Mixed City of Acre Shocked by Arab-Jewish Riots

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 13, 2008.
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Haifa, Israel — The normally calm Jewish-Arab city of Acre is reeling after four days and nights of wild rioting that subsided on Sunday.

Acre is a picturesque coastal town in the Galilee where droves of visitors flock every weekend for the quaint cafés and tasty seafood. During the rioting, Jews and Arabs threw stones at each other and at policemen, and yelled slogans inciting violence. Jewish-owned shops and cars were vandalized, and Arab homes were torched.

The clashes have shocked and disturbed locals, who have traditionally prided themselves on living in a mixed city where communities enjoy good relations. Sylvie Vaknin, a mother of three who lives close to the Arab-dominated Old City, was sitting on her balcony Yom Kippur night, playing cards, when a mob of 300 Arabs approached. The rioters destroyed her car and pelted the house with rocks.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was born in Acre; the city is my world,” Vaknin, a teacher who works with Jewish and Arab special needs children, told the Forward. “My father is a carpenter in the Old City and friends with many Arabs.”

Speaking at the weekly Cabinet meeting on October 12, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voiced similar alarm at the shattering of Acre’s calm.

“For many years, Acre has excelled vis-à-vis coexistence between Jews and Arabs in a mixed city,” he said. “There is a sense now that very many Acre residents have become hostages to small groups of extremists from both sides.”

While Olmert was careful to be even-handed in apportioning blame to both sides, Jews and Arabs have been quick to hold each other responsible for the clashes. From the angry crowds in the streets to lawmakers in the Knesset, a blame game was played. Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List and Arieh Eldad of the right-wing National Union Party both claimed that their community was the victim of a “pogrom.”

Acre’s Jewish residents, who represent two-thirds of the city’s population of 50,000, tend to cite Arab provocation as the spark that set off the riots. On October 8, the evening of Yom Kippur — a day when even secular Jews deem it taboo to travel by car — Jamal Taufik, an Arab resident of Acre, drove into a Jewish neighborhood. Locals, taking umbrage, gathered around his car and pelted it with stones and bottles, according to media reports.

Police claim that while Jews carried out the first acts of violence, Taufik entered as an act of provocation, had music blaring to cause offense and is thought to have been drunk. According to municipality spokesman Sharon Dan, who condemned the violent reaction, Taufik was “intentionally confrontational to the Jewish community and crossed a red line.”

Arabs take issue with this version of events. They mostly claim that the Jewish attack on Taufik was the cause of the violence. Taufik has responded angrily to the accusations that he hoped to cause a reaction, telling The Jerusalem Post, “I am not a guy who carries out provocations.” He also said: “I’m a religious Muslim. I don’t drink at all. The radio was off. I don’t know where the police are getting this from.”

Speaking at the Knesset Committee of the Interior on October 12, Taufik said he would do anything, even “sacrifice his neck,” to restore coexistence.

As Jewish rioters acted on assumptions about Taufik’s motive, Arabs acted on alarmist messages broadcast from mosque loudspeakers, and on rumors that Taufik has been killed. The Arabs spilled out onto the city’s main shopping street and began smashing shop windows and damaging cars.

Soon there were cries of “Death to the Jews” and “Death to the Arabs,” and rocks were being hurled. Rioting, characterized by similar scenes, continued for four nights and for large parts of those four days, injuring 14 people, all of them Jews. The worst hurt was 18-year-old student Barak Avadi, who was hit in the eye with a stone and is currently in a hospital in Nahariya.

Another casualty was the 29th annual Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater, which was slated for October 15–19 but was canceled by Mayor Shimon Lancry. The mayor’s claim that going ahead would “show a lack of taste” was widely criticized by lawmakers as caving in to violence.

Some 700 police officers deployed to the city made 54 arrests. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that policing Acre presents a particular challenge.

“It is not the average setup [of a mixed city] with Jewish neighborhoods and Arab neighborhoods, but people on the same streets and in the same blocks as each other,” Rosenfeld said.

The mixed nature of Acre pushed the police to set up a dialogue between the mayor and local Jewish and Arab leaders. On October 13, influential figures from both communities appeared together with President Shimon Peres, who came to Acre to urge reconciliation.

But there are residual tensions. Arab leaders have reacted with annoyance to suggestions that their community is to blame for the provocation, insisting that it is actually on the receiving end of provocation.

“The background for these events is continuous incitement against the Arab population that is taking place by political and religious leaders at both local and national levels,” claimed a statement released by the Mossawa Center, a Haifa-based advocacy organization for Israeli Arabs.

All together during the riots, there were 11 cases of arson at Arab homes. There was damage to 50 Jewish-owned shops and 150 Jewish-owned cars.

Most disturbing to Vaknin, the local teacher, was how quickly neighborly relations turned sour. She had cordial relations with her neighbors upstairs — an Arab man and his partner. But when the mob destroyed one of the Vaknin family’s cars and was about to leave the house, the partner leaned out of the window and told the mob the location of the other car.

“I am not naive and under the impression that everyone loves everyone else, but this has come as a shock, as people do tend to get on okay here in Acre,” Vaknin said.

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