It's About Self-defense for Israeli Arabs, Not Al-Aqsa

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"We don't care about politics. We just want to defend ourselves," said the youth from Acre last night
"We don't care about politics. We want to defend ourselves," said the youth from Acre last nightCredit: Rami Shllush
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni

The streets in Acre on Thursday night were deserted. After two nights of clashes and riots that spun out of control, the city seems to stricken by shock, shocked at itself and what it has become: arson, lynching, desecrating heritage sites. The residents – Jews and Arabs as one – stayed at home and closed their window blinds. That was the situation in all parts of the city, even in Wolfson neighborhood, which has seen the most violence so far.

About 400 SWAT police officers were deployed in Acre, a basic lesson learned from the previous days. About a quarter of them were in Wolfson, awaiting yet another outburst by the Arab youth living in its crumbling projects. But it never came. “It’s Eid al-Fitr, we just want to celebrate the holiday and that’s it,” said Abbas Zakour, a former Knesset member and an old-time resident of the neighborhood, who stepped out of the estates in formal clothes and walked up to the police force and declared: “Tonight, there won’t be a mess here.”

His promise was fulfilled. Sort of. Besides two firebombs and some stones, fireworks were shot up into the sky at an impressive rate, supposedly as part of Eid festivities. In effect, this was to tease the police, who stood at the entrance to the Acre train station. The scene was set up in such a way that officers couldn’t really see what was going on inside the neighborhood, and resident couldn’t really see what was going on outside.

“I didn’t understand when they wanted us to run over to them,” said one of the officers, talking to a colleague, “when they throw stones? When they shoot fireworks?” After a brief altercation, another officer got angry: “What are you doing? That’s not right. What is our strategy? You’re going to blow the whole thing up.” It was clear that none of the police officers and none of the residents actually knew what was going on on the other side.

In general, it seems ignorance of “the other side” is everywhere during the current unrest across Israel, and particularly in mixed Arab-Jewish cities. One of the major questions asked is what led Arab youth to go on an unprecedented uprising in these cities. Israeli TV studios, radio broadcasts and opinion articles offered some explanations: the harm done to Al-Aqsa Mosque, support for Hamas, solidarity with Gazans and also a burning hatred of Jews that finally came out to light. But tonight, thanks to the relative calm that prevailed in Acre, it turned out that “other side” wanted to speak all along and provide its own explanation.

A Jewish business looted in Acre, yesterdayCredit: Rami Shllush

“Al-Aqsa? No one’s going out because of Al-Aqsa. We went out because they got to our home,” said an Arab resident of the city, flanked by about 50 other youth, most of them masked and some carrying some sort of weapon – a club, a piece of wood, stones. They all stood on the pitch of grass at the center of Wolfson neighborhood, a spot practically invisible to police. This is where youth have been gathering every night since the unrest, which led to clashes with police and with Jewish rioters, began. “We saw on social media that they [Jews] show up to our houses, they come to burn our cars. As soon as we saw that, we came together,” the same resident, who asked not to be named, said.

“I’ll tell you why they’re afraid of us – because we started rising up,” another young man blurts out. “We don’t care about politics, it doesn’t interest us. We want to defend ourselves. Police let Jews who came here attack us.”

Asked about the previous nights of violence, which reached a grim peak with the killing of a Jewish man, Elad Barzilai, not far from where they were standing now, they disregard it and go on about the troubles they were facing at the same time. “We have everything on tape,” said one of them. “A Jew threw a stone at one of our women, but the officer shot us. Instead of protecting us, police helped them. They gave them an opportunity to go in an attack us. My father is not a terrorist, he’s an old man. He stood on his balcony and his window was shattered. Why? What did he do?”

Elad Barzilai's vehicle ablaze on WednesdayCredit: Rami Shllush

“Each and every one of us, what do we want?” said the first resident. “We want to live in peace, make a decent living and live like a human being. We don’t want to fear a Jewish person break into our home or torch our car. If Jews leave us alone, we can live in peace on our own. Just don’t come near us.”

Unlike other cities where it was reported rioters came from other parts of the country, Acre’s Arab residents fully admit they were behind the uprisings; it was the locals, who were responsible.

“The Jews came here from all sorts of places – Jerusalem, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva,” said a 60-year-old resident. “The Arabs who did the rioting here are from Acre. There’s a few religious people who are problematic, but with all the rest we can handle. We, the older ones, can control our youth and our city. Just look at this night. But we need police to help us.”

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