Jews and Arabs equal in eyes of rockets

MAALOT-TARSHIHA, Israel (AP) — A siren wailed Saturday afternoon and Yousef Yaroni sprinted toward a bomb shelter. It’s a drill the grocer repeats several times a day.

He knows that, as a Christian Arab, he is not the target of the Hezbollah attacks, but it makes no difference to him.

“I feel like every Jewish citizen in Israel,” he said. “We are brothers. What happens to them happens to us.”

At least in one place in the Middle East, fighting between Israel and the Lebanon-based militants has not torn Arabs and Jews apart. In this border town of 23,000, Jews and Arabs work, live and play sports together. In recent weeks they have also found themselves sharing the impact of hundreds of Hezbollah rockets that have pummeled their city.

On Thursday, three 18-year-old Muslim residents were killed by Hezbollah rockets as they worked in a field.

“The Katyushas don’t differentiate between us,” said Tzahi Levi, 36, a Jew from Maalot.

In the municipal war room, hundreds of red dots are sprinkled across a map of town, marking the places were Katyusha rockets have landed.

Maalot-Tarshiha has been struck by 416 rockets, trailing only Kiryat Shemona and Nahariya in the ranks of the hardest-hit communities in northern Israel, according to police statistics.

Maalot-Tarshiha’s warm Jewish-Arab relations are unusual for Israel, where many Arab citizens complain of discrimination and blame Israel for the fighting with Hezbollah. Many local residents attribute the positive relations to the town’s unusually balanced power-sharing arrangement.

Maalot was established in 1957, alongside the Arab village of Tarshiha. In 1963, the two were united into a single entity. The 19,000 residents of Maalot are mostly Jewish, with 50 percent recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The 4,000 residents of Tarshiha are split 50-50 between Muslims and Christians.

Noam Massad, the city engineer, said resources are divided equally between its Arab and Jewish sectors. Naturally, some tension exists, but residents largely have good neighborly relations, he said.

“We have a population here that lives side by side, sometimes together, in mutual respect and good intentions,” he said.

Arab residents agreed.

“Nothing can break our relations,” said Yaroni, 27.

Still, about 50 percent of the population has fled. Both parts of town, divided by a highway, are largely empty, with shops, banks and swimming pools deserted. Yaroni said he was closing his shop and heading to the West Bank city of Bethlehem for a break until the violence subsided.

Maalot has a suburban feel to it, with palm trees lining the streets and tennis courts and playgrounds next to residential neighborhoods. Tarshiha looks like a typical Arab village, with thin, winding, hilly roads and a mosque in the center of town. But it is well-preserved, and boasts gardens and artificial waterfalls.

Both seem like ghost towns now, with reminders of violence ever-present – a building in Maalot with a hole punched through it, a charred field in Tarshiha.

Even before the recent violence, Maalot’s name was indelibly linked to bloodshed.

On May 15, 1974, an attack by Palestinian militants on a local elementary school killed 26 Israelis, including 21 children. Residents say the infamous attack, known in Israel as the “Maalot Massacre,” still lingers, but its memory does little to disturb the Jewish-Arab coexistence.

The recent fighting in Lebanon hasn’t either, both Jews and Arabs say. There are differences of opinion of regional and international politics, but no one concludes from it anything about each other.

Sitting around a television, watching Al-Jazeera and smoking cigarettes, a group of Muslim men said they are critical of the Israeli offensive and its devastating impact on Lebanese civilians. But they quickly add they hold no ill will toward their Jewish neighbors.

“We absorb it all together,” said Hamoodie Sweetan, 29, of the rockets. “We share the same fate. A Katyusha does not distinguish between a resident of Maalot and a resident of Tarshiha.”