Arabs and Jews quarrel over Acre’s Old City


This story orginally appeared on The Media Line.

Minarets, green domes and an Ottoman-era clock tower look out over the brightly painted fishing boats that line the quayside. Tourists stroll beside gaggles of children on outings from nearby Muslim schools. The old city of Acre is made uniquely beautiful by the sparkle of blue water from the Mediterranean Sea surrounding the ancient port town on three sides. For its examples of Ottoman architecture – a citadel, mosques, khans and a Turkish bathhouse – and for the Crusader ruins buried below, the city was awarded UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) heritage status in 2001.

Acre features heavily in the long history of the region, with the remains of both the largest Crusader town left in the world and evidence of permanent habitation dating back five millennia. The modern day city’s 46,000 residents are mixed demographically with around two thirds being Jewish, and one third Arab.

The winding alleys and timeworn buildings are what gives the old city its atmosphere, valued by both tourists and UNESCO alike. But many of these ancient buildings are in need of repair. The beauty of such structures goes hand-in-hand with the difficulty present in maintaining them – any repairs must be done using materials which preserve the ancient look of the old city. This makes repairs unaffordable to many of the residents of the old city, an area which suffers from high levels of poverty. In an effort to counteract this, investment has been brought into the old city seeking to harness the potential income from the numerous tourists who visit the town each year. There are new bed and breakfasts and restaurants catering to tourists.

The Jewish-led municipality of Acre is using this investment as a means of permanently changing the character of the city, accuse Basel Ghattas and Aida Touma-Suleiman, both members of the mostly Arab Joint List party. Arabs make up around 28% of the city’s population but almost all of the residents in the old city. This, charges Ghattas, is something the Israeli government wants to change.

The poor state of housing in the old city, Ghattas told a small group of journalists on a recent tour, is perpetuated by the mayor in order to drive out Arab residents. Most of the people living in Acre’s old city do not own their properties, but rent them from the municipality. These buildings are in dire need of repairs, said Ghattas, but the authorities refuse to let tenants alter the buildings, in the hopes that this will eventually cause them to leave.

“They’re homes are in a very bad situation because they prevent them from maintaining the buildings. As a result, they think, the people will leave. The hidden agenda is to evacuate Acre of its Arab citizens… to throw them out of their homes,” Ghattas told The Media Line.

The aesthetics of the buildings, due to the city’s UNESCO heritage status, is being used as an excuse to refuse permission to residents to conduct repairs, argues parliamentarian Aida Touma-Suleiman. At the same time the historical buildings of the old city have been earmarked for redevelopment. Several of the khans – historical courtyards that make up several of Acre’s most iconic sites – will be converted into expensive hotels for tourists, she said, and a number of Arab families have been informed they will be evicted, Touma-Suleiman told The Media Line.

“For many years the aim was to evacuate most of the old city of its own inhabitants and to turn it into a touristic city that is mostly inhabited by artists and investors, hotels, small boutique hotels – businesses that are mainly for tourism,” Touma-Suleiman said, adding that a combination of racism against Arabs and naked capitalist interest were behind the drive to force out Arab families.

The mayor’s office sharply rejected claims that they are trying to force Arab residents out of the old city.

“This is of course not true,” Daniel Arama, Head of Tourism in Economic Companies and a representative of the municipality of Acre told The Media Line. He insisted that the municipality had in fact sought to invest in residents of the old city through projects aimed at helping locals to set up sustainable businesses – guest houses, small restaurants and crafts centers.

He dismissed claims that investment in the old city would impact on the character of the heritage site and said the city often gave permission to residents who wished to conduct repairs on their homes.

The Arab parliamentarians have written a letter to Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, asking that the organization send an investigative team to Acre to decide if the terms of the city’s heritage nomination have been breached.

Ghattas believes that status has been compromised in two ways: firstly that certain renovations, namely large hotel constructions, will impinge on the visual atmosphere of the city; and secondly that the cultural heritage of the city is being deliberately diminished by the municipality. The MKs pointed out that improvements in the economic and social condition of local residents was identified as an important part in maintaining the city’s cultural identity and a prerequisite to Acre being recognized by UNESCO.

Ghattas and Touma-Suleiman believe that the threat of Acre losing its UNESCO heritage status will be useful political pressure to apply against the municipality – especially in the context of an Israeli government which is increasingly finding itself criticized by the international community. Acre is one of eight UNESCO heritage sites in Israel.

UNESCO is unlikely to revoke the city’s heritage status, said Arama, of the mayor’s office, adding that risking Acre’s standing was “a stupid thing to do.” He added that Acre doesn’t directly gain money from UNESCO but that the acknowledgment of the city’s unique value was important.

A level of suspicion among Arab residents towards the municipality is sometimes understandable, Professor Itzchak Weismann, of the Department of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University, told The Media Line. He pointed to Acre as the best example of a mixed city in Israel, where relations between Jews and Arabs were historically “much better” than other integrated cities in the country. But he admitted that there were incidents in the past that still lingered in Arab residents’ memories and prevented them from trusting the authorities.

In Jaffa, also a mixed city next to Tel Aviv, gentrification made rents skyrocket and many Arabs were forced to leave. Their homes were replaced with upscale restaurants and art galleries. People are afraid that will happen in Acre too, Weismann said.

“There are reasons (for Arab resident) to be worried – the state could do more,” Weismann told The Media Line, but he pointed to Shimon Lankri, the mayor of Acre, as an example of progress. Weismann suggested that Lankri was doing more for Arabs and Jews in the city and this could be seen in the last election result – “He has some support from Arabs, not 100% but maybe around half.”

“The city is very dear to my heart,” said Weismann, “there is still much to do but the city is (going) in the right direction.”

