre’s Old City

Acre port

Acre port

In the tiny Al-Laz theater, situated in one of the Old City’s alleyways, a few actors are staging a general rehearsal of a play that may never been performed. The playwright, Nahad Bashir, says “Olive Harvest” was slated to be performed at the Acre Festival of Fringe Theater, which Mayor Shimon Lankry has canceled. Bashir considers this to be collective punishment. Most of the festival’s visitors wander around the Old City, where almost all stores are Arab-owned. Residents say that one ton of shawarma meat, specially bought for food vendors in the run-up to the festival, will now have to be thrown away.

Inside the theater, which Acre’s Arab residents turned into a makeshift media headquarters during the riots, Ala Halihal was meandering to and fro. Halihal is a member of the Balad political party, serving most recently as the editor of the party’s newsletter. He is still in touch with journalists, and published stacks of a bulletin entitled “October 2008 in Acre: An Assessment.”

“What happened this week is only the beginning,” he says. “This was just the first spark. There will be more. We shouldn’t delude ourselves: The Jews want to clean the city’s eastern neighborhoods of Arabs. What coexistence are people talking about? In Acre, like in the rest of the country, there is not nor has there ever been any kind of coexistence. Coexistence refers to two equal populations who share the symbols of the state, the substance of the state, and a common future. How do you want me to identify with this state, which does not make peace and does nothing for the Arabs? How do you expect coexistence to take root here when a right-wing government and public are unwilling to give back the territories?

“For some reason, the State of Israel managed to convince the entire world that the conflict began in 1967, but this is not true,” Halihal continues. “The conflict started in ’48, with the horrific expulsion of the Palestinians. This is a nationalist and religious conflict, not just a localized clash in Acre or Lod or Ramle. The State of Israel is afraid to return to the status quo of ’48 because it knows it will lose. I mean, what did the partition plan say? That Acre would be in the Arab state. So Israel most certainly does not want to go back there.”

Suddenly Sheikh Samir emerges from a side room in the theater. Samir is the imam of Acre’s central mosque, which sounded the call to the city’s Arabs on Yom Kippur eve to set out for the eastern neighborhood. He just concluded a meeting with representatives of the Orthodox Christian and Greek Catholic communities, in which he asked for a more conciliatory tone. Samir admits that the muezzin of his mosque did indeed beseech Acre’s Arab residents to converge on the city’s eastern neighborhood. But he says that had he not been away for a two-day visit to Jordan at the time of the disturbances, everything would have been prevented. “Had I been here, I would have ended the whole thing within 10 minutes,” he says. “I would have gone to the eastern neighborhood myself to settle everything. Acre’s Arabs listen to me, they respect me.

“Instead, what happened? Arab children went out. Normally they sit in coffee shops all day, smoking hookah pipes. These children have nowhere to go. They were looking for action. Since the disturbances, all the city’s Jews have forgotten that we have been living here together for so many years. We published an apology, but the Jews don’t accept it. There is no alternative: Acre was and will remain a city of both Jews and Arabs. Here, every Arab has a Jewish neighbor and every Jew has an Arab neighbor. The Arab population feels great tension and stress, because it feels oppressed. But now is not the time for this. Now is the time to calm down. What are we going to do? Throw out the kitchen sink?”

Not a matter of choice

Acre market (photo: Yaniv Ben-Arie)

Acre market (photo: Yaniv Ben-Arie)

The lesson to be drawn from a visit to Acre this week is that coexistence here is no matter of choice. There is no ideological coexistence. Instead, Acre’s coexistence starts with the neighbor in the apartment across the hallway, continues with the Arab street vendor in the kiosk located next to a Jewish-owned printing shop, and ends with Arabs inviting Jews to holiday festivities, and vice- versa.

Beyond the anger and hatred, there was also much good will among those residents who did not join the riots and demonstrations, and who did not stand in the municipality courtyard. Tali, a single mother living in the eastern neighborhood, is very angry about what happened on Yom Kippur, but she will not boycott Arab merchants. “Nobody is going to tell me to boycott anybody,” she says. “Even if he is Arab.” Najmi Najm al-Din, a custodian at the ORT vocational high school, recalls that the first call he received after Yom Kippur was from his Jewish neighbor who moved to Carmiel. The woman asked if he was alright. Both Tali and Najmi know that along with the glass panels of the display windows on Ben Ami Street, something much more fundamental was shattered this week. But they also both realize that it is still possible to live together. Such onslaughts of Arabs against Jews and Jews against Arabs have never occurred in these parts, they say. Not during the intifada nor during the events of October 2000.

The Druze police officer assesses the situation through a somber prism. “Now the quiet has returned,” he says. “The festival was canceled, which is good. The Arabs have made their own bed and now they must lie in it. There will be a little quiet here perhaps, but I’m not sure these events can be forgotten. Next week, on Simhat Torah, there will be many Jews on the streets, and there will be singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls. This could ignite everything anew. How do the Jews put it? Perhaps there will be a lot of sissu v’simhu [fun] here.”