By Hatim Kanaaneh – Acre
I just finished reading the news about riots and clashes between Arabs and Jews in Acre in Haaretz, the one Israeli paper that still attempts a modicum of balance in reporting on Arab/Palestinian issues. I have resisted cancelling my subscription as a reaction to the paper’s recent dropping of Amira Hass and demoting of Gideon Levy, the two main reasons for my subscription to start with. It is difficult in Israel to get a balanced picture of this inter-racial and interfaith blow-up, symbolic as it is of the entire Israeli-Palestinian and even of the whole Middle East strife
The clashes started on the eve of Yom Kippur –the Jewish Day of Atonement- and are continuing on for the fourth day. Acre is our regional administrative center and my old stomping ground as a government official. It is a half-hour’s car drive from my home and once, in an emergency, I even covered the distance in eighteen minutes flat.
Before the Nakba my maternal grandmother and two aunts lived in Akka (Arabic for Acre) and it was usual for people to travel there on horseback or, more commonly, on the back of a donkey. My grandmother would come to visit us in our village, Arrabeh, and surprise us with a variety of presents: candies for the young and silk kerchiefs for the adults. For my mother she brought the special gift of a piece of red rubber sheeting fashioned out of the inner tube of a car tire. The wooden cot my mother used for her babies was the envy of the village womenfolk for the rubber sheet that protected it from soiling. My grandmother, Sitti Rahmi (Grandma Mercy) we called her, pulled rank over her village hosts and would bring her own personal supplies and utensils with her including a lot of snuff and a private ‘sharbi’ or small ceramic water jug. If anyone drank from it she would smash it on the spot and demand a replacement. My sisters, all afflicted by housecleaning obsession despite their rheumatoid arthritis, blame both on genes from Sitti Rahmi. My influential uncle Salih, the head of our clan, had a second home with a second wife in Akka where he hobnobbed with the city’s effendis. On occasion he would come back with a camel load of Jaffa Oranges for his extended family here and we, the favored children, would get the special treat of a link of fresh sugarcane to suck on. Akka was truly our capital city.
Then my grandmother passed away and after her uncle Salih and then the whole country, Akka included, went to the dogs and my aunts became refugees in Lebanon.
The Zionists came along and cleansed Acre of its original residents and replaced them with Jewish immigrants, housing some in existing Arab homes and building for others public housing in new neighborhoods that fanned east and north from the ancient walled city. Some of the new housing projects replaced the former Arab Manshieh neighborhood better known formerly as New Acre or ‘Akka el-Jadideh’. The old walled city became the refuge for internally displaced Palestinians, squatters from neighboring destroyed villages, with a smattering of original residents who dared stay put. As in other cities such as Jaffa, Lidd, Ramla and Haifa, the system of the new state lacked the administrative capacity to stop their influx. Initially, most were tolerated by the official new owner of all Palestinian ‘abandoned’ property, the Custodian of Absentee Property. It failed to penetrate the emerging solidarity and minimal cohesion among the new Palestinian social collective in such cities. Left with no leadership but prodded on by need and fear this rabble held together against the pressure brought to bear on them by Amidar, the Israeli government housing enterprise that was accorded responsibility for emptied Palestinian homes by the Custodian of Absentee Property. Amidar’s first responsibility, of course, was to house and nurture newcomers, the self-engendered flood of Jewish immigrants.
