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AKKO: INVESTING IN ARAB-JEWISH CO-EXISTENCE

[Editor’s note: This article was published in October 2008, about a year ago. As of July 2010, there is a new hotel near the Old City of Akko that is being built]

By Rhonda J Spivak, B.A., L.L.B.

Akko, the mixed Arab-Jewish city in northern Israel on the Mediterranean become the scene of violent riots that erupted suddenly  on the eve of Yom Kippur. The riots were sparked by an Arab driver  who, according to Jewish residents,  drove through  a Jewish neighborhood blasting loud music  and almost hit several Jewish pedestrians on their way back from synagogue.

Jewish residents viewed driving in the area as a deliberate provocation, as streets are empty of vehicles on Yom Kippur. A group of Jewish residents proceeded to assault the driver, sparking large-scale riots that lasted for 5 consecutive days, leaving much damaged property, and several Arab homes torched.

The Arab driver denies  that he was blasting music or speeding while he drove through the Jewish neighborhood.

Israeli police, who arrested  at least 27 Jewish rioters and 37 Arab rioters, used water cannons to disperse the riots. Thousands of policemen deployed at friction points throughout the city.

Akko’s Mayor cancelled the Old City’s theater festival that was supposed to have taken place over Succoth, which was  a source of income for Arab merchants.

Meanwhile, Jewish hackers broke into a Hebrew-language Web site, and urged Jews to boycott Arab-owned businesses, and “deal with Arabs forcefully.”

Hezbollah  hailed the actions of Israeli Arabs in  the clashes as "heroic" resistance against "barbaric" assaults by Jewish residents.
 

Most observers believe that the  Acre riots should be a warning signal for  the Israeli government and social organizations to invest more economic resources in mixed cities, and provide economic opportunity for both  poor Arabs and Jews.  If not, similar riots could spread to other economically deprived mixed towns such as  Jaffa, Lod and Ramle.

Although the Akko riots caught everyone off guard, clearly it doesn’t take that much to ignite them.

Member of  Knesset Ephraim Sneh says on his website that the riots  emphasize the need to ‘ Equalize the services given to the Arab population … [and] expand the number of [Arab]university graduates who are offered jobs in the public sector. ‘
 
In the wake of the violence, the Jewish Agency will be teaming up with the Abraham Fund Initiatives to develop curricula dealing with coexistence for Akko schools that will be ready for programming soon.

One thing is for sure:  The State of Israel is never going to hand over the city of Akko to the Palestinians as part of any future Palestinian state , and therefore the most that can be done is improve the quality of life of the city’s citizens.

Increased investment in tourist infrastructure, which unfortunately is  somewhat neglected, could potentially help Arab-Jewish co-existence in Akko.

Akko, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is blessed with magical attractions, such as  the walls of its ancient city , its castles and fortifications, mosques, and churches, its underground Crusader city,  colourful Arab bazaars, Turkish baths, fisherman’s wharf and marina, as well as the beautiful Or Tora synagogue.  Many nations and religious movements (the Cannonites, Jews, Greeks, Romans, the Byzantine Empire, Crusaders, Mamlujkes, Napolean,  the Turks and British) have left their unusual mark on Akko and on each return trip more of  the city’s treasures are laid out.

Recently, for example, my children had the delight of  exploring  an underground Templar’s Tunnel that was used as a secret escape route from the centre of the old city to the port. The Tunnel, which was only uncovered within the last decade, was actually used by residents of Akko, as a safe place to avoid the katusha rockets  that fell on the city in the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Yet, despite the fact that Akko has world class tourist attractions, the city is lacking in high end hotels, and related services. The only English bookstore, Steimatsky’s that used to exist has been closed, such that it is impossible to obtain a Jerusalem Post anywhere. The area near the sea walls is known to be a place where drug deals and other criminal type activities take place. Few tour groups stay in Akko overnight.

An Arab taxi driver I met actually tried to pretend that he was Jewish, in order to get more business.  ‘I was born in Haaretz (Israel)’ he said.  When I asked where, he said “In Carmiel,” rather than tell me the name of his nearby Arab village. When I told him I knew he was an Arab not a Jew, he answered “Yes, but if I had told you wouldn’t have wanted to take a ride from me.  I have five children to feed.’

Investing in the tourist infrastructure in Akko will not by any means be the complete answer to Akko’s problems, but it would be a step in the right direction.

 

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.