Mohammed Halihal, who lives in Akbara, Safed's Muslim neighborhood, woke up to a new reality last Sunday. Wherever he looked were red and white posters warning the girls of Safed and their families against him. "Warning!" screamed the poster, "Ten Jewish girls are being held captive by the Arabs of Akbara." Further on, the poster explains what happened to them: "Beatings and violence, hard drugs, prostitution and crime."
"I have gotten used to the cries of `Arabs go home,' I am familiar with the `Death to the Arabs' graffiti, but this time I feel personally offended," he says. Someone in Safed worked hard Saturday night. Dozens of posters of various sizes were scattered throughout the city. They were stuck to fences of homes, hung on the walls of the shopping mall, attached to bulletin boards and electrical fuse boxes. Some were even glued to signs at the two entrances to the city. City workers hurried to remove them, but a week later, posters forgotten in less central locations or parts of posters partially torn town that left a word here and a sentence fragment there could still be seen: "Beatings," "drugs," "Akbara," "Jewish girls held captive by Arabs."
Superintendent Amir Aharon, the commander of the Safed, Hatzor and Rosh Pina police station, when asked if are there any women being held captive in Akbara, says, "Nonsense, there is no such thing."
There are about 500 people living in Akbara, a neighborhood on Safed's southwestern outskirts. Over 60 percent of them belong to the Halihal clan. Many of them have university degrees, are lawyers and doctors; almost all work in Safed. They did not participate in the demonstrations by Galilee Arabs in October 2000, many voted in the last elections for the Likud, and a few volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Their neighborhood, which has not yet been hooked up to the sewage system despite promises, and which has only one bus a day, is called Safed the Village.
The relations between the residents of the village and the city are good. Someone is trying to undermine those relations, says Mohammed Halihal, 28, a lawyer with many Jewish clients. On the morning the posters were hung, his mobile phone rang incessantly. "Did you see it? Did you hear? What should we do?" he was repeatedly asked. Four days went by, and while still trying to digest the developments, Safed was inundated with a new poster, this time by the ultra-Orthodox organization Yad La'ahim. It held a moving appeal to "Cherished girls of Israel," warning them against "the Arabs that hang around among you and try to seduce you ... to take you to the Arab villages and abuse you and release all their hatred on you."
Trying to light a fire
Halihal decided he had had enough and he filed a complaint for incitement with the local police. He has no doubt that the two posters are connected. Someone is trying to disturb the relations between Arabs and Jews and light a fire, he says. "So first it was an anonymous poster, and then this organization took the trouble to put up this additional poster, and each poster and the time that goes by has meaning. The incitement is starting to filter down."
Two of those that feel the effect of the posters are Yael Ben Kanar, 20, and Sa'il Halihal, 25. They have been seeing each other for five years, sleeping at each other's house, walking with their arms around one another in the street. Safed is a small town, only about 30,000 people, and many of the residents know them. Until now, they hardly encountered hostile responses. Since the first poster was put up, says Sa'il Halihal, their relationship has triggered responses galore. Suddenly, he has been greeted by cries of "Arab out! You are stealing our girls. What business do you have to be here?"
He is a handyman and in the context of his work, he enters many homes. The more moderate Jews, he says, try to persuade him: That relationship won't work, they say, forget about it. "The less moderate, especially from the ultra-Orthodox sector, look at me with hostility and say there will be a big mess if I don't leave Yael." His girlfriend also says that since the posters were hung, she has become the target of attacks. "People come up to me in the street and tell me while he is standing there: `Watch out, he will convert you to Islam, he'll beat you.' It is very offensive. I have friends in Akbara; they are not turning me into a prostitute or a criminal. This business with the posters is a new thing, but I don't know what will happen if it continues. I am afraid that people will start throwing stones at us, that they'll beat Sa'il. It's scary."
