ACRE, Israel (Reuters) - Rioters in northern Israel torched two houses and badly damaged several others in the third night of tensions between Jewish and Arab residents of Acre, officials said Saturday.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Arab residents were evacuated before their homes were set alight and that nobody was injured. He said police remained on very high alert.
Sami Hawary, an Israeli-Arab resident of Acre who heads a group which works for cooperation between Arabs and Jews, said that during the early hours of Saturday angry Jewish residents set fire to two houses and damaged eight others.
“There were scores of angry Jewish residents, mainly younger people who set fire to the homes, the tension is very high here, things are on a knife-edge,” Hawary told Reuters.
Friday, Israeli prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni visited Acre and urged a return to calm from both communities. Livni is trying to form a new government following the resignation of premier Ehud Olmert.
Abbas Zakour, an Israeli Arab lawmaker from Acre confirmed 10 homes had been damaged and that tensions remained high.
“Jews burned 10 homes inside a Jewish area last night, there is calm at the moment but the tensions remain,” he told Reuters.
Rosenfeld said police had worked through the night to contain sporadic violence in the city of 46,000 and remained on high alert to counter further outbreaks. He said officers had arrested 12 people from both communities.
Many shops and restaurants in the old town, a popular tourist destination which was once the Crusader capital of the Holy Land, remained closed Saturday, Rosenfeld said.
Trouble started in Acre after dark Wednesday at the start of the Yom Kippur, the holiest day for Jews, when an Arab drove into a Jewish district, disturbing the start of 24 hours during which many Jews fast and abstain from driving.
As word spread from mosque loudspeakers of Jewish youths stoning the car, Arab crowds responded angrily, causing widespread damage to cars and shops in a main city street.
Relations between Jews and the mostly Muslim Arabs have been sometimes tense in Israel and dog the nature of a peace settlement which still eludes the two communities, 60 years after Israel was established in what was then Palestine.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed in principle on a two-state solution in which the 4 million Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza, many descended from those driven out or who fled Israel during the war of 1948, would eventually have a state.
As a result of the violence, Acre’s mayor canceled an annual theater festival set to take place in the city next week but Israeli Culture Minister Galeb Magadla, himself an Israeli-Arab, said it was the wrong move.
Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Matthew Jones