By the time I broke on the scene in Acre again, two and a half decades later, as the sub-district’s medical officer in charge of the population’s medical services and health, a movement was in full swing to drive the residents of old Acre out to the neighboring villages of Jdaideh and Makir, both already overwhelmed by the 1948 influx of refugees from destroyed neighboring villages, famous among which is el-Birweh, the destroyed village of the late poet of Palestinian resistance, Mahmoud Darwish. A two-pronged justification was offered for the attempted second forced evacuation of those unwelcome ‘squatters’: The old city with its rich Crusader and Ottoman archeological treasures was a perfect site for development as a tourist attraction. The very same attribute, the cultural and physical seclusion of those dark dungeons of old, had rendered them the perfect hideaway for drug dealers and addicts. Old Acre then ranked even ahead of old Jaffa as the capital of drugs and sex trade. I was marginally involved in all of this in a couple of ways: One of my predecessors at the Acre Ministry of Health office was killed and another left paraplegic, the outcome of an attack by drug dealers. And on a couple of occasions I had to lean on my head sanitary engineer to declare specific residences of Arabs in the old city fit for occupation contrary to the wishes of the city engineer and the Acre Development Authority. The residents were denied the needed permits to repair the roofs over their heads. If a house was found to be in danger of collapse or in such a state of squalor that it was not fit for human inhabitance, the only option they were offered was to move out. The majority never moved out; no major calamities were recorded; Acre still struggles to sell itself as a tourist attraction; drugs are still plentiful on the streets of old Acre and have spread to new neighborhoods; and I was dismissed long ago from my position with the MOH for meddlesome activism.
As in other mixed cities, some better off young Arab couples have found their way to residences in the new, originally exclusively Jewish, neighborhoods. The rare Arab worker in the government offices in Acre was often made the attractive offered of subsidized housing in these new neighborhoods, specifically in the proudly anointed project of coexistence in the Wolfson neighborhood, Shkhonat Wolfson. Even the Ford Foundation invested in this ambitious project at one point. I remember turning down the offer of subsidized housing there along with that of a handgun for my personal protection. Both Wolfson and Akko Tzafon (North Acre Neighborhood) have been thoroughly infiltrated by Palestinian residents. Even now, sixteen years after my exile from my office in acre, I can claim half a dozen Arab friends there: two doctors, a lawyer, a nurse, a teacher and an income tax big boss.
Interracial trouble has been brewing in these mixed quarters from the start. The embers are kept live mainly by religious fanaticism: On the Arab side the young are increasingly turning to religion as is usual for members of deprived communities. On the Jewish side the fires of extremism have been further fanned by the recent arrival of a band of hardened settlers relocated from the evacuated settlements of Gaza. A religious study cum army service center has been established for and by them in Wolfson. A while back trouble started over their objection to the Arab Moslems’ broadcasting their calls for prayer on their mosque’s loudspeaker during the holy month of Ramadan. Violence broke out and a movement was set afoot for cleansing Acre as a Jewish city of its Arabs, as if that were new. Now clashes ensued over the ‘right’ of observant Jews to enforce a total ban, for Jews and Goys alike, on vehicle movement on the Day of Atonement. That is how they have internalized the meaning of the ‘Jewish and democratic’ state. And the young man at the center of the clash is accused of even smoking openly on the street and having his car radio on. “How come their youth were running around our neighborhoods drinking beer and making out in the open during Ramadan?” a young Moslem protested.
And now, as I write this, I receive an email in Hebrew calling for a total boycott of all Arabs. It declares: “A Jew is a descendent of kings. An Arab is a descendent of dogs.” It further calls for a mob to gather at a specific location after sundown assuring all that a group of 300 settlers will be arriving to lead the crowd. It ends with an online survey that shows 63% of respondents favoring attacking/finishing-off Arabs. Here is the link if you read Hebrew: www.akko.txt.co.il And finally, the annual Acre Alternative Theater Festival, one of the most significant art happenings in Israel, held annually during the Jewish Sukkoth holiday, has been cancelled. Gideon Levy opines: “To all, it was clear that Mayor Shimon Lankri’s hasty decision to cancel the festival had one purpose, and one only: to punish the Arabs who earn their living from the event.”