The phenomenon of mixed couples is not new in Safed. Two residents of Akbara are married to Jewish women. Arab and Jewish men and women meet and grow close in Safed College, an extension of Bar-Ilan University, of which 60 percent of the students are Arabs. However, it appears that what kindled the spark this time was a love story between a girl from an ultra-Orthodox home and a young man from Akbara. According to Reuven Sadeh, the deputy mayor for the Likud, "She is 17 years old and he is 18. I understand that a Jewish girl with Arabs is a desecration and against religion, but the phenomenon exists. We must not take matters to the extreme and apply it to all of Akbara. We are lucky to have them and the relations with them are excellent. It would appear that her parents are working with the city's rabbis, whose views toward the Arabs are known. Regretfully, someone here took the law into his own hands and decided to stir things up. To light a fire is easy."
One of those whose "views toward the Arabs are known" is the chief rabbi of the city, Shmuel Eliyahu, the son of the former Sepharadi chief rabbi of Israel, Mordechai Eliyahu. In the past, he waged an all-out war against the Arab students of Safed and called to stop their studies there. He issued a halakhic ruling forbidding the sale of Jewish property in the land of Israel to non-Jews. On Friday, he discussed the posters in an interview with the local newspaper of the north, Kol Ha'emek Vehagalil, where he is quoted saying, "It is another form of war that the Palestinians are waging against us and we must know how to defend ourselves against it. It involves Jewish girls aged 15-25 that are seduced by young Arab men ... and we must save them." Further on he said, "I know that in most cases, it involves Arab men that are married to Arab women, and the Jewish girls are taken in as maids and they are unable to run away." Rabbi Eliyahu refused to speak with Haaretz, but confirmed that he did indeed make these remarks to the local paper.
Until two years ago, Safed had two chief rabbis: Eliyahu, the Sepharadi, and an Ashkenazi rabbi, Levi Bistritzki. Bistritzki, say people in town, was a much beloved and moderate figure. He maintained unity, spoke with everyone and cared for the needs of Jews and Arabs alike. His death left the entire scene to Rabbi Eliyahu, a graduate of the Merkaz Harav Kook yeshiva in Jerusalem, which is associated with the rabbis of Yesha (Judea, Samaria and Gaza).
In the past, Eliyahu supported marking out a specific site for a synagogue on the Temple Mount. Since his election as chief rabbi of Safed in 1989, a lifetime appointment, he often speaks out against Arabs. "Instead of preaching brotherhood, he foments unrest," says Sa'id Halihal, 62, the son of the former mukhtar of Akbara, an educator of many years. "Each time he has the opportunity, he lashes out, for example in the fabricated story of the abduction."
A few weeks ago, two American ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students found themselves stuck in the middle of the night in the center of Safed with two flat tires. Some men from Akbara offered to take them to the neighborhood tire shop to fix the flats; they took them in their car, a commercial vehicle with a place to sit in the back. Akbara is about two kilometers away from the center of town, and to get there, a main road and a grove have to be crossed. Not all the roads in the village are paved. At a certain point, the yeshiva students became frightened and they opened the back of the pickup and jumped off the vehicle. They told the ultra-Orthodox weekly Besha'ah Tovah, an extreme right-wing publication, that a group of drunk Arabs convinced them to go with them, that they drove like mad and that they fought with them to keep them from escaping.
Supervisor Aharon says no complaint was filed with the police, but that did not prevent Rabbi Eliyahu from telling the weekly: "Now it has been proved that the danger is greater than we thought." He attributed the alleged abduction to "that same group in Akbara that is trying to seduce Jewish girls," summing up by saying: "The problem is serious and it is on a national scale." The story spread through Safed like wildfire. "That is a shame," says Sa'id Halihal. "The rabbi could play a major role in educating people to live together in peace, but he is exploiting his public position to polarize the conflict. The greatest fear is that comments like his and the plague of posters will enrage hot-tempered and reckless people, on both sides. It could cause serious violence."
A living example is Evyatar Eliezer, a 20-year-old resident of Safed. "Jewish women captive in Akbara? Of course there are," he says. "I know three of them. They bribe them, seduce them with a ride in a car, threaten them, beat them and then sleep with them. Sometimes they get them pregnant and their whole lives are ruined. Now, there is talk now of a raid, to raid their village in the middle of the night and break their bones. To teach them a lesson."