Saturday, October 18, 2008

Behind the ugly scenes in beautiful Acre

EL-JAZZAR 18th century mosque in Acre, built by Bosnian born Ahmed al-Jazzar, who also strengthened the port's fortifications, enabling it to withstand siege by Napoleon.

Call it Akka, Akko or Acre, this coastal city with its Crusader castle, beautiful mosque, and dramatic history is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is also a mixed city, Arab and Jewish, with modern industry and approximately 52,000 people, on the northern side of Haifa bay, in northern Israel.

An old Cana'anite town with affinity to the Phoenicians further north, Acre was built up and fortified under the Turks, and in 1799 it withstood siege by Napoleon. In 1947 under British rule it was the scene of a massive jail break organised by the Zionist Irgun Zvai Leumi, during which many Arab prisoners also escaped. The UN partition plan later that year designated Acre an Arab city, but on May 17, three days after the State of Israel was proclaimed its forces seized Acre, possibly assisted by a mysterious typhoid outbreak. Many of its people fled, becoming refugees in the Palestinian Nakba, though later other Palestinians driven from western Galilee entered the town.

The Israeli government encouraged Jewish people to move into some Palestinian homes, bulldozing others to make room for new Jewish neighbourhoods. Many of those who moved in were families from Arab countries who formed Israel's new working class, and needed housing, and the jobs in the area's factories. Today Acre's Arabs, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, comprise about 27 per cent of its population, mainly in the old centre and harbour area.

When I visited Acre years ago, admittedly only taking in the old-world touristy part, it seemed a peaceful sort of place. Fountains played in the mosque's gardened courtyard, and coppersmiths and other craftsmen were at work around the square, People in the old centre are anxious that it stays nice and peaceful.

But just before midnight on Wednesday, October 9, the beautiful city of Acre became the field for some ugly scenes. It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. A Palestinian resident drove his taxi into a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. According to some residents he was playing loud music and smoking, which is not permitted on Yom Kippur.

According to Tawfiq Jamal's own account, he drove with his son and a friend, at around 11pm in order to pick up his daughter from the home of relatives where she had been helping prepare baked sweets for a wedding. When they arrived, according to Jamal, "I asked my son to take the baking dishes out of the car and proceeded to walk [toward the house] when [the Jews] suddenly began hurling stones at us" (Sharon Roffe-Ophir, "Arab motorist: I narrowly escaped lynch in Akko," Ynet, 9 October 2008).

Jamal described how he and the two young men narrowly escaped a lynching. He strenuously denied accusations he had been drinking and deliberately started the incident by playing loud music. Acre police commander Avraham Edri confirmed much of Jamal's account, telling the Knesset's Internal Affairs Committee that:

"When my officers arrived at the scene, they had to handle 300-400 people who had already lifted the driver's car in the air. Our first mission was to prevent casualties. We released the driver from the mob and helped him into an apartment nearby ... My staff served as a barrier between him and the excited mob; the policemen were hurt but not one civilian was injured" ("Acre driver apologizes for incident," The Jerusalem Post, 12 October 2008).

Haaretz reported, "Police warded off hundreds of Jewish rioters, chanting 'death to the Arabs,' and trying to storm the city's main road" . As word spread of the attack, and rumours that the driver had been killed, Arab youths came to the scene.

Speaking before the Knesset committee on 12 October, Jamal apologized for driving into the Jewish area and said he had "made a mistake." Despite this, Israeli police arrested Jamal for "harming religious sensitivities, speeding and reckless endangerment," and remanded him in custody (Jack Khoury, "Police arrest driver who sparked Acre riots for 'harming religious sensitivities,'" Haaretz, 13 October 2008).

But fighting between Jewish and Palestinian residents continued for several nights. Police intervened with tear gas and water cannon. According to Israeli police, many Arab Palestinian families had to be evacuated and about a dozen of their homes were set on fire. In the end, 54 people -- Jews and Arabs -- were arrested, about 100 cars and several dozen shops were damaged. Several minor injuries were reported.

While Jews and Arabs took part in the violence, on 12 October, on the third day of the disturbances, Major-General Shimon Koren, commander of Israel's Northern District police, said the riots had been instigated by Jews ("Police official says instigators of Akko riots Jewish," Ynet, 12 October 2008), and, "The majority of rioters causing disturbances in [Acre] are Jews" (Sharon Roffe-Ofir, "Northern District police commander: Majority of Akko riots [sic] are Jews," Ynet, 12 October 2008).

How come a minor row over offended religious sensibilities, if that was the spark, should set off four days of serious rioting, or to put it in less neuteral terms, a pogrom? Cynics and reactionaries will say it proves people can't mix, but it seems people in Acre managed for sixty years (and in parts of Haifa for much longer). True the Jews from Arab lands, Misrachim, encountering discrimination and insult under Labour, became prey for the right-wing nationalist and religious parties, and their self-assertion has often taken the form of being anti-Arab (though less inclined to the aggressive expansionism of the settler right). They have also felt more vulnerable, being often shoved into exposed frontline positions, like Sderot in the south; or feared having to compete with Arabs for homes and jobs.

But some Palestinian Acre residents say the real trouble comes not from longstanding Acre Jews but from militant young right-wingers who have been moved into the town.
Baruch Marzel, a settler leader from near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, visited Acre during the riots and vowed to help Jews in the city to set up a "defense organization". Palestinians in Hebron area, and even visiting Israelis and foreigners(including British MPs) have experienced the violence that the settlers call "defence".

was leader of the banned Kach party founded by the late Meir Kahane which supports the expulsion of all Palestinians. Kahane of course began his career as a thug and demagogue in the United States.

In Acre there is a yeshiva, Yeshiva Hesder-Akko, founded in 2001, in the Wolfson neighbourhood, and run by Yossi Stern, a rabbi from the militant West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh. Stern is also on the Acre city council. Wolfson's Jewish residents largely moved out as they became more affluent. Yeshiva Hesder-Akko's own website states that "[f]rom a luxuriant Jewish neighborhood it [Wolfson] has turned into a decrepit Arab neighborhood." The school's purpose is "to try to return and strengthen the Jewish character of the city." Although the city was "almost lost" to Jews, the site states that "The long awaited salvation has begun."

The yeshiva was built with funds from a donor in New York. Volunteers have also raised funds from synagogues in the US, for the "special aim of the yeshiva [which] is to attract more young Jewish families by strengthening and maintaining the Zionist Jewish character of this ancient Jewish city" .

Besides rewriting ancient history, the rightists in the Knesset have their own version of the recent history of Acre. Knesset member, former cabinet minister, and settler Effie Eitam called the events "an anti-Semitic pogrom at the heart of Israel on the holiest days of the Jewish people." Esterina Tartman, a Knesset member of former deputy prime minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party, called for the removal of Palestinians citizens from Israel on the grounds that "the pogrom in [Acre] is yet another confirmation that Arab Israelis are the real danger threatening the state" .

So the little more than a quarter of Acre's population who are Palestinian are supposedly threatening the three quarters who are not? By sending a taxi down the wrong street on the wrong night? But so long as our obliging media can accept the pretence that Yeshiva Hesder-Akko is just a harmless religious seminary, and so long as obliging US tax authorities treat fund-raising for such institutions as charity, why should racist politicians worry about being called liars?

See also: Extremist West Bank settlers help stir Acre violence, by Ali Abunimah, 15 October 2008

Is Akko burning? by Uri Avnery.

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