By Joharah Baker
Following the American Civil War, the "separate but equal" laws were established in the United States, which basically stipulated that the blacks, finally emancipated, would be ‘equal’ citizens of the US but would be granted separate services from the whites. It was not until the civil rights movement in the 1960s that the laws were overturned and blacks were allowed to attend school with whites, go to the same restaurants, sit on the same buses and use the same bathrooms. Still, the remnants of black/white racism are sometimes as palpable today in the United States as they were half a century ago.
The events that transpired in Acre over the course of the week are another ugly reminder that racism is still alive and kicking, this time in a country the US praises as the only democracy in the Middle East. In Israel, democracy is probably at its best – at least for Jewish Israelis. But for the one million-plus Palestinians living in what is now Israel and who hold Israeli citizenship, it is only befitting to parallel them to the black Americans of the 1960s.
Yom Kippur, the holiest of days for Jews fell on the eve of October 8 this year, a Wednesday. Jews are not to work, drive or engage in any other activity including eating and drinking that would otherwise distract them from their atonement and repentance. So, Jewish areas come to a standstill, roads are closed and Jews everywhere stay home to observe this holiest of holy days.
Unfortunately, as in all areas where ethnic tensions run just beneath the surface of an otherwise complacent coexistence, Yom Kippur was transformed into days of rioting in Acre, with Jews and Palestinian Arabs facing off in a confrontation of wills and pent up hostilities. Much has been written about the events that sparked the days-long rioting, the burning of houses, and the clashes of youth from both sides of the fence. Apparently a young Palestinian man, a native of Acre, Tawfiq Jamal, made a wrong turn going to pick up his daughter from a friend’s home on the eve of Yom Kippur, driving into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Acre. According to Jamal, he was met by angry Jewish youths who barraged his car with stones, yelling “Death to Arabs.” Jamal, his son – who was wounded by stones – and a friend took refuge in a relative’s house which was by then surrounded by angry and hostile Israelis. The police eventually dispersed the mob, but the event had a domino effect throughout the city, with confrontations erupting for several more days.
The rioting is one thing, but Israel’s response to it is quite another. While Israeli police claim they have arrested both Jews and Arabs involved in the rioting and have deployed several hundred policemen in the streets of Acre to maintain calm, they also announced the arrest of Tawfiq Jamal on October 13, who was later remanded for three days. The charges? He was accused of “harming religious sensitivities, speeding, and reckless endangerment.” Israel’s press is dubbing Jamal as the person who ‘sparked the rioting”, even though Jamal, by his own admission said he would “sacrifice his own neck” for peaceful coexistence in Acre, not to mention that he was only going to pick up his daughter from a friend’s house and did not deliberately drive into the Jewish neighborhood.
The decision to arrest Jamal was, unsurprisingly, met with anger by the Arab Palestinian community. Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi said the arrest was “unreasonable, lacked legal justification and represented a capitulation to Jewish hooligans.” MK Mohammed Barakeh claimed the move aimed to appease right wing extremists. It goes without saying that no Palestinian believes if the tables were turned, the Jewish resident of a mixed Palestinian-Jewish city in Israel would be put behind bars.
Acre residents said as much days after the rioting had erupted. In an article by Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, one Palestinian resident of Acre said Muslim “religious sensitivities “ had been harmed during Ramadan with Jews openly drinking beer in the streets. “There were no Arab riots then,” he pointed out.
Today, as the situation in Acre is maintained by a tense calm, we are reminded of the festering sore that lies just beneath that calm. Much like the rioting in the American south in the 1960s where white policemen used excessive force on black demonstrators, Israeli police forces were said to have used water hoses to disperse Jewish rioters and tear gas and stun grenades on Arabs. The inequalities Arab–Palestinian citizens of Israel have long faced have once again boiled up to the surface and over into the streets of Acre, a city famed for its heroic resistance against British Mandate authorities. Living as second class citizens, with second-class services, especially in the more remote Arab villages, Palestinians inside Israel face the reality of a brutal discriminatory system on a daily basis, all under the Israeli guise of a democracy for all. While there are still mixed Arab-Jewish cities inside the Green Line such as Acre, Haifa and Jaffa, Arabs tend to live in the lower economic housing areas, geographically, culturally and politically separated from their Jewish neighbors. Coexistence is an imposed, not voluntary, choice for many, which is why it only takes a tiny scratch to unleash the rage beneath the surface. In Acre for example, while Arabs are technically allowed to buy or renovate houses, construction permits are hard to come by and prices are sky-high. This translates into a very small percentage of Arabs who are able to actually purchase homes, which instead are being bought out Jewish Israelis.
Hence, every now and then, tensions erupt between Israeli Jews and Israeli-Palestinians. In October 2000, 13 Palestinians from inside the Green Line were shot and killed in demonstrations throughout Israel following the eruption of the second Intifada. An official investigation, the Or Commission, was established in light of the deaths but according to Arab civil rights organizations in Israel, nothing has changed. “Events such as those of October 2000 are likely to return and be upon us suddenly,” Arab-Palestinian judge Hashem Khatib prophesized in 2006. “The writing on the wall on the eve of the October occurrences is still the writing on the wall today.”
With these Acre events still raw, Khatib’s prediction could not have been closer to the truth.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH.org; republished in PalestineChronicle.com with permission.)