War exposes Arab Haifa family to more divisions

HAIFA — Johnny Mansour drops his cigarette and rushes indoors. His wife, Lilian, and two sons, Elias, 14, and Adey, 10, are well ahead of him as the family rushes to the safe room of the house, which doubles as Adey’s bedroom.

With air raid siren last week in Haifa, and Elias has hardly looked up from the book he is reading. Despite the sense of urgency, the running for shelter has become routine.

Mansour has resisted offers from friends to come and stay away from Haifa.

“Sometimes, I almost feel it’s like 1948,” says the historian, former teacher and now a member of the Palestinian Forum for Israel Studies, Madar, based in Ramla. “And I don’t want to leave my home.”

In the meantime, the family spends almost all their time in the house. The exceptions are shopping trips and visits to family. The boys, anyway on summer holiday from school, are taking it well, according to Mansour, and their calm demeanour backs him up.

He is, he says like 75-80 per cent of the Palestinian population in Haifa, against the Hizbollah rockets that are forcing him to spend so much time in his youngest son’s bedroom. He is also, like the vast majority of Israel’s Palestinians, against the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.

“Haifa has a special bond with Beirut. It is our sister city. Don’t forget, in 1948, the Palestinians who fled Haifa mostly ended up in Lebanon, many in south Lebanon.”

He cites his own family as an example.

His father and uncle stayed.

Two other uncles were already living in south Lebanon.

They were separated when the border of Israel were laid.

The main issue for Israel, he says, is not about Hizbollah or Lebanon or soldiers.

“The main issue is, what are they looking ahead to? Are they thinking of ways to reconcile with the Arab world? Israel has an obsession with security. Everyone wants peace, but this obsession is part of the problem, it’s an obstacle.”

It is a view not shared by the husband and wife team managing the Café Neto, one of a handful of restaurants in Haifa to remain open.

“What is happening in Beirut is terrible,” says Nama Altschuler. “But our situation here is also very bad. I have trouble feeling sympathy. I have trouble with Arab culture that allows people to kill their daughters. That allows them to kill my daughter. The cheapness of life for Arabs, that cannot be the face of peace.”

Her husband Gal admits to feeling despondent.

“For me, one fact struck me a few days ago when I learnt there were 500,000 refugees in Lebanon. It is very bad what we are doing there. I want it to stop. But if we give back prisoners, they’ll go back to terrorism.”

The streets outside are almost deserted, but the Altschulers say business hasn’t been too bad. But banks are closed; Haifa’s port, Israel’s largest, ditto; and while public transport still runs, buses are mostly empty.

There has been a flight of people from Haifa, though no official numbers are available. Some say as many as 60 per cent of the city’s population has left. Nor are there official statistics for the cost to the city’s economy. One estimate puts the loss of revenue as high as NIS100 million a day (approximately $22 million).

In all of this, much has been made of Haifa’s mixed population of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. The city is often touted as a “model of co-existence”, a view the Altschulers share.

“We have good relations with Palestinians here and many Palestinian friends,” says Nama. She accepts that there are differences among the communities, but believes the Palestinians of Israel enjoy full rights and should work harder for Israel.

“There is something in the Arab mentality of always feeling occupied. But at the same time they enjoy the rights and openness of Israel. They don’t have the same empathy that I have for this country.”

But according to Mansour the co-existence of Haifa is a sham.

“We live in the same city, but we live separately. To give a small example, we have fought for years just to have the original names of Haifa’s streets and neighbourhoods restored, at least in Arabic. There is discrimination in terms of services, schools and budget allocations. At the University of Haifa where 30 per cent of students are Arab, there are only 10 Arab professors and not a single Arab secretary.”

To top it all off, he says, the last two weeks have only exposed more divisions.

“The municipality set up an emergency line for people. It has Hebrew and Russian speakers, but no Arabic.”

A spokeswoman for Haifa municipality neither confirmed nor denied this when confronted with the question, except to say that, “there are no Arabs in Haifa that don’t speak Hebrew”.

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