Worst Arab-Jewish riots in years: Israeli police on alert

Israeli police were on high alert in racially mixed Israeli cities Friday after two nights of the worst Arab-Jewish clashes in years in the northern port town of Acre, reported dpa.

Police sent reinforcement to Acre, with some 500 extra officers deploying in the town Friday to prevent a new outbreak of violence, Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.

Some eight people were lightly injured, including one man who was run over by a police horse and another who was hit in the head by a stone.

Police arrested 12 of the rioters, and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. They denied the use of rubber bullets.

Some 40 shops and 100 cars were damaged, mostly Jewish-owned ones in the town's central pedestrian shopping mall, Rosenfeld said, after rioters shattered windows and windshields. A number of the damaged cars were also turned upside down.

The town's municipality announced Friday it was canceling its 29th annual theatre festival scheduled for later this month.

The clashes broke out around midnight Wednesday on the eve of the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday, or Day of Atonement, the holiest and most solemn day on the Hebrew calender.

Israel comes to a 24-hour standstill for Yom Kippur, from sunset to sunset, with all shops closing for the day and streets empty of cars. Television and radio stations suspend their broadcasting.

The clashes were sparked by a violent confrontation between a local Jewish crowd and an Arab resident who drove his car through a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, playing loud music in an alleged provocation. Local Jews saw this as a desecration of the holiday and threw stones at the car, its driver and his 18-year-old son.

The driver, Tawfiq Jamal, later denied he entered the neighbourhood as a provocation, telling Israeli media he entered by car to pick up his daughter from her fiance's home and was driving "slowly and carefully." Jamal and his son suffered slight injuries when hit by stones and fled with police assistance.

Responding to a spreading rumour that Jews had attacked, even killed, an Arab and to calls over mosque loudspeakers to react, hundreds of Arab residents then streamed to the neighbourhood, wreaking havoc while passing through the town's mainly Jewish pedestrian shopping street, Rosenfeld said.

The following night, dozens of Jewish residents in turn gathered at the entrance to the town's Arab neighbourhoods as the Yom Kippur holiday ended after sunset Thursday. They were blocked by police, who prevented the crowd from storming the Arab neighbourhoods. Youths from both sides hurled rocks during those clashes.

Witnesses said the Arab rioters shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and "Death to the Jews," while the Jewish rioters yelled "Death to the Arabs."

Both Jewish and Arab Israeli officials strongly condemned the outbreak of violence, calling on local leaders to "show responsibility" and urge restraint, rather than make inciting statements. But several hardline and outspoken Jewish and Arab lawmakers exchanged mutual accusations, each describing the clashes as a "pogrom" against the Jewish and Arab populations of Acre respectively.

"I was sorry to hear statements by public figures, including parliament members, who instead of calming, inflamed tempers. Comparisons to Kristallnacht are ignorance at best, or simply incitement at worst," Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told reporters touring the town Friday.

Israeli Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, calling the co-existence between Israel's Jews and Arabs "very important," urged both sides to make "every effort" to calm tempers.

Acre, a town of 46,000 inhabitants with a historic centre that contains walls built by the Crusaders and ruins dating back to the Romans, is normally regarded as an example of peaceful Jewish-Arab coexistence. Some 28 per cent of the town's mixed population are Arabs, many of whom live in the historic Old City.

Arab-Israeli clashes inside Israel have been extremely rare since October 2000, when Israeli police notoriously shot dead 13 Arab-Israeli youths during widespread rioting in northern Israel by local Arab Israelis who were acting in sympathy with the outbreak of that year's Palestinian uprising.

An Israeli government-appointed commission of inquiry later strongly condemned the police handling of those clashes. Police in Israel were under strict orders not to use live ammunition this time, Israeli media reported.

Of Israel's population of 7.3 million, some 20 per cent are Arabs, who enjoy full citizenship and equal voting rights, but often complain of discrimination when applying for jobs or trying to rent apartments in predominantly Jewish areas. The October 2000 clashes, which at the time came as a shock to many, highlighted the delicate relationship between Israel's Jewish majority and its Arab minority.

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