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Gaza conflict hurting harmonious towns

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For Israelis looking for a harmonious coexistence between Jews and Arabs, the town of Safed offered hope.

Mayor Ilan Shochat, a Jew, aspiring for it to become a hub of eastern Galilee, had attracted some 1,500 Arabs to its colleges, restoring a multicultural feel to a city that for 60 years had been homogeneously Jewish. He even spoke of welcoming President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the West Bank Palestinians and himself a native of Safed, as part of a drive to attract tourists to a city steeped in both Jewish and Muslim historical buildings and traditions.

Israel’s war in Gaza is spoiling Arab-Jewish relations, however, there and elsewhere in Israel, a fifth of whose 8 million citizens are Arab. Israel’s Jews think that their soldiers are defending their homeland from terrorists armed with long-range rockets, but Israel’s Arabs see them as massacring their Gazan kin.

Several Israeli mayors, including Shochat, have suspended Arab workers for posting support for Gaza’s fighters on Facebook. Yair Revivo, mayor of the mixed city of Lod, said that they had been dismissed for "disloyalty to the state." Some Israeli universities, hospitals and even mobile-telephone companies have followed suit.

Some Jewish activists want to go further. "Death to Arabs," once the call of an extremist fringe of Israelis, is increasingly heard at right-wing rallies and in the social media. When Hadash, Israel’s predominantly Arab communist party, with four seats in parliament, staged an anti-war protest in Haifa, Jewish stone-throwers quickly outnumbered it. Thugs mugged the city’s Arab deputy mayor, Suhail Asaad, who was watching the event with his young son.

Haifa, hitherto a model of coexistence, no longer looks so exemplary. An exception in largely segregated Israel, many Jews and Arabs in Haifa live in the same blocks of flats — but, since the Gaza war started, neighbours have grown more suspicious of each other.

"Our youth are splitting into two rival tribes," a Haifa lawyer said.

Mayor Yona Yahav says that national politicians are not helping. The championing of Israel as a specifically Jewish state by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sends a message to Israel’s Arabs that they do not belong. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to transfer hundreds of thousands of them to Abbas’ Palestinian territory, stripping them of their Israeli nationality. In response to an Arab general strike called to protest against the Gaza war, Lieberman called for Jews to boycott Arab restaurants and shops.

"The law says that inciting racism is a crime," said Hassan Jabareen, who runs a Haifa-based civil-rights group, Adalah, which in Arabic means "justice." "But the state just lets it happen."

As a result Arab Israelis increasingly style themselves as "Palestinians within." On July 21 thousands of Arab Israelis gathered for an anti-war rally in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, under a sea of Palestinian flags.

No sooner had it finished than Arab stone-throwers faced off against police firing tear gas.

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