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Last Updated: Monday, 24 July 2006, 18:16 GMT 19:16 UK
Testing time for Haifa's Arabs
By Raffi Berg
BBC News, Haifa

Wadi Nisnas' Arab market
The Wadi Nisnas market, usually crowded, has been emptied by fear

Victor Abu Shkara sits behind the counter in his grocer's shop in Haifa's Khouri Street, patiently waiting for customers.

The store - one of six run by his family in the neighbourhood - is fully stocked with fresh fruit but, as the day wears on, the produce is slowly spoiling.

"It's been very difficult. Normally everybody buys from here - Jews, Muslims and Christians - but now nobody is coming because they are afraid," he said.

"Business has been down by 70% for two weeks now and I don't know how much longer I can continue."

The 48-year-old father of four, whose family immigrated to Palestine from Lebanon in the mid-1800s, belongs to Haifa's large Israeli Arab community, centred on the northern district of Wadi Nisnas.

In contrast to other towns in Israel, where mutual suspicion tends to keep the two peoples apart, Haifa is renowned for the harmonious relations between its Jewish and Arab citizens.

Here Arabs - who account for just under 10% of the city's 250,000 inhabitants - work and live together with Jews as equals, a unique model of Arab-Jewish coexistence in a land riven by religious discord.

'Caught in the middle'

But such a social blending has meant that, in the latest conflict, the city's Arabs have found themselves as much in the line of fire of Hezbollah missiles as their Jewish neighbours.

Rabeh Halloun
The closing of Haifa port means welder Rabeh Halloun has no work

The rockets do not discriminate and a number of Haifa's Israeli Arabs have been wounded in the attacks.

In Wadi Nisnas' Arab market, where the sweet aroma of spices and fresh bread permeates the air, sympathies are divided.

"I blame Hezbollah," said Rabeh Halloun, a 23-year-old welder, sitting on the steps of his uncle's supermarket.

"They started this and they are responsible for destroying Lebanon," he said.

"There are some Arabs here who say they like what [Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah's doing. I don't support what Israel is doing but I hope they get rid of Hezbollah."

I don't support what Israel is doing but I hope they get rid of Hezbollah
Rabeh Halloun, welder

Like other Jewish and Arab Haifans, Rabeh is suffering economically from the conflict.

He has not worked since the authorities shut Haifa's port more than a week ago after missiles landed nearby.

"I earned 700 shekels a day ($157) but now I have no income," he said. "I have no work and no money. I can't buy anything and I have got nothing to do."

"Nobody likes us - Jews or Hezbollah. We're caught in the middle."

Peaceful past

It is a situation of which Hani Elfar, a 50-year-old Arab Christian, was made acutely aware a day earlier when a Katyusha missile flew over his apartment in the mixed Arab-Jewish German colony, "shaking the building like an earthquake".

Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish centre
The Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish centre symbolises Haifan tolerance
As deputy director of Haifa's Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish centre, Mr Elfar has spent 30 years fostering tolerance and understanding between the city's Jews and Arabs.

But he concedes it is hard for local Arabs to watch what is happening to their Lebanese brethren.

"Both Jews and Arabs feel sympathy for the suffering of the Lebanese, although among the Arabs the sympathy is more significant.

"All the Arabs, especially the Christians, have a lot of relatives in Lebanon. This war is against terror, against the Hezbollah, but all the destruction by Israel could lead to negative reactions."

Relations between Jews and Arabs are very strong in Haifa and no crisis can harm them
Arab Christian Hani Elfar
However, he says the two communities have co-existed in Haifa for over 100 years, in peace and in war, and he is confident they will continue to do so in the future.

"Relations between Jews and Arabs are very strong in Haifa and no crisis can harm them. We are just waiting for this conflict to finish so we can resume our lives."

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