Monday 20 October 2008

The Problem with Akko

The recent outbreak of violence in the northern Israeli city of Akko (Acre) on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, gives a great deal of food for thought.

Akko is a seaside town in the Western Galilee with a rich history stretching back to Biblical times. It is considered the key to the Levant due to its strategic coastal location. During the War of Independence in 1948, a typhoid outbreak in the town led the Arabs to accuse the Jews of using biological weapons against the Arab population. Although this was never proved, Egypt executed Israeli soldiers that it claimed were responsible for this. Approximately three-quarters of the Arab population at the time, amounting to about 13,000 people, left the town when it was captured by the Jews and became displaced as a result. Akko currently has a population of just less than 50,000, approximately one third of whom are Israeli Arabs. Only about 15% of the current Arab population are descendants of the families who lived there prior to 1948.

The actual events on Yom Kippur of 2008 are reported to have been triggered by an Arab resident of Akko who drove his vehicle into a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood on the holiest day in the Jewish year. Those who have been in Israel over Yom Kippur will know that vehicles are not driven at all on this day, particularly in Jewish towns and cities. The driving of this vehicle sparked outrage amongst the Jews of Akko who then went on a rampage in response. Arabs were targeted in their attacks that lasted for five days, and were only brought under control when police reinforcements were drafted in from other areas. Arab residents of the town were forced to leave their homes as buildings were set on fire and homes gutted. People were also injured in the process. The annual Akko Festival, an important event in the town, was cancelled inflicting further economic hardships on the business community.

It is my view that both parties need to take responsibility for this embarassing and unnecessary chain of events. The Arab driver, who subsequently expressed profound regret for his actions, should never have been driving his vehicle into a Jewish neighbourhood on Yom Kippur. At best, it is a show of grave insensitivity and at worst, an act of intentional provocation. The Jewish response is equally unacceptable, particularly around the time of Yom Kippur when foregiveness is sought for sins committed during the previous year. To initiate a rampage that damages property and hurts people and their livelihoods amounts to thuggery and is intolerable.

So why does this happen in a town like Akko? Well, the problem with Akko is that it is a microcosm of the Middle East and represents everything that is wrong with the Middle East. This is a region where people, who otherwise may be tolerant, act in an intolerant way. This is where every action is assumed to be done in order to provoke other parties. This is where small genuine errors are not tolerated, and people feel immediately offended. This is where previous events have such a huge bearing on what happens today, that any small action serves to build upon years of pent-up frustration. This is a region which singularly lacks tolerance and mutual respect. In short, this is a region which requires the tiniest of sparks to light the volatile keg of dynamite. Every act by any citizen, as insubstantial as it may seem, serves to add insult to injury and seems to give the other party more justification for his next action. A never-ending cycle of claim and counter-claim, attack and counter-attack which ultimately helps neither one party nor the other.

As has been discovered during a 2,000 year history, there are no magical answers to resolve this conflict. I cannot pretend to have all the answers or even any of them. If I did, I would be writing more than this blog!! It seems to me, though, that the first stage needs to involve mutual and self respect. To respect one's self and fellow citizens is a basic human trait that appears to have become severely diluted, and even lost in the Middle East. How can we expect people to have any respect for the enemy when they are struggling to respect themselves?

If converted into Israeli terms, this would involve getting people to think about other fellow Israelis at least as much as themselves, and perhaps even more than themselves in everyday situations. This would work well when driving motor vehicles, when shopping in supermarkets and standing in line at the post office. Every situation currently causes people to feel like they are in a war zone doing their best to protect their own interests. Why is it that people cannot be honest and say "you were here before me", when in line at the bank? Instead, if you are not prepared to fight to protect your position, a hundred others would push in front of you. This consequently turns everyone into a combat soldier at the bank after they have been taken advantage of once too many. If 50 million people in the United Kingdom manage to get along with mutual respect, why can 7 million Israelis not achieve the same? Once we have perfected the art of respecting our own, it would make it much easier to consider the possibility of offering some respect to our enemies too.

It is equally true that our enemies could take some lessons of their own. When the Gaza Strip gains access to a limited amount of fuel, the first ones to take their share are the politicians and connected people. Thereafter come the hospitals, power generation plants and other emergency services. Needless to say, the ordinary man in the street never gets his turn. No small wonder that he feels escalating hatred towards the Israelis. For the Arab leaders, this is a good thing and they ensure that the man in the street feels just as angry, if not more, the next time any fuel is made available.

The concept of a parent offering a child (or anybody) as a suicide bomber to martyr him or herself in the name of a political cause is incomprehensible. This is surely lack of self respect at its very worst?

The longer this lack of respect continues, the greater the escalation of tensions between the parties. And to reverse a trend that has been running for decades and centuries is a little like asking an individual to stop a freight train with his bare hands. But we cannot give up on the dream of making this happen. Even small corrections and amendments placed in critical parts of the education system can make a difference. To achieve this, we need to have enough people who recognise what needs to be done, and are committed to making this happen.

Unfortunately, from where I am sitting, I do not see enough of these people or the required commitment. Perhaps, this is the problem with Akko?

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