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In Israel, tensions are rising between the country's Jews and its Palestinian Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population. Over the past few months, several Arab sites in Israel have been vandalized by militant Jews who've left graffiti such as Death to Arabs. Sheera Frenkel reports.


SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Protesters gathered on this street corner in the central Israeli town of Jaffa, chanting both Hebrew and Arabic. The crowd is made up of local Jews and Palestinians angry over the attacks that have rocked their community in recent months. Tamar Avia, a 35-year-old Jewish resident of Jaffa, says the neighborhood is being torn apart.

TAMAR AVIA: (Through translator) The problem is national, but it is one that starts on a personal level. It is a problem that is hitting us in Jaffa hard.

FRENKEL: Over the last few months, there have been a series of attacks targeting Palestinians within Israel. In October, a mosque in the northern Arab village of Tuba Zangaria was torched and a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa was vandalized and tombstones smashed. At both sites, graffiti was found linking the attacks to Israeli settlers from the occupied West Bank.

Avia says she came to the protest because she was shocked by what was happening. She speaks in English as she points out that many right-wing Israelis use different terms for Palestinians that live within Israel.

AVIA: They don't call them Palestinians. They call them Israeli Arabs. That's their way to erase their Palestinian identity, okay, and kind of contain them within Israel. But the agenda is to have a purely Jewish state and to get rid of all Palestinians, the ones in the West Bank and in Israel.

FRENKEL: Avia says these kinds of attacks are new in Jaffa, a coastal community hugging the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city. For years, Jews and Arabs coexisted here in relative peace. That was interrupted in early 2010, said Fatima Helewa, a local Palestinian activist.

That's when B'Emuna, a construction company that specializes in building subsidized homes for religious Jewish families in West Bank settlements, started building in Jaffa. Their first project was in the largely Palestinian neighborhood of Ajami.

The Israeli Association for Civil Rights petitioned Israel's high court against the building, claiming that B'Emuna's openly stated policy of only providing apartments to Jews is racist. Israel's high court ruled against them, and B'Emuna continues to build in Jaffa.

A spokesman for B'Emuna insists there's no ethnic tensions in Jaffa, but he refused to answer questions on tape. Helewa, who lives just minutes away from one of the building projects, disagrees.

FATIMA HELEWA: I think it's a development of racism. I know many Jews as friends, but I think as the general society in Israel just developing a racism of Arab people inside and in the West Bank.

FRENKEL: Fatima stands in front of the once popular restaurant Abu Elabed, set ablaze earlier this month and spray painted with graffiti calling for death to Arabs. She says that attack made her feel as if she were not welcome in her own hometown.

HELEWA: Arab people, they ready to live with the Jews. We are living with them for years by years. It's just Zionism(ph) made the Jewish people, the settlers, more and more racist.

FRENKEL: For now, she says that all she can do is continue to protest. And hope that more from the community join her.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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