Some mixed Israeli towns have remained peaceful. Here’s why.
May 20, 2021 at 2:34 PM
In recent weeks, riots have broken out in some, but not all, ethnically mixed Israeli towns. Media reports focus on cases in which mobilisations have turned violent, particularly on the Israeli right, but it is also important to identify towns in the same situation where dissent has been more contained and possible reasons .
Acre, known locally as Akko or Akka, is a small mixed town in the north that has been plagued by violence and arson from Arabs and Jews for over a week. In contrast, Haifa, located 24 km to the south, has experienced much less violence, despite its much larger population and higher proportion of Arab citizens.
To explain the difference between the two, it is helpful to first distinguish between the riots in Israel and the conflict in Gaza. While the conflict in Gaza involves Hamas, which has taken advantage of dissent in Israel, potentially to strengthen its own political position, the riots in Israel are more disaggregated and result from grievances accumulated among the Arab population who have remained in Israel since 1948. war .
Yet grievances alone do not adequately explain why some areas in Israel are experiencing heightened violence while others are not. A closer look at Acre and Haifa, both located on the shores of the Mediterranean, sheds light on other factors that may be contributing to the eruption of more extreme violence in some places.
Of the 48,000 people who live in Acre, approximately 15,000 are of Arab descent. Since the riots began on May 10, Acre has seen waves of violence from Arabs and Jews. The extremists threw stones and Molotov cocktails; engaged in violent clashes and attacks; set fire to cultural centers, police stations, restaurants, cars, shops and traffic lights; and attempted to beat a passerby to death.
About 15 miles to the south is Haifa. A much larger city, Haifa has some 280,000 inhabitants, of which about 50,000 are of Arab descent. Haifa has also seen violence, including stoning, clashes, arson and attacks on shops. Although right-wing Israeli activists and Arabs from out of town attempted to escalate the situation, mass dissent in Haifa has involved mostly non-violent protests, including protests against inter-ethnic violence.
Under these two very different experiences of the last few weeks lie different histories and socio-economic characteristics between the two cities.
Compared to Haifa, Acre is generally poorer and has a higher unemployment rate, which disproportionately affects the Arab population. It also has a less developed economy, which is heavily dependent on industrial jobs and fishing. These two sectors have declined in recent decades. The tourism industry, previously a major source of income, has also seen a downward trend, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, Haifa’s service-dominated economy has been able to respond more effectively to the pandemic and its impacts.
Demographically, Acre is more segregated than Haifa, with Jews and Arabs mostly residing in separate neighborhoods. And group identity in Acre tends to be centered more on ethnicity than on other factors, such as socioeconomic class.
In part, this may be because its Arab population is more homogeneous and consists mostly of Muslims. In contrast, the Arab population of Haifa is more diverse, made up not only of Muslims, but also of Arab Christians. In turn, other types of cross-cutting identities have been historically important. Haifa has a strong history of class identity, for example, including in ethnically mixed neighborhoods (where port workers have resided), where a prevalence of left-wing voters has given the nickname “Red Haifa”.
The education systems of the two cities are also different. Haifa, for its part, has invested heavily in education, including in Arabic-speaking schools. The city’s Sisters of Nazareth School, a Catholic school, is ranked among the top 20 in Israel. The city is also home to a university, which hosts many Arabs from Haifa and neighboring villages. The student body of the University of Haifa has the largest representation of Arabs in Israel. The university also has a special admission program for Arab applicants, which relaxes some of the language requirements that non-Arab students must meet.
Although employment challenges for graduates, especially Arabs, remain, the city’s education system provides a path for upward mobility. For young Arabs in Acre, who do not have the same level of primary and secondary education as their counterparts in Haifa, the chances of university admission are lower and, therefore, the prospects for future mobility are lower. more limited.
Things are far from peaceful in Haifa and the situation could quickly deteriorate. For now, however, a semblance of restricted protest has been maintained. The precise answer to why will undoubtedly require further research, but for now it seems reasonable to assume that the very different socio-economic systems in place in the two cities are at play.
While many citizens of Haifa – and Israel – are determined to coexist, coexistence is not necessarily the same as equal opportunity, which can be the key to more stable relations between Jews and Arabs.
Going beyond the focus on grievances, effectively reallocating resources, ensuring proportional political representation in the Israeli parliament, improving access to education and employment sectors where Arabs are under-represented (e.g. in high tech), and by reducing residential disintegration, government and society in Israel could give the Arab population a greater interest in the state and ultimately reduce the likelihood of violence .
Research on civil conflict shows the importance of all these factors for peace. Haifa’s ability to largely avoid violence in other mixed cities offers lessons on how to start working to address some of these issues.