Netanyahu promises to prosecute Israeli anti-Arab graveyard vandals

Israelis apologise for sectarian attacks on Jaffa cemeteries that saw the desecration of 26 Muslim and Christian graves in the Tel Aviv suburb of Jaffa by suspected ultranationalist Jews.

A tomb with the words 'Death to Arabs' written in Hebrew on it in a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa, outside Tel Aviv. Vandals defaced various graves on a Muslim and Christian graveyard over Yom Kippur. OLIVER WEIKEN / EPA
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JERUSALEM // Israelis have condemned recent attacks on Palestinian communities inside their country amid fears that simmering sectarian tensions could explode.

Rights activists in Israel say the desecration of 26 Muslim and Christian graves in the Tel Aviv suburb of Jaffa on Saturday, and the arson at a mosque in the northern town of Tuba-Zangaria last week, have made bad relations worse.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by ultranationalist Jews inspired by right-wing West Bank settlers, whose regular attacks on Palestinians seemingly go unnoticed inside Israel.

But Israelis are taking note of the attacks inside Israel.

Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, an Israeli rights organisation that advocates freedom of movement for Palestinians living in the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, said: "When you don't see what happens in a place where you can't visit, you feel more distant from the attacks."

Israelis are barred from entering Gaza and most West Bank Palestinian cities.

"What happened in Jaffa is three kilometres from downtown Tel Aviv. It's very close and it's very threatening," Ms Bashi said.

But while many Israelis abhor settler violence in the West Bank, they "have done woefully little" to stop it, she added.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, condemned Saturday's attacks in Jaffa, which included gravestones spray-painted with such phrases as "death to Arabs".

The vandalism prompted demonstrations by the community's Palestinians and some Jewish residents. A firebomb was reported to have been thrown at a synagogue.

In his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu vowed to find and prosecute the vandals, describing Israel as a "tolerant state" that was "intolerant" of discrimination.

Last week, the torching of a mosque in Tuba-Zangaria was condemned by Jewish religious leaders and officials.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, visited the damaged mosque, condemned the crime and told the Palestinians there that Israel is a religiously tolerant nation.

But it may be Israel's long-standing issues of intolerance and institutionalised discrimination against its Palestinian citizens that are prompting Israeli leaders to strongly denounce such things, said Jeff Halper, the director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, which opposes Israel's demolition of Palestinian homes in Israel and the occupied territories.

He said the attacks undermine Israel's contention that it is a democratic and Jewish state.

"What keeps the idea that we can live with Arabs and be a Jewish democracy is this idea that Arabs are equal and if not, at least equal within the body politic," he said, referring to the right of Palestinian citizens to vote and run for office.

"The danger with these attacks is that this mask of equality has been taken off and we see the reality inside Israel isn't that much different than what's going on in the occupied territories."

Israel's Palestinians, who form about a fifth of the population, have long complained about discrimination in the workplace, education, health care and other areas. That feeling of marginalisation has grown as Israel's right-wing, pro-settler government has passed new laws that rights groups condemn as discriminatory against Palestinians. These include the so-called Nakba law, which allows the government to stop public funding to organisations mourning the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians during the fighting that led to Israel's creation in 1948.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in an editorial yesterday that it was no surprise such incidents of racism were occurring now. "The timing is easily understood against the background of the racist, anti-democratic legislation enacted by the current Knesset: The message it transmits is that Israel's Arab citizens are illegitimate," it said.

But some see the condemnation of racially motivated attacks by Israelis as little more than "lip service", as Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli activists, described it.

"Every time a mosque gets burnt in the West Bank, it's front-page news, so I can only assume that people do know about it," he said. "I think people just don't care."