It is reported that a police source noted that violence between Jews and Arabs stems from gaps in infrastructure and services between the two communities, and is the responsibility of the state but often lands in the “police emergency room.” This is reminiscent of the conclusion reached by the Or Investigative Committee appointed by the government to look into the killing in 2000 of 13 Palestinian unarmed youth, 12 of whom were citizens of Israel, by the police. The conclusion was understood by the police as exonerating them. Their Department of Internal Investigations, Mahash, closed the file with the excuse that it was too late to gather evidence. 29 more Palestinian citizens of Israel have been shot dead by Israeli security forces since then and in most if not all such cases the murderers were exonerated. In the entire history of the state no Jew has ever been killed by the security forces in quelling a demonstration. And the Jewish citizens of Israel have always demonstrated big time. Adalah – (www.adalah.org) – is busy educating itself, the local Palestinian leadership, and the families of the dead youth on the experiences of other disadvantaged groups who suffered from state-sponsored crimes against them in modern times such as in Northern Ireland and South Africa.
The killing of six Palestinian unarmed youth on March 30, 1976 by Israeli security forces under the direct oversight of both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, to stop us from striking for one day against the stealing of our land, was committed in an era when we lacked the human rights acumen and political civil society savvy to do anything beyond consecrating the day as Land Day, commemorated ever since by all Palestinians. And two decades before, in the village of Kufur Qasim, scores of villagers returning from their fields were summarily executed for breaking a curfew that was announced after they had left their homes. The scapegoat Israeli officer, Shadmi was his name, was found guilty and fined one cent.
Listening to the news from Acre yesterday I was struck by the fact that every adult in my circle of a dozen radio listeners could recount an incident in which he or she was attacked by stone-throwing Jewish youth on Yom Kippur or on the day of Sabbath in one location or another. It is a wonder riots haven’t broken out before in every mixed city. The only explanation I can think off is the degree of submissiveness we, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, have learned to accept and practice. It is way past coexistence and several steps beyond tolerance, meekness at its best. This begs the question of why in Acre and why now? Here is my guess:
Akkawis -Acre Arab residents- are known in the Galilee for their chip-on-the-shoulder demeanor and contentious uppity ways. This is part of the city’s heritage of old. Acre’s residents have an oft repeated motto: “Ya khouf Akka min hdeer el-bahar – the Mediterranean is no threat to Acre.” And Napoleon camped outside its walls for a long time before giving up and lobbing-in his hat fitted on a cannonball so as to claim a symbolic victory. I remember my father telling the story from his younger days, long before Zionism messed up the place, about a fat woman, properly outfitted for a stroll on the Korneesh, Acre’s stylish seaside promenade, who slipped and fell flat on her butt on the stone pavement. He rushed to offer his help and got a proper scolding: “Get away from me you scrawny fellah! You couldn’t lift me up if you tried! And a fellah like you would have fallen flat on his face not landed safely in a sitting position like me.” He had to swallow his pride and move on.
A story is told in Galilee about the first pilgrim from Acre in recent times to gain permission to visit the holy sites in Saudi Arabia. As he entered the mosque in Medina where the prophet Mohammad is buried, he is reported to have casually addressed the prophet using the diminutive form of the addressee’s name the way Acre adults do in talking to their children: “Eishak Hammudi –How goes it my boy!” he is reported to have shouted from the door over the heads of thousands of pious supplicants. Akkawis are also known for sneering at people loudly for the slightest mistake. For any minor irritation a father would encourage his child to snicker at the offender by making the sound one makes in imitating a pig, a combined expression of disapproval, disdain, and challenge: “Ishkharlo ya walad!”
Now you understand why a Palestinian young man from Acre would dare to stand up to a bunch of Jewish youth throwing stones at his car.
I personally have never dared drive on the High Holiday of the Jews. I don’t smoke but I eat secretly at home.
-Hatim Kanaaneh, M.D. is the author of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Isreal. He completed his medical and public health degrees at Harvard in 1970. He then returned to Galilee where, in 1973, he became the Public Health Doctor of the sub-district of Acre. He is the founder of the NGO, the Galilee Society (The Arab National Society for Health Research and Services). He has written extensively on human rights.