When the sirens blared across the town of Abu Ghosh last week, the men in the coffee shop didn’t bother running to an air-raid shelter. The barrages of rockets aimed at Israel by the militant group Hamas were hardly seen as a threat. Why would they target a peaceful Arab town in Israel?
A few seconds later, the town echoed with the boom of a huge explosion, and the coffee shop reverberated with the shock waves. One of the Hamas rockets from Gaza had struck nearby, just outside a house on the street. A young Israeli Arab man was seriously injured by the shrapnel. He died in hospital a few days later.
The rocket was perhaps aimed at nearby Jerusalem. It may have fallen short and inadvertently hit the town. But it was another reminder of the precarious situation of Arabs in Israel: vulnerable to attack by extremists on both sides of the political and religious divide.
In towns like Abu Ghosh, most Arabs see themselves primarily as Israeli. Most blame Hamas for the war that began when the Islamist militants killed and abducted hundreds of people in southern Israel. But they also feel sympathy for the ordinary Palestinian people in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, who since the current fighting started on Oct. 7 have often borne the brunt of Israel’s own missile attacks and its siege of the territory.
While their town sometimes faces harassment and vandalism from Jewish hard-liners who want to expel all Arabs from Israel, the people of Abu Ghosh also know they would not be spared by Hamas in any conflict.
“We live between the hammer and the anvil,” said Ahmed Abd al-Rahman, one of the men who frequents the coffee shop.
“Israelis call us Arabs, but the Palestinians call us traitors. If we go to Gaza, Hamas will murder us. We are caught in the middle. We are Israelis, but the ordinary people in Gaza are Muslims like us, and we feel sorry for them.”
On a normal day before the latest war, Israelis would flock to Abu Ghosh to dine at the famous restaurants of the town, which is reputed to be the hummus capital of Israel. It is the site of a well-known music festival, and was until recently a popular stop on the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for tourists and food lovers. The town has been praised as a model of coexistence.
But now the town is suffering: the tourists have vanished, the war is inflicting heavy damage on the economy, and the biggest gathering there recently was for the funeral of Majed Ibrahim, the 19-year-old man who was killed by the Hamas rocket.
The Arabs at the coffee shop boast about their warm relations with Jewish customers and residents. They point to the Israeli flags fluttering on their street, a sign of their loyalty. They talk about the Jewish friends who attended Mr. Ibrahim’s funeral, and the local Arabs who serve in Israel’s military and its hospitals.
Yet they know they are hated by extremists on both sides. Jewish settlers, seeking to drive Arabs out of Israel, have sometimes roared into town to burn cars and write hateful graffiti on walls.
Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, sparked controversy last week when he warned the police to prepare for violence and rioting by the country’s Arab citizens, who form about 20 per cent of Israel’s population. He was wrong. The rioting never happened, and instead Israeli-Arab leaders have denounced Hamas and condemned the attacks on Israel.
Polls show that most of the country’s Arab citizens – including many who identify as Palestinian – are against the killings and hostage-takings by Hamas. The same mood was reflected in the coffee shop in Abu Ghosh as the men pondered the crisis and its rising death toll.
“There are innocent people on both sides,” said Tamer Abu Ghosh, a bus driver in the town. “We want the killing to stop. I feel pain about it. We don’t feel comfortable having weddings or barbecues now. It’s a sad world now.”
People here have only contempt for Hamas and its dominance of Gaza. “They live like sheikhs,” said Musa Abu Ghosh, a retired trade-union official.
“They have money and fancy homes. They oppress the people of Gaza, and they’re the main reason why the people of Gaza are suffering. Hamas just wants territory. Even if we gave them Jerusalem, it wouldn’t be enough.”
Yet the men in the coffee shop also blame the Israeli government, and prominent officials such as Mr. Ben-Gvir, for provoking unnecessary conflicts that helped bring about the latest war. There needs to be a ceasefire and an end to the Israeli siege of Gaza, they said.
They admitted they were shocked when the Hamas rocket crashed into their town last week. “It was the first time it ever happened, and we didn’t know what to do,” Musa Abu Ghosh said. “We thought it would never happen.”
Mr. Ibrahim, the young man who was killed by the rocket, had just finished high school with exceptional grades, and he was living his dream: he had been accepted into the computer science department at Hebrew University, one of the most prestigious in the country. On the day of the attack, he had stayed at home because his mother was worried by the widening war between Israel and Hamas. He was standing on a glassed-in balcony when the rocket hit below and the shrapnel flew.
His family members say they still feel traumatized by the attack. They jump at every noise in the street, and they flee at every siren.
But they still believe Abu Ghosh can be a symbol of coexistence in Israel. Mr. Ibrahim’s uncle, Ibrahim Ibrahim, said the war has not shaken his identity – he still feels completely Israeli. “We share one destiny,” he said.
The Globe and Mail, October 19, 2023