JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s leading Arab politician was in the middle of a television interview on a street in its biggest Arab city when the mayor, also an Arab, pulled up in his car and started shouting at him to leave.
With Palestinian knife attacks on the rise, the live TV encounter illustrated a conflict within Israel’s Arab minority between sympathy for Palestinian brethren in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and concern over a Jewish backlash.
“Get out of here,” Nazareth mayor Ali Salam shouted at the stunned lawmaker, Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint Arab List, whose most prominent legislator, Hanin Zoabi, has called for a civil uprising against Israel.
“You’ve ruined the town. There isn’t a single Jew here today.”
With many Israeli stores closed on the Jewish Sabbath, Arab towns such as Nazareth, located inside Israel just north of the occupied West Bank, are usually filled with Jewish shoppers. But merchants say their numbers have dropped since the violence began some two weeks ago.
Seven Israelis and around 30 Palestinians, some of them assailants, have been killed since Oct. 1, in a wave of bloodshed fueled by Palestinians’ rage over what they see as Israel changing a decades-old religious status quo at al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.
Some protests in Arab towns inside Israel have turned violent, with demonstrators blocking roads, throwing stones, firecrackers and burning tyres at police and scores have been arrested. A general strike by Arab workers in Israel on Tuesday shut shops and business throughout Israel’s Arab towns.
On Sunday, an Israeli Arab stabbed four people near a bus stop in northern Israel after ramming into one of them with his car, according to police. His family said it was a car accident.
“The greatest paradox was that the very nice doctor who stitched me up was also Arab,” one of the victims, Adi Eshet, told Army Radio. The senior police officer leading the investigation is an Israeli Arab too.
Israeli Arabs are descendants of residents who stayed put during the 1948 war of Israel’s founding, in which hundreds of thousands of fellow Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes, ending up in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Those who remained have full equal rights under the law but often say they are treated as second-class citizens, citing inferior services and unfair allocations for education, health and housing. More than half live below the poverty line.
Sunday’s assailant was a resident of Umm el-Fahem, a town of 48,000 which borders the West Bank. In 2000, 13 local youths were killed by Israeli police while demonstrating in solidarity with the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Many in Umm el-Fahem deplore the violence.
“No one is happy with the situation, Jews or Arabs. We want peace. In Mohammed’s era Jews, Arabs and Christians lived in one home, ate in one home, hung out together, worked together, this is what we want,” said Nour Mahagneh, a resident.
Arabs in other towns too say business is suffering, with Jewish customers too scared to enter.
But for many others allegiance to the Palestinian cause comes first.
“We feel we are part of the Palestinian people. We are part of the struggle,” the Joint Arab List’s Zoabi said.
She said Al-Aqsa, built on a site Jews revere as the place where two destroyed biblical temples once stood, described the mosque as “a symbol of sovereignty” and “national and religious identity” for Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel has no intention to change anything at Al-Aqsa and he has accused Palestinian leaders and Arab Israeli lawmakers, Zoabi among them, of spreading lies to ignite a religious war.
Zoabi said she objects to violence and supports “a civil uprising.”
Netanyahu has accused a group called the northern section of the Islamic Movement of stirring up violence. The group, which runs its own Islamic educational and religious services, has been at the forefront of protests against Israeli government policies toward its Arab minority and Palestinians in the occupied territories.
This week Netanyahu moved to outlaw the organization, though his bid may well be shot down by legal experts. The Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, has said the move could end up sparking further violence.
In response to the threat to outlaw his group, its leader Sheikh Raed Salah told a rally of thousands in the Arab town of Sakhnin on Tuesday that “the Israeli occupation is outlawed”, as was its presence in Jerusalem and al-Aqsa.
“I say to the Israeli occupation: we are people who love life but if we have to then we welcome martyrdom at the blessed Aqsa mosque,” said Salah, who has in the past been jailed in Israel for scuffling with police near al-Aqsa.
Netanyahu on Monday appealed to Israel’s Arab citizens to “expel radicalism from within”, abandon their “inciting” leadership.
“You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot enjoy all worlds, live off all the rights in democratic Israel, which respects all its citizen rights, Arabs and Jews as one, and at the same time plot against the state. I ask you choose truth and coexistence,” Netanyahu said at the Knesset.
Zoabi, whom Netanyahu wants investigated for alleged incitement, said such calls miss the point.
“We are Palestinians before we are citizens. We are Palestinians before Israel ... this kind of huge tension between our citizenship, nationality and identity is a tension we didn’t choose, it is a tension the Jewish state imposed upon us.”
Additional reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh, Ali Sawafta and Vera Sajrawi and Rami Amichay in Umm el-Fahem; Writing by Maayan Lubell