Clashes put Jewish-Arab relations in Israel to the test

Middle East Eye — 7 July 2014

Black, pungent smoke from burning tyres mixed with white, even more acrid plumes of tear gas to create an ugly grey smog eclipsing Nazareth’s most famous landmark, the imposing spire of the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Clashes over the weekend between youths and police in Israel’s largest Palestinian city have not been seen on this scale since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in late 2000.

Then, thirteen of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, including three residents of Nazareth, were shot dead in the Galilee in a few days of clashes with police, who fired live ammunition and rubber bullets on mostly unarmed demonstrators.

Fourteen years later, long-simmering tensions have erupted once more into angry protests in an increasing number of Palestinian towns and villages across Israel.

Initially, they mostly followed the pattern of stone-throwing skirmishes with Israeli security forces that began last week in Jerusalem.

But, as anger mounted at the weekend, confrontations included the hurling of firebombs at police and the closure of several major roads that run past Palestinian communities in the country’s north and south. Dozens of protesters have been arrested since Sunday.

Waiting to explode

Ali Said, 25, a worker in a bakery next to the main entrance of Nazareth, where several hundred youths faced off with Israeli police on Saturday, said the clashes were triggered, as in Jerusalem, by the news of the grisly murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.

Sixteen-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped from near his home in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Shuafat and burnt alive, apparently in revenge for the abductions and murders last month of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.

Three of six Israelis arrested for the murder were reported on Monday to have confessed.

“People here are really shocked by this, and they need to let off steam,” said Said. “Relations between Jews and Arabs have got much worse in recent years because of this right-wing government. All it needed was a trigger like this for everything to explode.”

Said noted that a general mood of anger had been stoked in recent months by a rash of hate crimes committed by Israeli Jews against Palestinian communities, including attacks on mosques and churches.

That view received support at the weekend from Yuval Diskin, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence agency. He accused the government of being blinded by political illusions, including a refusal to recognise attacks by settlers in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as “blatant racism”.

Luna Zraik, who runs a restaurant in the Big Fashion shopping mall close to where the protesters and police fought, said she and many of the customers had a bird’s eye view of unfolding events from the mall’s parking lot on the roof.

“The police were shooting large quantities of tear gas. The youths hid their faces with the keffiyeh [a Palestinian scarf], waved Palestinian flags, and burnt tyres to close the road. They threw so many stones that by the end you could barely see the tarmac. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Terrified customers

Since the opening of Big Fashion four years ago, Nazareth has become a magnet for shopping for Israeli Jews from the surrounding area. The mall includes major international clothing outlets rarely found elsewhere in the country’s north.

“When tear gas started wafting into the mall, the Jewish shoppers, in particular, looked terrified,” said Zraik. “One woman said she was worried she would be killed if we didn’t help her to escape.”

Israel’s large Palestinian minority, comprising a fifth of the total population, has long complained of systematic and institutional discrimination. But five years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, with its inflexible approach to peace-making and hostile policies towards the Palestinian minority, have soured communal relations even further.

Commentators have noted that these latest clashes followed the collapse in April of US-sponsored peace negotiations, just as the Second Intifada broke out in the wake of the failed Camp David talks of 2000.

Among Palestinian communities in Israel, Nazareth has been one of the beneficiaries of Israel’s recent strong economic performance. But a sense of political hopelessness pervades Nazareth and the Galilee just as much as it does the occupied territories of Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

Uneasy union

A four-lane highway, Road 75, is all that separates Nazareth, the minority’s unofficial capital, from Upper Nazareth, a city founded on Nazareth’s land reserves by Israeli officials decades ago in a failed attempt to create a commanding Jewish majority in the heart of the Galilee.

In recent years, despite a national policy of keeping Jewish and Palestinian citizens largely apart, at least residentially, the lives of the two communities have increasingly merged into an uneasy and unexpected union.

Jews now regularly shop and eat in Nazareth, while Nazareth’s residents, facing a mounting housing crisis caused by government planning policies, have started moving in ever larger numbers into Upper Nazareth.

So far, the violence sweeping Palestinian communities inside Israel — and to a lesser extent, Jewish areas — has not led to a fatality. In most cases, the Palestinian protesters’ anger has been directed at Israeli security forces or visible symbols of the state.

