No home for Israel's Arabs

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The Independent Online
THE first time Sonia Khoury's apartment was attacked, men threw blazing petrol-soaked rags at her door. "My sister and I were sitting in my room at two o'clock in the morning when we heard knocking at the door. When we looked out we saw flames and smoke coming through the sides of the door."

It was the first of three fire-bomb attacks since Ms Khoury, 26, receptionist at the Hilton in Jerusalem, rented a flat in a Jewish neighbourhood of the city a year ago. She is an Israeli citizen and fluent in Hebrew, but also an Israeli-Arab, Israel's largest minority, and it is unheard of for an Arab to move to Jewish west Jerusalem.

Ms Khoury's new neighbours made clear what they thought of an Arab living among them. They asked the landlord to evict her, with her younger sister Wafa and their friend Manal Diab. Ms Khoury says that in her block "only one Israeli man supported us and said he did not mind Arabs living in the building."

What happened next shows the antagonism of many Israelis towards the 850,000 Israeli-Arabs. It confirms a survey which showed 40 per cent of Israeli youth say they actively hate Arabs and of these 60 per "want revenge".

The first sign was the word nevella scrawled on the apartment door. In biblical Hebrew it means a "rotting carcass".

Use of this archaic word may also imply that those behind the fire bombings had a religious nationalist or ultra-orthodox background. The first attack, which blackened the ceiling just inside the door, was in October. The women asked for police protection, which was refused. The second attack was in December. Ms Khoury says: "They put bottles like those used in hair spray outside the door." The package exploded when a bomb-disposal officer tried to defuse it. He was saved from injury by his protective clothing.

Ms Khoury says: "We wanted to move but we could not find a flat. I couldn't sleep afterwards." The attack also brought publicity and a visit by Ehud Olmert, the right-wing Mayor of Jerusalem. He said they were in the same position as Jewish settlers at Ras al-Amoud, a Palestinian district of the city. Ms Khoury says: "We told him ... we did not come to this apartment and say it was ours, like the settlers. We rented it."

Mr Olmert said the municipality would help repair the flat, but nothing happened for five months. The women also found they could not claim compensation as "victims of terrorism" because the attacks were not deemed to be against Israel.

Police installed a video camera but no progress was made tracing the attackers. The women live near Mea Shearim, an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood, but the street is a mixture of ultra-orthodox, religious and secular Jews. Nevertheless, when the women walked past a nearby religious college, the boys shouted: "Arabs, go to Gaza; go to Jordan."

The final attack was on Israeli Independence Day, 30 April, when Ms Khoury was at work. Somebody placed what she described as a pipe bomb by the door; it exploded at 10.30pm when Wafa Khoury and Ms Diab were at home. The women, with nowhere else to live, asked the landlord to renew the one-year rental agreement, but he refused. Their neighbours were now more sympathetic, but said: "Our children are frightened."

Ms Khoury, a Christian, was born in Nazareth, the daughter of a driver for the Israeli bus company Egged. She says she grew up not thinking of herself as an Israeli but not as a Palestinian either. Her experiences since coming to Jerusalem have changed that. "I knew there was racism here, but I didn't expect them to bomb my flat."

The attacks confirm the conclusions of a survey last year of the views on Israeli-Arabs of 5,318 Israeli pupils at 84 schools carried out by Ofra Maizles, of Haifa University, and Reuven Gal, from the Carmel Institute of Social Research. They found not only that 40 per cent said they hated Arabs but that among those who live in poorer towns, students at religious colleges and children of parents who came originally from the Middle East, three-quarters expressed hatred.

Less animosity was expressed by students from kibbutzim, but even there 32 per cent said they hated Arabs.

The Oslo accords of 1993, purportedly offering a resolution to the Arab- Israeli conflict, made no difference to attitudes. It is also ominous that Israelis expressing greatest dislike for Arabs come from constituencies which vote overwhelmingly for the present Israeli government. It is their views which will count most in determining government policy.

To their surprise, the Khoury sisters and Ms Diab have found a new apartment, also in a Jewish district of Jerusalem.

Ms Khoury says that for the first time when she rang up a prospective landlord and said "I'm an Arab", he replied: "I don't care." As the women prepare to leave, a municipal workman sent by Mr Olmert has finally arrived to repaint the blackened doorway and ceiling of their apartment.