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In Israel, the tension of the war with Hamas is felt far from Gaza

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You feel the tension of Israel's war with Hamas far from Gaza. The places we've traveled this week include the city of Acre, or Akko, on Israel's coast.

Oil tankers out in the Mediterranean waiting their turn to come in, and we just passed a traffic circle with an anchor in the center of it.

We came to meet one of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many trace their ancestry here to before the country's creation in 1948. Akko's residents are about one-third Palestinian, and they include a member of the parliament, or Knesset, who has an office in an old part of the city.

Oh, is this her on the balcony? Oh, it's an assistant.

The assistant beckoned us up the stairs and we met the legislator, Aida Suleiman, who offered us tea. I said she was kind and she replied that she often is not, that we would have seen her in a worse mood if we'd come the night before.

AIDA TOUMA-SULEIMAN: We had to rescue 50 of our students.

INSKEEP: Rescue? Suddenly we were in the middle of a story of Israel's internal tensions. Jewish residents held a demonstration this week at a college in the city of Netanya. Someone sent Suleiman a video, which she played for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

TOUMA-SULEIMAN: Death for Arabs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

INSKEEP: Crowd of scores, maybe hundreds, waving Israeli flags out in the street. There's some police on the scene, judging by the flashing lights.

She said she helped to organize the evacuation of Palestinian students for their safety. It's been said that the October 7 attack united Israeli society, but Suleiman feels targeted by right-wing extremists and dismayed by Israel's response in Gaza.

TOUMA-SULEIMAN: There is no excuse for what happened on the 7th of October, but there is no excuse for what is happening since the 7th of October. It is not a war to smash down Hamas, it's already a war to smash down the Palestinian people.

INSKEEP: The government, of course, says the opposite. They'll say, we're not smashing Palestinians, we want to smash Hamas.

TOUMA-SULEIMAN: You know what? Let this big liar that is called the prime minister say whatever he wants.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about your different identities. You're a citizen of Israel. You're a member of the government.

TOUMA-SULEIMAN: You mean my schizophrenic situation?

INSKEEP: Please, go on.

TOUMA-SULEIMAN: I mean, yes, I am Palestinian. This is my identity. My situation is that I'm a citizen of Israel.

INSKEEP: She is involved in Israeli politics but shuddered when I suggested she's part of the system. She feels she's not, and she blames the government for the long-term events that preceded the Hamas attack.

TOUMA-SULEIMAN: The Israeli government, by adopting a policy of continuous occupation, enlargement of settlements, hostility toward the Palestinian people, are taking responsibility for jeopardizing the security of the Israeli people.

INSKEEP: You feel it was an irresponsible policy?

TOUMA-SULEIMAN: Because there is no way to oppress other people and to expect that you will live, you know, very quietly.

INSKEEP: For now, it's the mixed city of Akko that feels quiet. She says Arabs feel afraid to go out.

TOUMA-SULEIMAN: There is a very tense silence.

INSKEEP: We heard something similar when we sat with the owner of a seaside restaurant. We were the only customers. My colleague who knows this city a little says it's empty compared to what would normally be the case.

URI JEREMIAS: (Laughter) Empty is a underestimation. It's abandoned.

INSKEEP: Uri Jeremias is a prominent Israeli chef and entrepreneur who says he's doing no business at all since the war started. But he's kept his staff on the payroll because he's an optimist.

JEREMIAS: I believe that if someone is a pessimist all his life, he reaches his last day and finds out he was wrong, he [expletive] up a whole life.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

JEREMIAS: And if you're an optimist all your life and you discover in the last day that you were wrong, it's one day that got lost.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

He ordered some food as we talked and ordered me to get some sauce on the salmon.

JEREMIAS: You have to take more of the...

INSKEEP: More of this, like this? OK.

JEREMIAS: Yeah, more, more. This is what makes the taste.

INSKEEP: Magnificent, thank you.

Jeremias told a story of this mixed city in 2021. He recalled an iftar, a dinner during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, where people of all faiths celebrated Akko's diversity.

JEREMIAS: One week later, we had here fire and riots. And my places were burned down.

INSKEEP: He blamed a crowd of Arab extremists reacting to that year's war against Hamas. The Jewish restaurateur, the optimist, rebuilt and became, for some people, a symbol of progressive Israeli society. But since October 7, his view of the war has been different from that of his Palestinian neighbor, Aida Suleiman.

JEREMIAS: This cannot repeat again. And we have to...

INSKEEP: Meaning that threat has to be ended somehow?

JEREMIAS: No question, no question. And no question of what the cost because it is impossible to agree a repeat of living under threat 365 days a year.

INSKEEP: He feels the world has stopped worrying about the Israeli hostages that Hamas captured.

JEREMIAS: They are holding 220-something hostages, and the world is quiet about it. They are all worried about the kids in Gaza. And the kids that were killed or the kids that are threatened and not going to school here, no one's interest.

INSKEEP: A very short distance from here, I spoke with Aida Suleiman, who had a very different perspective. Not that she approved of anything that Hamas did on October 7, but she argues there's an underlying problem of people who are repressed and that that problem needs to be addressed or there will inevitably be some reaction. What do you think about that?

JEREMIAS: I don't argue. I say only we have to have a counterpart with whom we can talk.

INSKEEP: Israeli leaders often say they have no Palestinian partner for peace, though Israel itself is widely blamed for undermining the main Palestinian group that committed to it. When we finished lunch, Uri Jeremias took us for a walk. We went through streets hardly wide enough for one car.

We're walking past these stone buildings. Are some of these stone foundations hundreds of years old?

JEREMIAS: This is, like, five, 600 years old, most of it. But it's based on much older places.

INSKEEP: He says the ancient city is on a peninsula with water on three sides, seemingly easy to defend, though multiple empires have seized and lost it. We went up to the roof of a hotel he owns and he pointed out something on the horizon.

JEREMIAS: The Lebanese border is the mountain there.

INSKEEP: The farthest mountain, the one that is almost in shadow in the fog, almost obscured, that's Lebanon?

JEREMIAS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Maybe 30, 40 km away?

JEREMIAS: Twenty.

INSKEEP: About 12 miles, meaning this city is well within rocket range of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is an ally of Hamas, one more complexity of living here. Uri Jeremias and his neighbor, Aida Suleiman, live in the same city but have different ideas of the threats they face.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.