The fear, however, is that, should fighting erupt between Jewish and Palestinian citizens in places where they live or work together — such as in Nazareth and Upper Nazareth — things could rapidly deteriorate further.

On Sunday night, trouble flared again when a group of Jewish residents from Upper Nazareth stood next to Road 75 chanting “Death to the Arabs!”.

Nazareth’s youths faced off with them, hurling stones and firecrackers, including reportedly some that were thrown at a nearby fire station, one of the few official Israeli institutions in Nazareth.

On Monday morning, as Nazareth sunk back into a sleepy Ramadan fast through the difficult summer heat, there were few signs of the previous night’s troubles. The only clues were the steady stream of police vehicles patrolling Road 75, including an armour-plated water canon.

Iron fist

Israeli Jews in Upper Nazareth have been shocked deepest by reports of what occurred in Qalansuwa, a Palestinian town in central Israel — and close to the West Bank — that rarely makes the news.

There, youths created a roadblock on a nearby highway on Saturday and checked motorists to see if they were Jewish. In two cases, drivers were attacked, and had to flee. One had his car torched.

In Jerusalem, where the two communities also live and work in close proximity, especially given Israel’s policy of creating illegal settlements in the eastern, Palestinian half of the city, the roles were reversed. Mobs of Israeli Jews rampaged through the city seeking out Palestinian workers and taxi drivers to beat in revenge for the killing of the three teens.

Israeli security forces in Jerusalem have sought to contain the clashes with Palestinian youths mostly to the eastern half of the city. In Shuafat, where Abu Khdeir was kidnapped, as in Nazareth, youths have chiefly turned on symbols of Israeli rule and repression. They have thrown stones at police and damaged the light rail system that passes through their neighbourhood.

At the weekend, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish foreign minister, called for an “iron fist” to be used against the Palestinian protesters, whom he referred to as “terrorists”.

‘Not our country’

It was an approach that found favour with Nahum Pittarov, a 35-year-old warehouse worker from Upper Nazareth who, like Lieberman, traces his roots to Moldova.

“We are heading towards a third intifada,” he said decisively in the Kanyon mall, on the other side of the highway from Nazareth. Pittarov denied official statistics to argue that claims by Palestinian citizens of discrimination were unfounded. “They have better houses than us, and they get more money from the government.”

He added: “It’s like this is not our country. It is scary — I wouldn’t go into Nazareth at the moment. When the Arabs start their riots, who pays the price? Us. The police shut the streets so we can’t leave our homes, telling us it’s for our own safety.”

Although a commonly expressed fear, a third intifada may be further off than it appears to many Israeli Jews.

Samer Shtayyeh, a masters student from Jerusalem studying the role of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, thought a new intifada was unlikely.

“We are seeing the Palestinians of ’48 [the areas conquered by Israel in 1948] and those in Jerusalem taking the lead because the PA has no involvement there. In the West Bank, on the other hand, the PA are repressing all signs of protest. They don’t want another intifada any more than Israel does.”

Shtayyeh said the lack so far of a coherent political leadership meant that the protests would most likely remain weak and disorganised. “You need someone directing the anger to make it effective. If it stays this way, it will eventually peter out.”

Police brutality

Most observers agreed that the police’s behaviour in the coming days would be decisive. A video of paramilitary police in Jerusalem beating a cuffed and helpless 15-year-old Palestinian American, a relative of murdered Muhammad Abu Khdeir, severely exacerbated tensions at the weekend.

But Said, in the Nazareth bakery, noted that generally the police had not been following Lieberman’s iron-first policy. They had so far handled the clashes more cautiously than in October 2000, when 13 Palestinian citizens were killed and hundreds wounded in a few days.

“This time they have mostly kept their distance to the edges of the city, letting the anger subside rather than storming in all guns blazing. They seem to be worried about inflaming the situation here further.”

In the Kanyon, a woman wearing Islamic headdress was getting her phone fixed at a stall run by a recently demobilised soldier. Ilan, who would not give his last name, served her without any visible animosity.

Only after she left did he quietly confide: “They are the ones who start the violence. The world doesn’t understand that. It’s only when we are under attack that we retaliate.”

There was the odd dissenting view. Marlene Mamistvalov, 28, a shop assistant in a kitchen equipment store, admitted she held opinions shared by few of her friends. “When people are afraid, on both sides, they do stupid things. All of us need to listen to each other more.”