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Jewish-Arab riots shock Israeli city

10 October 08 20:29 GMT

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Acre

The Israeli coastal town of Acre, normally a relaxed, picturesque place known for its seafood, is reeling from some of the worst Arab-Jewish violence in Israel since 2000.

Residents of the mixed population town, which is often held up as an example of co-existence, are wondering how rival mobs ended up besieging homes, shouting respectively "death to Arabs" and "kill the Jews".

"I have many Arab friends, my doctor is an Arab, but the bottom line now is that I don't feel secure," says Sylvie Vaknin, a special-needs teacher working with both Jewish and Israeli-Arab children.

She points to the shattered glass from her vandalised car and a block of wood nailed to a crude handle left behind in the wake of Wednesday night's riots.

Tear gas

In most versions of the narrative that has emerged, the violence erupted when an Israeli-Arab man, Tawfik Jamal, drove his car into the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood where Mrs Vaknin lives, a few hours after the sombre Jewish Yom Kippur fast began.

Driving during the festival is considered offensive by religious Jews, and a group of them stoned the car.

As Mr Jamal and his son fled into the son's fiancee's house, the crowd smashed up the vehicle and surrounded the building.

Word of the incident spread, including a rumour that Mr Jamal had been killed. A crowd of Israeli-Arabs marched to the area, attacking cars and shop fronts as they went, until police eventually dispersed them using water canons and tear gas.

Mrs Vaknin says she, her husband and three daughters cowered in their home as the crowd threw stones at the house.

Her retired neighbour, David Oziel, said they were "running with knives and axes and swords. I thought they were going to lynch me".

Mr Jamal, meanwhile, has told Israeli television he "thought he would not get out [of his car] alive".

Israeli-Arab member of the Israeli parliament, Abas Zakour, who arrived at the scene and helped disperse the rioters, said Mr Jamal and four other people waited in fear for more than four hours "with their lives under threat".

Conflicting stories

Both sides charge that the police came too late and did too little to intervene. But they differ on crucial details.

Jews in the city, backed up by a preliminary police investigation, say Mr Jamal was drunk and was blaring provocatively loud music from his car.

"The street was closed, families were out with their children - then all of a sudden you see someone driving like he's crazy - what would you do?" asks Ms Vaknin.

But Mr Jamal - backed up by Mr Zakour - maintains he was sober and driving his car quietly:

"An Arab family, driving a vehicle - it's not the end of the world," said Mr Zakour.

Tensions remained high on Thursday and Friday, with police holding back small crowds of Jews trying to march towards Arab areas and buildings, and reports of stone-throwing and property damage in Arab areas.

'Extremist minority'

But both Israeli-Arabs and Jews in Acre expressed surprise, sadness and frustration that the town's calm has been shattered so quickly.

Mrs Vaknin said an Israeli-Arab friend had visited to apologise for the events.

"He said he was so embarrassed and ashamed," she said.

"In Acre, Arab and Jew have always lived in harmony - those who did this are the extremist minority from either side," said Salah Abbas, an Israeli-Arab fruit-juice seller in the Old City.

As he spoke, a customer, Jewish truck driver Gadi Shmueli, chipped in emphatically: "It's such a great shame. I'm really, really surprised."

"We don't blame all the Arabs of Acre - we know them, we've worked together, we are like brothers," says Yitzak, Mrs Vaknin's husband.

He believes the violence was pre-planned, had a religious element to it, and suggests a faction eyeing gains among Israeli-Arabs in municipal elections in November may be seeking to disrupt relations in the city.

Discrimination claim

But Abu Tarek, who works at a snack stand near the Old City, blames criminal gangs:

"It is not an Islamic or a nationalist thing, like people are saying."

He says the square around his stall only last week was filled with Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan and Jews marking their new year, as the two holidays unusually fell on the same day.

He also points to a high rate of unemployment, especially among Israeli-Arabs in the city.

"When people are unemployed, they don't care if they go to bed at 3am. If they have to get up for work they don't get involved with such things."

Others, including Mr Zakour, blame in part the fact that more religious and nationalist Jews have moved to the city in recent years.

And meanwhile, according to the Mossawa Center which represents Israeli-Arabs, the Arab community has been discriminated against in terms of access to housing, education and public services.

This is a common complaint - backed up by many human rights groups - among the country's roughly one million Israeli-Arabs (people of Palestinian origin whose forbears remained in Israel after the foundation of the country in 1948) and who have full rights as Israeli citizens.

But while explanations vary, few would disagree with the proverb Abu Tarek quotes as police man a checkpoint next to his stall:

"It only takes one crazy man to throw a stone into a well - it takes a thousand to pull it out."

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