Haifa – As racially motivated attacks and growing incitement gripped Israel over the weekend, 23-year-old Waad Ghantous, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was not surprised at being verbally accosted in this mixed city, home to both Arabs and Jews on Israel’s northern coast.
“The racism is always present, but it’s much worse now than usual,” Ghantous, a social worker, told Al Jazeera.
Walking beside her mother recently as they ran errands in the city’s business district, Ghantous said, she wore a red-and-white chequered keffiyeh around her neck. “An older guy started yelling at me because of the keffiyeh,” Ghantous said, noting he was “very angry and aggressive”.
“He told me to go to Syria with the other Arabs,” she said. “I would’ve just laughed it off, but I was afraid that other people would join him and who knows what could have happened.”
In the wake of an attack on a synagogue in the Jewish Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood on November 18, that killed five Israelis, Israeli settler violence targeting Palestinians has soared in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. Tensions have also spilled over into Israel, where an estimated 1.7 million Palestinians hold Israeli citizenship.
The latest attack took place on Monday, when a Palestinian youth was attacked by three Israelis in Jerusalem. He was hospitalised and was “in good condition”, according to an Israeli police spokesperson.
On Friday, a 53-year-old man was arrested in Hadera, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv, after attempting to attack Arab employees at a local restaurant. After complaining to the restaurant owner for providing work to Arabs, the man returned half an hour later with a knife.
That same day, Israeli police detained four Jewish activists from Lehava, a hardline right-wing group dedicated to preventing romantic relationships between Arab men and Jewish women, after they allegedly attacked police officers in Petah Tikvah.
In Acre, a mixed city of Jewish Israelis and Muslim and Christian Arabs, vandals threw acid on the car of a local sheikh.
Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld was unable to comment on the incidents in Hadera and Petah Tikvah. “An investigation is currently under way into the background of the acid attack in Acre, but so far we do not have any information on the assailants,” he told Al Jazeera.
The apparent uptick in racially motivated harassment and vigilante attacks compounds the already difficult reality for Palestinians in Israel, who make up some 20 percent of the total population. Overcrowding, government neglect and economic marginalisation plague Palestinian communities in cities, towns, and villages spanning the country.
, and then the police and right-wing [activists] put their words into action.”]
According to the Haifa-based Adalah Legal Centre, more than 50 laws discriminate against Israel’s Palestinian minority by limiting their access to state resources, notably land, and stifling their political expression.
On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet passed a controversial law defining Israel as a “Jewish nation-state” and the historic homeland for the Jewish people in a 14-6 vote. The law has been decried by political opponents and human rights groups, who see it as further alienating Israel’s Palestinian minority as second-class citizens.
“This kind of violence starts with the incitement that is common in this country,” said Nadim Nashif, director of Baladna, a Haifa-based youth advocacy organisation for Arab citizens of Israel.
“Incitement that starts with Israel’s leading politicians trickles down into institutions, such as the police, as well as to people on the street,” Nashif told Al Jazeera. “Politicians and decision-makers incite against the Palestinian minority [in Israel], and then the police and right-wing [activists] put their words into action.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to punish Palestinian citizens of Israel who protest against the state.
“We will act decisively against the rioters who are calling for the destruction of the State of Israel,” he said as protests sprang up across the country following the police slaying of a 22-year-old Palestinian in the Galilee region this month. “To all those who demonstrate against Israel and in favour of a Palestinian state, I say something simple: I invite you to move there [to the West Bank or Gaza]; we won’t give you any problem.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said: “Territorial and population swaps must be part of the solution,” referring to his long-standing proposal to forcibly relocate Palestinians in the Triangle region of Israel to regions under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
According to some analysts, incitement and anti-Arab sentiment have been on the rise consistently since Israel’s 50-day war in the Gaza Strip this summer.
“It is not unusual for a rise in all kinds of incitement in Israel after times of conflict,” Avner Pinchuk, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, told Al Jazeera. “Since the war there is a whole new level and it’s much broader than what we’ve seen in the past. It includes incitement to racism and incitement to violence, but also discrimination against Arab workers in the public sector.”
Pinchuk, an expert on issues related to free speech and incitement, said incitement “has become the norm rather than the exception”.
“Elected officials and people have become much more comfortable using harsh speech against the country’s Palestinian minority as well as those whose opinions don’t line up with the majority,” Pinchuk said, citing fears over “how this speech impacts the Jewish majority and its long-term relationship with the Arab minority”.
Elsewhere, tit-for-tat violence between Israelis and Palestinians has also continued in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Near the central West Bank city of Ramallah, Israeli settlers firebombed a Palestinian home early on Sunday morning, according to local media sources. “Death to Arabs!” and “vengeance” were also spray-painted on the homes.
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem have been boiling over for days. On November 19, Israeli authorities punitively demolished the home of Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi , who drove his car into a group of Israeli pedestrians nearly a month earlier.
It was announced last week that the homes of cousins Ghassan and Uday Abu Jamal, who were shot dead while attacking the Har Nof synagogue, would also be razed.
And on Friday night, two Israelis were stabbed in the Palestinian al-Tur neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, and a-22 year-old Palestinian man was hospitalised after reportedly being beaten by a group of Israelis with iron rods and belts near the historic Old City.
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“We are presently looking for suspects into these cases,” Rosenfeld said. “The situation is relatively quiet after the weekend, and there is police presence in and around the city to ensure the safety [of local residents].”
Meanwhile, Palestinians in Israel fear that events in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will continue to spillover into their communities.
Speaking to Al Jazeera by telephone, Yasmeen Zahalka, a student activist for the Balad political party at the Hebrew University, said: “Right-wing movements on campus constantly target Arab students with threats and incitement,” but “it has picked up lately”.
“We gathered on campus last week and held a protest against police violence,” Zahalka said. “The right-wing students came with Israeli flags and chanted racist slogans at us, calling us terrorists.”
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