In the Heart of the Galilee, a Tale of Love, Racism and Burnt Cars

Until last week's 'price tag' incident, villagers in Akbara had not felt the effect of rising racism in neighboring Safed. But vandalism and graffiti saying 'don't touch our girls' was a stinging reminder Israel in 2013.

Ala’s VW Polo, Jalal’s Peugeot, Jihad’s Renault-Kangoo and the neighbor’s Mazda - all went up in smoke. A Molotov cocktail on every parked car, plus a slogan scrawled in Hebrew on the stone wall outside one of the houses: “Don’t touch our girls! Price tag.”

That is what was left behind by three or four young Israeli men who were caught in blurry footage from a security camera, between Monday night and Tuesday morning last week.

Ala was the first to be awoken by the noise. By the time he reached his bedroom window he saw the burning cars - his, his two brothers’ and the neighbor’s. And by the time he got down to the street he also saw the racist slogan on the wall.

The words were still scrawled there this week, and two of the four skeletons of the burned-out cars were still parked out in front. The people who own the cars say that until those who set this evil fire are caught, they will not erase the graffiti. Not only does it constitute legal evidence of the attack, but it is also a ringing reminder of the times, of Israel 2013. “Don’t touch our girls!”

Israel 2013, however, has all but ignored the incident: It is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last, and nobody has yet to be arrested for it either. Israel has also barely ever heard of Akbara, a tiny village on the slopes of MountCanaan, whose inhabitants were forcibly annexed to, and made official residents of, the city of Safed, some 2.5 kilometers away. Up until three years ago the village lacked a sewage system; to this day it has no school, and no possibility for residents to build or to expand it to accommodate the younger generation.

A short distance away, on the ruins of the homes that belonged to the ancestors of Akbara’s villagers, who were expelled in the 1948 War of Independence, a trendy Jewish ecological hilltop community arose in 1988 - Kadita, the name of the original Arab village. Even today, the ancient stone houses of the old, original village still stand, abandoned, in the green valley at the foot of present-day Akbara, a monument to what once was and is no more, after their occupants scattered every which way 65 years ago. Only two families still live in the ruins, illegally.

“Tithadshu [literally, “enjoy the new” - a statement of congratulations given on the occasion of a new purchase]. The Safed municipality is upgrading the traffic system in the neighborhood,” announces the sign at the entrance to Akbara, in this municipal election year. But not much is new here: There’s a haphazard collection of two- and three-story buildings, a handful of sidewalks, no community center and no playground. At least there is sewerage, finally.

On the dome of the new ‏(and only‏) mosque in town, which residents fought for years to build, locals are now installing security cameras - lest the “price tag” terrorists ‏(i.e., those instigating various acts of retribution‏), try to get to it, too. One of the former mayors of Safed once told residents: “I will not let ‘Allahu akbar’ be heard in Safed.”

‘Like prehistoric man’

“We are a small village of 500 people. Akbara. In 1982 we were annexed to Safed. My name is Ala Hleihel, I am 35 and my village is very rundown,” Ala wrote in an e-mail to me a few days ago. “Until 2010 we lived like prehistoric man. Someone goes into the bathroom, does his business and a few seconds later he sees it on the road. It’s shameful. We are light years behind the clean neighborhoods of Safed ... We had good relations with the residents of Safed, but everything started to change for the worse after the harshly racist statements by the city’s chief rabbi” - a reference to comments made last year by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu urging residents not to rent apartments to non-Jews.

“That wave began to slip over to us as well. A young man from the village who was dating a girl from Safed got the crap beat out of him, and [now] the cars belonging to my brothers and me were torched. They put the Safed rabbi’s idea into practice.”

At the Hleihel family home, with the burned-out cars still outside, we were met a few days later by Ala, an unemployed teacher; his brother Jalal, an attorney; their father Mohammed, a tax consultant; and several other villagers.

