ACRE, Israel (AP) – Jews and Arabs swept up broken glass and replaced punctured tires Friday after two days of rioting shook this working-class town on the Mediterranean coast and bared the ethnic fault lines that divide Israeli society.
Jewish and Arab residents said they wondered whether the brittle coexistence between them had been irreparably damaged.
“It’s like a bomb, you know? You never know which day it’s going to go off,” said Gary Kogan, 32, who was standing outside the shattered window of his shop on a downtown street.
The Acre disturbances began Wednesday in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood after the start of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, when Jews generally do not drive and the streets remain empty.
When an Arab man drove into the neighborhood, Jewish youths began to beat him, police said. That incident escalated into street battles between Jews and Arabs and riots in which dozens of businesses and cars were damaged.
Police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowds. No one was seriously hurt, but the incidents ignited ethnic hatreds between neighbors who have shared the same town for decades. Arab rioters reportedly chanted “God is Great,” while Jews chanted “Death to Arabs.”
The riots brought to the fore the relations between Arabs and Jews inside Israel, ties which are typically peaceful but uneasy. Over a quarter of Acre’s 46,000 residents are Arabs, members of an ethnic minority that makes up about 20 percent of Israel’s citizens. They enjoy equality under the law, but have suffered discrimination in public sector financing and jobs and are poorer overall than Israeli Jews. In 2000, tensions erupted into violent riots that were put down by police, who killed 13 Arab rioters.
Life would go back to normal in Acre, Kogan said, but “we’re going to hate each other.” But then he warmly shook hands with an Arab acquaintance who happened by, and the two men exchanged hopes that the town would quiet down. The second man gave his name only as Kheir.
“It’s stupidity, the way it started was stupidity. Over nonsense. Because of 20 people a whole city is suffering. Because of 20 people who can’t stand Arabs,” Kheir said. Firas Roby, 34, another Arab resident, said hooligans on both sides set off the violence: “Racist people start with a small thing, and then the whole town is engulfed,” he said.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 700 police officers moved into Acre, around 500 more than the town’s usual contingent. Police also upped security in Jerusalem for fear the violence could spill over.
“Our main aim is to have things go back to normal, both on the streets and in terms of the atmosphere,” Rosenfeld said.
On Friday afternoon, some 300 Jewish residents gathered in the eastern part of Acre and attempted to enter the predominantly Arab part of the city. Police forces, using water canons, dispersed them, Rosenfeld said.
The incidents drew fiery rhetoric from both Jews and Arabs, each using the word “pogrom” a term historically used to denote mob violence against Jews. Speaking to Israel Radio, hard-line Israeli parliamentarian Avigdor Lieberman termed the incidents a pogrom carried out by Arabs and compared it to Kristallnacht, a 1938 Nazi assault against Jews in Germany.
Another far-right lawmaker, Arieh Eldad, also called the Acre riots a pogrom and said police “shouldn’t be surprised when Jews take up arms to protect themselves.”
Two Israeli Arab lawmakers, Ahmed Tibi and Mohammed Barakeh, were quoted in the Israeli daily Haaretz as calling the Acre incidents a Jewish pogrom against Arabs. Police said a total of 12 people were arrested, eight Arabs and four Jews.
“It’s really a surprise what happened last night,” said Moshe Hellel, 43, a computer technician. Such incidents happen “maybe in Jerusalem, but not in Acre.” Not far away was a car whose smashed rear windshield had been draped with a blue-and-white Israeli flag.
The Acre municipality announced Friday it was indefinitely postponing the city’s main cultural event, a theater festival that was to have started next week. The festival brings thousands of visitors, and its postponement was a major blow to the town’s businesses.
“The atmosphere in the city is not one that is right for a festival,” the festival’s director, Albert Ben-Shushan,
told Army Radio. “When it all ends, and fades, and the dust settles, we’ll decide.”
Israeli lawmakers across the political spectrum criticized the decision, saying it sent a message of giving into the extremists.
Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni visited Acre on Friday, met with the city’s mayor and urged its residents to calm tensions and not take the law into their own hands.