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Strained ties

Kate Shuttleworth, Wadi AraSeptember 11, 2014

As Israelis and Palestinians attempt to get on with their everyday lives in the aftermath of the recent conflict, the formerly good ties between Jews and Arab Israelis have taken a battering.

Image: Kate Shuttleworth

Located near Israel's biggest Arab town Umm Al-Fahm in the Haifa District, Asem Jazmawi's restaurant Al Wadi has been on the brink of closing as Jewish customers stayed away during the war in Gaza.

Many other Arab-owned businesses in the town of 48,000 residents also felt the impact of the growing tensions between Arabs and Jews after the murder of three Jewish Israelis and an Arab Israeli teen in July and the subsequent conflict between Hamas and Israel. It seems that Arab Israelis, who make up about one in five of Israel's eight million citizens, have become the new target for Jewish-Israeli anger.

The rise in the vitriolic atmosphere came to a head during the war as many Arab Israelis were fired from their jobs after they posted anti-war messages on Facebook or Twitter. Jewish customers who used to frequent Arab neighborhood businesses became tentative, even though many of their friends are Arab Israeli.

"This restaurant used to be full of Jewish clients, they don't come here any more. I lost 95 percent of my business during the war," said Jazwami the day DW visited the restaurant. A Jewish couple were sitting quietly by the window looking around nervously.

"This is the first time I have seen these people in two months," said Jazmawi, gesturing at the couple. "It must be good luck that they have come back, maybe things are going to pick up."

man standing Copyright: Kate Shuttleworth
Restaurant owner Jazmawi hopes business can reboundImage: Kate Shuttleworth

Rising animosity

Jazmawi said there had been tensions between Jewish and Arab neighbors in the past during the second intifada and during the previous wars in Gaza - but nothing on this scale.

That feeling was backed up by Arab-Israeli couple Mohammed and Fadwa Younis who live in a small village in Wadi Ara in the Haifa District. Whenever there is a war, they said, relationships between local Arabs and Jews deteriorate.

"Whatever happens in Gaza has a very negative impact on us as Arab Israelis inside Israel - the Israelis don't want us to support our brothers, the Palestinians, and they want us to shut up, to keep silent," said Fadwa.

She said on a personal level it had been hard for her to feel confident enough to be able to talk about her own history as an Arab Israeli.

"In my work with the Ministry of Education it took me a long time to convince myself as an Arab Israeli educator that it was okay to have my own narrative. For a long time it was forbidden and anyone who referred to the nakba ["Day of Catastrophe" when some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were displaced during the 1948 Palestine war - the ed] would be fired."

Her husband Mohammed said that during the recent war the Israeli government had also tried to silence dissent within the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.

"When Haneen Zoabi [Arab-Israeli Knesset member - the ed] protested against the war in Gaza she was arrested and attacked by police. The Israeli government can't even handle listening to one opposition voice from a member of the Knesset," he said.

In early August Zoabi was banned from all parliamentary activity ,except voting, for six months by the Knesset ethics committee for expressing her support for Hamas' attacks on Israel. She was also questioned by police after she called Arab police officers collaborators.

Strain on relationships

As business and personal relationships have cracked under the strain of the war, those who worked toward coexistence say relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority have never been worse.

Said Abu Shaqra, director of Um Al-Fahm Art Gallery, pioneered a space in Israel for Arab Israeli and Jewish Israeli artists to showcase their work together but said the last months had been the most challenging. "Jewish people didn't want to come here, some of them to punish us, others because they felt scared about the situation."

The gallery is due to open with a new exhibition in mid-September. Over 85 Arab and Jewish artists will exhibit on the olive tree theme - a symbol of the holy land and the struggle for land and identity for both people.

The exhibition was cancelled three times due to the war and when Shaqra sent out invitations for the opening some of his regular gallery visitors emailed him asking to be removed from the list.

"I wrote to them that I will delete you from my list, but in the future if you want to come back home you're welcome," he said with a smile.

"I felt bad everyday, I came here with very bad feelings, but when I came here and saw my staff with the special energy that they give, I thought that my feelings would be temporary."

Shaqra said the atmosphere in Umm Al-Fahm during the war was dreary, but he drew strength from his Jewish colleagues like ceramic artist Rena Peleg.

Woman talking Copyright: Kate Shuttleworth
Rena Pelag hopes that art can help overcome the animosityImage: Kate Shuttleworth

Feeling the pain

Peleg moved back to Israel after working in New York as a ceramic artist for the past 30 years. She said relations between her and the 30 local Arab Israeli women she taught had been warm during the war, but outside the gallery walls had been another story.

"We've invited people to the gallery again - it takes time to recover, it was a very sad time - we're still feeling the pain of the people," she said.

Iris and Rami Samson are Jewish residents of Ein Iron, a settlement near Wadi Ara. They said the war in Gaza had pushed Arab-Israeli relations back at least two years.

"Arabs and Jews are being lumped into categories, the main issue is people can't differentiate," said Rami.

The couple run a guesthouse and work in tourism while also running holistic health services and meditation classes for Arabs and Jews. Iris said she had taken part in a neighbors of peace project during the conflict in Wadi Ara where Arab and Jewish neighbors met and demonstrated peacefully.

"I posted pictures on Facebook and one of my previous guests said I won't come to your guesthouse again, I don't want to repeat what else he said - but I removed him from Facebook," said Iris.

Couple talking Copyright: Kate Shuttleworth
Iris and Rami Samson say relations have taken a batteringImage: Kate Shuttleworth