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Galilee's Arabs, Jews Strive to Rebuild Trust

Israel: Recent riots that left their relations in tatters prompt some public soul-searching by both sides and led to efforts to reach common ground.

November 18, 2000|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAKHNIN, Israel — Samir Hamzi looks at the empty tables in his spotless restaurant, a place packed just seven weeks ago with Jews and Arabs eating kosher-style Arab food beneath framed copies of Koranic verses, and sees a dream disappearing.

Hamzi opened Samir's in April as a gathering place for the two peoples who so uneasily share this land. He hung cheery apricot drapes at the windows, spread the tables with crisp blue cloths and supplied comfy wicker chairs. Almost as soon as the doors opened, the restaurant was a hit. Jews and Arabs traveled for miles to enjoy its grilled meats and fish, often lingering over meals until after midnight.

But the illusion of coexistence created at Samir's was shattered Oct. 1, when violent demonstrations that began in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip spilled into the Arab villages and towns in Israel.

Before the riots in Israel ended a few days later--though they continue in Palestinian-occupied territories--13 Arab Israelis had been shot to death by police. Relations between the nation's Jewish and Arab citizens were in tatters. Samir's and hundreds of other Arab-owned restaurants and businesses were deserted by Jewish clientele.

Today, Arabs and Jews are taking tentative steps to try to repair the damage done during the upheaval. Both sides have engaged in public soul-searching about why Arab communities erupted in anger and why police used live ammunition in response.

No Choice but to Learn to Coexist

The communities here in the Galilee, where Arabs are a majority, are not like those in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Economic or physical separation between Arabs and Jews is impossible. Citizens of Israel, they have no choice but to learn to live together.

For the first few weeks after the riots within Israel, Arabs could not even get electricity or other utilities repaired in their communities; companies were too frightened to send workers to what suddenly was considered enemy territory. It took the intervention of Prime Minster Ehud Barak's office and guarantees of safe passage from local Arab leaders to restore services.

Recently, Barak and members of his Cabinet have called on Jews to again patronize Arab businesses. But Jews have not yet forgiven their neighbors, Arab Israelis say. The undeclared boycott is causing serious economic harm and raising questions about whether Arabs will ever be treated as full citizens.

"Before the troubles, 80% of my clients were Jews," said Abed Duki, a produce salesman here in Sakhnin, about 75 miles north of Jerusalem. "We sold to Jews who lived in the settlements and to Jewish restaurants. They've almost completely stopped coming now."

Duki said he has fired three of his seven workers and will be forced to let another go if business doesn't pick up soon.

"This can't go on," he said. "We need to live together. We need them, they need us."

A few minutes' drive north of Sakhnin, Misgav Regional Council head Erez Kreissler, administrator for about 10,500 Jews living in small, scattered communities of the western Galilee, snorted in disgust when asked about the government's call for Jews to rebuild relations with their Arab neighbors.

"They sit in Jerusalem, and they try to tell us what to do," he said. "I don't agree with boycotting, but I understand it. People here are hurt. Something deep and vicious happened here. I am not afraid to go to Sakhnin now, but it is hard for me to drive through the village because I feel angry and disappointed. I feel like I saw the real faces of some of my neighbors during these riots."

Giving Thought to Life for Arabs in Israel

Sharon Bareket saw the same rage but said it made him think about what life is truly like for Arabs living in a Jewish state.

"At the beginning of the craziness, I found myself--like everyone else--sitting at home, watching TV and crying," said Bareket, owner of a local magazine with offices in an industrial park just outside Sakhnin. He covered the town's riots and said he has no doubt that demonstrators would have set fire to Jewish-owned businesses if police had not intervened. Two Arabs were shot to death by police Oct. 1, just a few hundred feet from the magazine's offices.

"We found ourselves in the middle of some kind of war," Bareket said. "We could smell the tear gas and the smell of forests burning that the Arabs torched. It was not just a feeling that everything had gone wrong but a feeling of real danger."

His first emotion, Bareket said, was anger. He was eager for the police to strike back at demonstrators. But a week after the riots here, he decided that the Galilee's Jews and Arabs have no alternative but to learn to live together. He and some friends erected a large tent on "neutral" land between a Jewish and an Arab community and invited anyone to come.

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