Acre Fallout Ramps Up Election Campaigns in Mixed Cities

Developments seem to indicate Acre riots may raise tensions between Jews and Arabs in Galilee's mixed cities.

As Acre licks its wounds from the Yom Kippur riots and maintains a vigilant stance to prevent any violence from disrupting the upcoming municipal elections, an Arab party will be campaigning for the first time in Carmiel, and three Upper Nazareth Arab parties have formed a single bloc that is expected to be a major force.

These developments seem to indicate that the recent violence in Acre may perhaps heighten tensions between Jews and Arabs in election campaigns in the Galilee's ethnically mixed cities, and may also lead to new political realignments in both the Jewish and Arab communities. Local residents and activists are now saying they will take a more aggressive stance in debates concerning Jewish-Arab relations in cities such as Upper Nazareth and Carmiel, which once were considered "exclusively Jewish" but have a growing Arab population.

In Acre, 30 percent of the residents are Arab. Until recently, the city's municipal elections were exceedingly boring. However, in the wake of the riots in Acre, the situation has dramatically changed, say those campaigning in its municipal elections. Arab-Jewish coexistence now will be at the top of the agenda.

As might be expected, each side sees the riots from its own perspective. Municipal councillor Nehemiah Shirin Mikhaeli is targeting immigrant voters, especially Caucasian immigrants, who live primarily in Acre's eastern neighborhoods. He chooses his words carefully and avoids any statements that could be interpreted as criticism of the city's Arab residents.

Mikhaeli says the recent disturbances have created considerable frustration among his supporters, and that it is crucial to get out the vote: "Here in Acre we speak about peace but there can be no real peace because the mutual trust between the two parties [Jews and Arabs] has evaporated."

The election campaign in Acre's Arab community promises to be much livelier than it has ever been in the past, with four Arab parties fighting for seats on the municipal council. One of these parties is headed by Hadash municipal councillor Ahmed Awada, who is also running for mayor. During the riots, he adopted a tough oppositionist stance, refusing to take part in any conciliatory gestures because "they did not serve the Arab community's interests."

He considers himself the representative of all Acre's Arab residents as he fights the attempts to "Judaize" the city, which he believes were blatant in the recent disturbances.

Acre's deputy mayor, Osama Gazawi, who supported Mayor Shimon Lankri during the latter's current (and first) term of office, is highly reluctant to back Lankri in the current campaign: "We have not yet decided on our party's position; however, the riots have certainly had a powerful impact. Today, it is hard to go into people's homes and ask them to support Lankri."

Fighting racism in Carmiel

If Acre's elections turn into a settling of accounts between Jews and Arabs, the disturbances might end up having a dramatic influence on other cities in the Galilee, increasing ethnic tensions there.

For the first time in Carmiel's history, an Arab party will be running in the municipal elections. It has received the blessing of Hadash, and its entry into the municipal arena is seen as a protest move against Jewish rightists. It is estimated that only about half of Carmiel's Arab residents - who constitute no more than 5 percent of its population - are registered with the Ministry of the Interior as inhabitants of this city; thus, the party's chance of getting city hall seats are slim.

The head of this Arab party, Rabiyeh Jahashan, believes that the disturbances in Acre made Carmiel's Arab citizens understand how serious their situation could become. Before the riots, they found life difficult. But then, "suddenly we woke up one morning and found that the city was seething with anti-Arab incitement. Unfortunately and much to our displeasure, we have become a problem and that is why we have decided to counter the voices of racism. There are 1.2 million Arabs living in Israel today and the only logical solution is to ensure peaceful coexistence between the country's Jewish and Arab citizens, so that everyone can feel secure and lead their lives in dignity."

On the other hand, some argue that Carmiel was intended as a Jewish city and that it must remain so. Yisrael Beiteinu's mayoral candidate Rina Greenberg believes the disturbances in Acre could flare up again.

"Carmiel," she says, "is different from Acre, which has always been defined as an ethnically mixed city. There is no need for Carmiel to become a mixed city. We can have harmonious relations with the Arabs, but the Arab and Jewish communities must live separately. Forty-one percent of Carmiel's residents want the city to maintain its Jewish character and that is why scenarios such as the one we recently witnessed in Acre will not take place here."

Upper Nazareth's newest force

Upper Nazareth is a mixed city; 14 to 20 percent of its residents are Arab. Twelve percent of all its eligible voters are Arab and, for the first time in this town's history, three Arab parties have joined forces to form a single bloc.

In the previous elections, because of the Arab camp's factionalism, no Arab candidate was elected to the municipal council. However, after the ballots are counted in this election, the united Arab party is expected to be a major factor in any future municipal coalition. The leading mayoral candidates and those who are vying for seats on the Arab party ticket realize that, for the sake of any future coalition, they should all keep their cards close to their chest.

The head of the Arab party, the Joint Party for Coexistence, Dr. Shukri Awada, has been a resident of Upper Nazareth for the past 19 years.

"We have no problem with any of the Jewish political parties," he says. "They all recognize our rights. But we want to actively participate in the political scene here and we want to be part of the local urban fabric."

Shimon Gapso, leader of the Uri Ir party, says the flames of the Acre riots could never reach Upper Nazareth: "If Dr. Awada and I start talking about Judea and Samaria - or the West Bank - we are sure to get into an argument. However, the municipal scene is a different kettle of fish. What interests our Arab residents, as well as our Jewish ones, is the quality of life, the state of our urban roads, and the level of our municipal services."

Acre riots unlikely to affect Haifa elections

Haifa has 18,000 registered Arab voters, 10 percent of all eligible voters. Two Arab parties are participating in the current election campaign: Hadash (representing a joint Arab-Jewish list), which has two municipal councillors, and Balad, an Arab party that has one councillor and one mayoral candidate, Walid Hamis. This past weekend, the first after the Yom Kippur disturbances, no fallout from the Acre riots could be felt in the market of Haifa's Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, where the city's Jewish residents traditionally do their weekend shopping. Similarly, the riots do not seem likely to spark any major change in the voting patterns of Arab residents.

Most of Haifa's Arab residents live in the "lower city," and some of them live in mixed neighborhoods in the Carmel and Hadar districts. Unlike other mixed cities, where relations between Jews and Arabs are tense, there is no sign of such tension here in Haifa. Some argue that this is because the city's Arab residents hold central positions in City Hall and in Haifa's commercial and industrial sectors. For instance, one of the most powerful people in City Hall is the treasurer, who is Arab.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav is proud that a few months ago, he refused to receive MK Uri Ariel of the rightist National Union-National Religious Party. Ariel was touring the Hadar neighborhood in the wake of what he termed the "Arab takeover of Jewish neighborhoods."

Yahav's predecessors maintained the status quo in Haifa and prevented local tensions that could be detrimental to the "city's present and future," says Hadash leader Fitkhi Fourani, an author and educator as well as a candidate for a seat on Haifa's municipal council. Fourani believes that the Acre disturbances will have little impact on the elections in his city.