Akko riots expose Israel’s Arab-Jewish tinderbox


JERUSALEM (JTA)—The rioting in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Akko, which erupted after an Arab man drove through a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur, shows just how combustible Arab-Jewish relations in Israel are.

Yet after four successive nights of clashes, in which rampaging Arabs stoned Jewish-owned shops and cars as Jewish mobs torched Arab homes, there was no sign of the violence spreading to other mixed-ethnic cities such as Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth or Lod.

Nor did the current Jewish-Arab tensions appear likely to reach the proportions they did following October 2000, when Israeli police shot dead 12 Israeli Arabs and a visitor from the West Bank in clashes across northern Israel that coincided with the launching of the second Palestinian intifada.

But the rioting in Akko is more than an isolated violent episode in need of containment. Even if the rioting abates, it is sounding warning bells for the Israeli government. Jewish-Arab tensions in Akko and in the country as a whole have been simmering under the surface for years. The rioting was an expression of Arab frustration and Jewish mistrust.

The latest trouble started on the eve of Yom Kippur, Oct. 8. On this holiest day of the Jewish calendar, everything in Israel comes to a halt. For the duration of the 25-hour fast, businesses and places of entertainment are shuttered, and the roads are virtually free of cars. Even completely secular Jews and non-Jewish Israelis refrain from driving in Jewish neighborhoods.

So when an Akko Arab drove his car into a Jewish neighborhood that night, reportedly blaring loud music, the act seemed like a deliberate provocation.

Angry Jews forced the car to stop, pulled out the driver and beat him. News of the beating quickly spread across the city, and from the mosques Arabs were called upon to avenge what by then had been exaggerated to “two Arabs murdered by Jews.”

Hundreds took to the streets, mostly young, masked men who marched into the main Jewish neighborhood smashing shop windows, shattering car windows, slashing tires and torching vehicles. In retaliation, Jewish mobs set fire to several Arab homes in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Police appeared to be overwhelmed by the rioters.

The pattern repeated itself for the next three days and nights. Gradually the police ramped up their response, and by Monday hundreds of police officers were deployed in the city backed up by the Israeli army’s border police. More than 60 arrests were made.

To help defuse the tension, Akko Mayor Shimon Lankri postponed Akko’s annual Fringe Theater festival, explaining that the political content of some of the plays could further aggravate tensions. In any case, he said, audiences would stay away given the new of the riots.

“This is not a time for celebrations,” he declared.

But some saw in Lankri’s announcement an attempt to punish the city’s Arabs, saying Arab businesses benefit most from the business the festival brings to the city.

Meanwhile, right-wing Jewish extremist groups and radical Arab agitators tried to fan the flames while Israel’s political leaders—including some Arab leaders—struggled to restore calm.

Some Jewish extremists called for a boycott of Arab businesses, while Hamas leaders urged Israeli Arabs to start a “third intifada.”

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused extremists on both sides of “holding the city ransom.”

Mostly, however, leaders on both sides issued appeals for calm and a quick return to coexistence. After meeting Monday with Jewish and Arab religious and community leaders in Akko, President Shimon Peres said he was optimistic and “surprised at the degree of willingness for dialogue on both sides.”

Earlier, Arab community leaders had issued an apology for the desecration of the Jewish holy day. The Arab driver went to a televised meeting in Jerusalem of the Knesset’s Interior Committee, where he said he had not intended any provocation but had made a terrible error of judgment: He said he thought that because it was very late at night, no one would notice his car driving into the mostly Jewish neighborhood where he lived.

In a square outside city hall in Akko, members of the Mapam-affiliated Shomer Hatzair youth movement built a sukkah and invited both Arabs and Jews to visit in a spirit of reconciliation.

One of the first guests was Arab Knesset member Abbas Zakoor, an Akko resident and a member of the radical Raam-Taal party. Arab Knesset members, who often resort to inflammatory language as they compete for an increasingly radicalized Arab constituency, have played a remarkably conciliatory role in the current unrest.

Paradoxically, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which were meant to resolve the Israeli-Arab predicament, have sharpened tensions between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

Israeli Arabs see their Palestinian cousins, once sworn enemies of the Jews, being offered full statehood, while they, citizens of the Israeli state, are ignored. They still recall with anger the October 2000 clashes in which Israeli police opened fire on Arab rioters. The Arabs point to the harsh police response—Israeli police don’t use live fire against Jewish demonstrators—as evidence of the double standard often applied to Israeli Arab citizens.

Similarly, some Israeli Jews point to the riots of eight years ago as a reminder that Israel’s Arab citizens cannot be trusted: When the Palestinians launched their intifada that month, Israel’s Arabs rioted in solidarity with the Palestinians.

The Orr Commission set up to investigate the 2000 clashes found “years of discrimination” against Israeli Arabs and urged the government to do more to promote Jewish-Arab equality and provide Arab and Jewish municipalities with proportionately equal budgets. This has not happened.

In 2006, Israeli Arab leaders moved to a more publicly critical stance on the Jewish state, producing a document seeking virtual autonomy for the Arab minority and calling for an end to the Jewish character of the state. Titled the “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” the paper demanded veto rights and autonomy in domestic affairs, rejected Jewish symbols of state and provided a narrative of colonial conquest by Jews, naming Israeli Arabs as the land’s only indigenous people.

With the background of the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict and day-to-day tensions between Israeli Arabs and Jews, particularly in mixed cities like Akko, the rioting there really should have come as no surprise. All that’s needed is something incendiary to set the two sides aflame.

Elie Rekhess, the director of the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University, says Arab-Jewish relations in Israel are a powder keg waiting to explode. If Akko is not the trigger, something else will be, Rekhess says—unless the government finds a way to give Israeli Arabs a sense of truly shared citizenship.