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As tensions boil, Israeli Arabs and Jews recall second intifada

The relationship between Jewish and Arab Israeli society is hitting its lowest point ever as both sectors erupt in heated protest of the murders of teenagers and the rockets raining from Gaza.

Attorney Rada Jabar was having a hard time hiding his emotions. As he went over events in the Arab sector during the past few days, he was caught up in the sense of desperation over the emerging crisis between Jews and Arabs. “I would dare say that we are reaching the lowest point ever in the relationship between Jewish society and Arab society,” he told Al-Monitor. As head of the Arab Center for a Safe Society, based in the city of Taibe, he has been following the outburst of rage that erupted in the Arab sector after it learned that young Jews were behind the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a young Palestinian from Shuafat.

When Jabar left his home that day, he encountered hundreds of young Arabs from his town converging on the main highway with sticks and rocks. Images raced through his mind of similar scenes from the riots of October 2000, immediately after the second intifada erupted. Some 13 Arab demonstrators were killed in those riots, which are still considered the lowest point in the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

“I honestly thought it was a legitimate protest at first,” said Jabar, describing what he saw firsthand that morning. Within moments, hundreds of police officers surrounded the demonstrators and began arresting them en masse, so Jabar returned home and shut himself up there until the trouble was over. But this time, the fury refused to pass. He learned that the protest in Taibe had taken off and spread throughout the Arab sector. Hundreds of young people left their towns and villages to block the country’s main arteries and throw rocks at passing cars. The unrest was not limited to the towns and villages of the north, and reached the south as well. In the Bedouin villages of the Negev, hundreds of young people blocked roads and burned tires.

The most serious event of all occurred near the town of Qalansawe, in the center of Israel. Young Arabs stopped a car and demanded that its passengers get out. “Are you Jewish?” one of the young people asked. The passengers answered that they were, and were promptly beaten by the Arab protesters.

Jabar is convinced that it was the brutal murder of the Palestinian boy that set off these riots, but he added that Israeli Arabs have nurtured growing resentment over the state’s attitude toward them for several years now. The murder only further intensified the feeling among Arabs that their lives do not have the same value as Jewish ones.

“I was expecting a more moderate response from the Jews,” Jabar said, “but unfortunately, what I found was unlike anything I can remember in my entire life as an Israeli Arab. There was always friction. There was always tension between us. This time, however, all the dams have been breached. The media is portraying all the Arabs as traitors, spitting into the very wells from which they drink.”

More than 400 demonstrators were arrested in the riots. A few of them are still being detained. A senior police officer told Al-Monitor that the Jewish rage was understandable, even justified. “Missiles are raining down on the entire country, and we are all living in anxiety,” he said. “Instead of showing solidarity and understanding the Jews’ fears, the Arabs did the exact opposite. They worked together with the Palestinians to hurt the Jews. Unfortunately, that could lead to calamity in the relationship between Arabs and the state. They’ll lose everything they achieved up to now if they don’t come to their senses.”

It is a case of rage versus rage. Jewish anger over the Arab riots is running up against Arab fury at what is being interpreted as an extreme response by both the police and the Jewish public.

“I can’t remember Israeli Arabs ever being so afraid of the Jewish sector. It is not just any fear, either. It is an existential fear,” Jabar said. For the first time in his life, he avoided visiting neighboring Jewish towns. This week, for example, when he suggested to his wife that they take their five children to break their Ramadan fast at the nearby Kfar Saba mall, as they’ve been doing for years, she refused.

“I’m scared,” she told her husband. “It’s dangerous to be around Jews today.”

That fear was able to infect him, too, when he found himself canceling work meetings in Tel Aviv and Netanya. “I just wanted to avoid unnecessary friction resulting from the tense atmosphere between Arabs and Jews,” he explained. “I want you to know that there are a lot of Arabs today who are afraid to go to the cities of Tel Aviv or Netanya or Kfar Saba. I can’t remember a similar situation in my entire life. We are simply afraid.”

This mood was compounded by threats of a boycott of Arab-owned businesses. Organized groups of Jews announced that they intended to initiate a boycott to avenge the riots by young Arabs. It took almost two years for Jews to return to visit Arab towns and villages after the October 2000 riots.

“How can anyone forget?” asked Y. Ben Simon (full disclosure: a family relation of the author), who was in command of the Old City of Acre at the time. “It’s a trauma that has yet to pass. I remember how, on the day after the riots in Acre, a huge photo appeared on the front page of the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper, showing Arab youths burning tires. ‘Acre Is Burning!’ screamed the headline in bold red letters. It was enough to cause all businesses in Old Jaffa to collapse. Jews refused to enter the Old City for over a year. Restaurants and shops closed down. People had nothing to eat. Acre is a city that lives off of tourism. Without tourism, it is like a ghost town.”

Jabar prays that this round of tension between Jews and Arabs will end peacefully. A Jewish boycott of Arab businesses is the last thing they need. “It is well known that here in the Israeli Arab community, we have been unable to create our own infrastructure, separate from the Jewish economy,” he explained. “There’s no way we can live without the Jews. A boycott or the cutting of ties would be a death sentence for Arab society in Israel, as far as we are concerned. If it happens, God forbid, and the Arabs feel unwanted, they will develop a siege mentality. I really don’t want to think about what could happen then.”

Over the past few days there have been indications that things are calming down. The heads of the Arab regional and local authorities have seized the initiative and prevented demonstrations and protests in their towns, practically with their own bodies.

“We all pray that the situation returns to what it was before all this mess,” said Abdel Baset Salame, the mayor of Qalansawe and one of the leaders who is keeping the calm.

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