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In Israel’s Largest Muslim City, Strife Stirs Complex Emotions

The mayor of Umm El Fahm, Sheikh Hashem, interrupted our interview to take a call. He spoke in Hebrew, asking about the safety of the children of the person on the other end of the phone line. Afterward, he explained that the mayors of Arab villages were meeting tomorrow with Jewish regional councils to discuss security and that’s why he had to take this call from one of the leaders of a Jewish regional council. As we spoke, Katyusha rockets, directed by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, were falling throughout Israel’s North, and Qassam rockets were still falling in the South. Accompanying me was an Israeli Jewish translator. The night before, a Katyusha had hit Afula, the closest major city, barely 10 miles northeast of here.

Unfortunately, in Umm El Fahm, safety concerns don’t extend to provisions for bomb shelters. “There are no bomb shelters here,” said Yousef Jabareen, a Georgetown University-trained human rights lawyer and Umm El Fahm native. “Furthermore, the vast majority of houses do not have a safe room in case of bombing. As a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, I did communicate several years ago with the Israeli authorities on this shortage problem in the Arab community. The government’s reply was that it’s the responsibility of the local municipalities to apply for budgets for shelters and to allocate matching funds from the municipality’s own budget. The problem then was that the vast majority of Arab localities are too poor, and with very limited budgets to be allocated to shelters.”

Umm El Fahm, with a population of 43,000, is the largest Muslim city in Israel. It anchors the so-called Triangle Region, a mostly Arab region on the coastal plain just south of Haifa. The town is famous in Israel, not always for good reasons. It is just west of the West Bank Palestinian city of Jenin. Before Israel built its separation fence, suicide bombers came from Jenin through Umm El Fahm regularly. Youths from Umm El Fahm took part in the riots in October 2000, when Israeli police killed a dozen Israeli Arabs. The city is also home to the fast-growing Northern Islamic Movement, led by Sheikh Raad Salah.

These days, however, the town is eager to strengthen its ties to Jews in Israel. As hilly as San Francisco, it boasts natural springs and a lot of enterprising citizens. It is home to Israel’s leading Arab art gallery, which is founded and curated by noted artist Said Abu-Shakrah, a local resident who prides himself on using art to foster coexistence and peace. With poverty running more than 30%, Umm El Fahm aims to build its economy, especially the service sector, through restaurants and a shopping mall — the first in the Arab sector — that opened a few weeks ago.

Local politics are dominated by Salah’s Islamic movement, and to a lesser extent by Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party. “Ninety-nine percent of the people here respect him, even if they don’t vote for him,” Hassan El-Agarabia said, referring to Salah. Agarabia is an organizer with Shatil, an offshoot of the New Israel Fund. “He brought clean politics, transparency and related to peoples’ feelings and needs…. The simple citizen doesn’t care if religion is this or that. They want their local service to be perfect.”

Over coffee at the Sunrise restaurant, Agarabia told me: “My younger brother once asked me if there is a government body that sits around thinking of how to make things bad for Arabs. I said that it’s not necessary to have such a forum. It’s built in every place.”

In two days of discussions with a mix of residents in the town, it was clear that Israel’s military problems along its northern and southern borders have sharpened the ongoing dilemma facing Arabs in Israel today. Still, there was no euphoria or broad support visible here for those fighting Israel — only concern and confusion.

“People here like to see someone challenge Israel, but they don’t want Nasrallah to win,” Agarabia said of the Hezbollah leader. “It’s complex — the feelings toward the underdog, the weak. I compare today with my feelings on September 11. When I saw the airplanes crash, I said, ‘These Americans deserve it.’ But when I saw people jump from the buildings on television, I said, ‘What is this crazy thing?’”

Helena Agbaria, a social worker in Umm El Fahm, told me that Nasrallah “makes me proud because he is an Arab man with power. But on the other hand, Haifa is not so far. I shop there and learn there.”

“I hate war,” Agbaria said. “It’s not very easy to understand all these feelings. We have to get to an equal situation, because we feel discriminated against all the time. Sometimes I feel Israeli, but first of all I am Palestinian.… It’s not easy to live here, when every day there are people being killed in Gaza. I really feel it is a state only for Jews although my kids study in a bilingual [Jewish-Arab] school in Kfar Kara. I believe and hope we can have a different life. I want my kids to be educated to another feeling. But it’s very difficult.”

The Umm El-Fahm Mall is near the edge of town. Its owner, Abed Lattif, hopes that shoppers will come from the surrounding Arab and Jewish communities. While I waited for him in his office, his accountant, 38-year-old Imad Mahameed, a Hebrew University graduate who was born in Umm El Fahm, expressed the same hope: “There are no winners in war, and it’s very, very bad for business. We had 15 containers in the Haifa Port this morning, and then they closed the port,” he told me.

Nasrallah, Mahameed said, “is looking like he’s trying to solve the Palestinian prisoner problem, but the problem is that nobody is taking care of the Palestinians’ rights. That’s why we feel a little solidarity with Nasrallah. If the Palestinian issue was handled in the right way and the humanitarian rights of the Palestinians were taken care of, I think that Nasrallah would not find an excuse to do this war here. As an Israeli Arab who lives here, I feel like I am standing in the middle and the two sides are shooting at me.”

Lattif is one of the wealthiest men in the town, and a supporter of the Islamic movement. A carpenter by trade, he now owns one of the country’s largest furniture factories. The mall is built around a huge showroom. Lattif insisted on taking us for a late-day meal at his mall’s Café Nana, where we feasted on calamari and salad. His mind was still on his business problems. “People in the North are not allowed to go out of their houses. I have eight trucks going from here to Haifa, but there are roadblocks. Today, everybody got deliveries [only] to the Triangle and to Netanya.”

Additionally, he had to close one of his three stores in the northern city of Carmiel that day, due to Katyushas. He’s delighted, though, that another Jewish storeowner finalized plans today to open a children’s clothing store in his mall. “Under this roof there is coexistence, Jewish and Arab businesses,” he said. “Yesterday, two buses of elderly Jewish people came here for five hours. They brought their own food and I opened the kitchen and gave them drinks, and they were so happy.”



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