For Israeli Arabs, torn loyalties amid fear

A Palestinian boy mourned next to the grave of his brother, who medics said was killed during the Israeli offensive.
A Palestinian boy mourned next to the grave of his brother, who medics said was killed during the Israeli offensive.

TIRA, Israel — Facing the threat of rocket fire along with the rest of Israel, residents in this central Israeli Arab town have found themselves caught in the middle between Jewish neighbors and their fellow Palestinians who are dying in growing numbers in the Gaza Strip.

The people of Tira, a town of some 25,000 people known for their warm relations with nearby Jewish communities, have Jewish friends, speak Hebrew fluently, and are largely integrated into Israeli society. But with relatives in Gaza and the West Bank, they also empathize with the Palestinians.

That internal strain becomes especially hard during times of violence, and tensions have risen since the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants began on July 8.


‘‘The Jews look at us like Arabs and the Arabs look at us like Jews,’’ said Ahmad Nasser, 21. ‘‘We are in the middle.’’

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The markets in Tira are usually packed on the weekend with Israeli shoppers. But business has slowed to a trickle in the weeks since the conflict began, perhaps because Israeli-Arab relations have soured or simply because no one feels like going out in such times, said Mohammed Abdulchai, 52. He said the war has been bad for business, with the fear of rockets shared by everyone.

‘‘The rocket doesn’t know if you are a Jew or an Arab,’’ he said.

Arab towns are as vulnerable as those of Jews, perhaps even more so because they have less means of protection. Of the three civilians killed by rocket fire since the war began, one has been a Jew, one has been an Arab, and one has been a Thai worker.

Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s 8 million residents and, unlike their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hold citizenship rights. But they often complain of being treated as second-class citizens. Most don’t serve in the military, which is mandatory for Jews, and many Jews consider them disloyal for sympathizing with the country’s enemies.


The fighting in Gaza has brought the tensions out in the open. Israelis have been outraged by some Israeli Arabs staging pro-Palestinian protests in which they have thrown rocks and blocked streets. Arabs say they have encountered increasing racism and violence from hawkish Israelis as well as calls for Arab businesses to be boycotted and for those who have posted support for Gaza on Facebook to be fired.

More than 1,000 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded over the past 19 days in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.