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ISRAEL: 'A barrel of explosives' in Acre

October 10, 2008 |  3:35 pm


Israeli police remained on high alert Friday evening in the northern coastal city of Acre after a third day of clashes between Arab and Jewish residents.

Tensions between the two sides boiled over Wednesday night during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, when most of Israel shuts down to all vehicle traffic and even secular Jews avoid driving to keep from offending the more devout.

The clashes began when an Arab resident of the mixed city was accosted by Jewish youths after driving into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. According to local media reports, neighborhood residents claim Tawfik Jamal provoked them by blaring his car stereo -- a charge Jamal denies.

"I knew it was Yom Kippur; we have been living amongst Jews for many years, so I thought I'd drive slowly without turning on the radio,” said Jamal, who added that he was coming to pick up his daughter from a friend's home.

Jamal reportedly had to be rescued from rock-throwing youths by Israel police. As news of the attack spread, a group of Arab teens arrived on the scene -- setting off a mushrooming cycle of retaliation that left local police scrambling to maintain order.

Remarkably there were no serious injuries from three nights of on-and-off clashes. Dozens of storefronts and car windows were smashed and the police made about 30 arrests. But the real damage may be psychological -- reopening old resentments between Israeli Jews and the country's Arab minority.

Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni rushed to the scene Friday and appealed to both sides to “move forward to improve the relations between Jews and Arabs."

Right-wing politicians also moved in quickly; parliamentarian Zvi Hendel of the fringe Tkuma party charged that the conflict was a pre-planned Arab ambush and said, “We must not let this pass without a response.”

Leftist parliamentarian Yossi Beillin said the clashes were proof that little has been done to improve  Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel since the 2000 riots in which police killed 12 Arab citizens of Israel. "We are sitting on a barrel of explosives, and every time we are surprised anew when the tension explodes, rather than making a genuine effort to stop it," Beilin said.

One immediate victim of the Acre clashes: The city's annual theater festival, scheduled for next week, has been postponed indefinitely.

Local police commanders pledged that they could maintain order after flooding the city with 700 extra officers. But Acre Mayor Shimon Lankry said it would be "irresponsible" to hold the festival given "the sense of insult, anger and pain" felt by residents on both sides.

-- Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem

Photo: An Israeli border police officer passes the shattered window of a shop while on patrol in the mixed city of Acre, northern Israel. Credit: MUHAMMED MUHEISEN/AP