Ala taught English in the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev in recent years; he had studied languages and Latin literature in Italy, where he lived for about a decade. His brother Jalal studied law in Salonika, Greece. Mohammed, 64, was born in Sidon, Lebanon; when he was a baby, his family, which had fled Kadita, was allowed to return to Israel thanks to his stepfather’s connections with the military governor of the Galilee, Immanuel Friedman. ‏(The family of Mohammed’s biological father stayed behind in Lebanon, however, and contact with it was severed forever.‏)

During Mohammed’s initial years back in the country, his family shuttled between one Galilee village and another, until they moved to the ruins of Akbara. For decades they lived in inhumane conditions in the ancient houses there, with the sewage of Safed flowing into the village’s spring - which was a means to pressure them, they say, to cease their struggle to return to Kadita. In 1983 they were given permission to build new homes in Akbara. In 1985 they moved in.

Most of the present villagers are Kadita refugees, aside from five Bedouin families that joined them. Shortly thereafter the only school in the village closed, and its 100 students were transferred to the school in the Bedouin village Tuba-Zangaria, 15 kilometers away.

According to Mohammed Hleihel, that action shattered the village: “We don’t have anything against Tuba-Zangaria, but our students were not criminals. Until the 1980s, Akbara led the Arab community in the rate of locals who graduate with college degrees, but in Tuba our students witnessed violence, shootings and crime. They began to drop out of school and sink into unemployment and crime. I ask a simple question: Why produce generations of arms dealers, drug pushers, and thieves? Why exchange a school for a prison?”

The Akbara parents’ campaign to reopen the school got all the way to the High Court of Justice, but did not bear fruit. Today as well there is only a preschool in the village; the reason given by the authorities is that Akbara is not big enough now to sustain a school of its own. Villagers complain that crime has taken root - along with drug dealing and shootings, and more weapons - in the face of a powerless police force.

“If this happened in the territories [the perpetrators] would all be in jail by now ... But we have no security here in the village,” Mohammed says, adding that locals also do not receive proper building permits, with the exception of Bedouin who served in the Israel Defense Forces.

“We’ve got drug dealers and Russian skirt-chasers - our young men can’t get married since they don’t have anywhere to live. There’s nowhere to build homes. So they go out with Russian girls,” he adds.

A majority of Akbara’s villagers work in Safed, and say that up until lately they had good relations with the city’s residents; no violence or hatred was directed at them. Says Mohammed, “We do not feel like strangers in Safed and until recently the displays of racism in the city did not affect us. We saw the graffiti slogans ‘Death to the Arabs,’ but it had no effect on us.”

He relates that a few years ago a boy from Safed got lost in the fields of Akbara, was discovered by a shepherd and handed over safe and sound to his family; the shepherd was awarded a certificate of appreciation.

Mohammed protests: “What are we [now], an enemy?”

And now the racism has reached Akbara. “There are Jewish girls who really do fall in love with an Arab guy, and others come from a very hard socioeconomic background and then they find in the Arab a solution to those problems,” Ala wrote in his e-mail.

About two weeks ago a teenage boy from Akbara, Mohammed ‏(Foxy‏) Hleihel, 17 and a half, was beaten severely in the Rasco neighborhood of Safed, because he dared to go out on the town with a local  Jewish girl. Hleihel was hospitalized. A few days later the cars were set on fire, apparently on the same pretext.

“What happened here is very serious,” says the elder Mohammed Hleihel. “It can ignite a fire. Just as there are punks in Safed, there are punks here, too. If the criminals aren’t caught, 40 cars in Safed will be burned. It can lead to a conflagration, and the only thing that can prevent it is if these criminals are caught and brought to justice. We do not hate the state and nor are we collaborators. We believe this is our country. But they are strangling us.”

Ala, who sent the e-mail that brought me to them, adds in his soft voice: “Akbara is the mirror of Israeli democracy. How would you feel if the state treated you this way? I was born here, I love the place. But if the state wants us to love it, it also has to love us.”

He goes out to the street, and looks at his burned-out VW Polo: He did not have comprehensive insurance and the state does not recognize the arson as a result of an enemy or terrorist action, which would mean monetary compensation.

Alex Levac