Haviv Rettig , THE JERUSALEM POST
When a handful of masked young Arab men threw gasoline-drenched pieces of burning cloth into an apartment used by the Ayalim organization in Acre's Old City last week, it was an Arab neighbor who chased them angrily away and put out the fire.
"We're not here to make Acre Jewish," says 27-year-old Guy Maoz, logistical coordinator for the Ayalim student village in the heart of Acre's Old City, an almost entirely Arab neighborhood. "We're simply here to develop the city to the level of a modern tourist town where people will want to live," he says.
Ayalim is a nationwide organization that has placed over 500 students in 11 "villages" in the country's North and South. There they spend a year working on social projects to develop the areas and help stem the flow of young, educated residents to Israel's center.
These are not peacenik idealists - "not that there's anything wrong with those types," insists Michal Heskelovich, manager of Ayalim's Acre branch - but busy students, the majority majoring in engineering and medicine, who want to be part of the very practical, dirty work of changing the country for the better.
Most of Ayalim's student villages are tiny settlements in the Negev or Galilee where the students live in temporary caravans and work on social projects in nearby villages and towns.
But another type of village developed after the Second Lebanon War, when an Ayalim group setting up near Kiryat Shmona was not permitted to live in temporary structures because they were deemed too dangerous in light of the rocket barrages that covered northern Israeli towns during the war.
So the group sought another housing solution and found apartments in one of the worst neighborhoods in the poor northern town. That was Ayalim's first "urban village." Acre is its second.
Whatever the world may think of ethnic relations in Acre, those living in the center of the storm are optimistic.
The Arab neighbors are "extremely curious about us," says Maoz. "In their culture they don't live inside the house, but outside, chatting in the streets," so the Jewish students and Arab residents meet several times each day, exchanging pleasantries and, more often than not, humor.
Walking through the narrow alleyways of Acre on Wednesday, 27-year-old Heskelovich, a cheerful blonde with a degree in education who seems exotic against the cobblestones of the old Mediterranean port, is greeted by an old Arab man who detains her for long minutes to discover why she was gone from the neighborhood for nearly two weeks during the holidays.
Barely extricated from his interrogation, she is forced to repeat the process with another half-dozen residents before reaching the organization'
"The ones who live near us know what we're about and appreciate us," explains Maoz.
But not everyone accepted the group at first.
Ayalim's work of developing the periphery is similar to, and sometimes corresponds with efforts to "Judaize" Galilee regions by encouraging Jews to move to areas with large Arab populations.
The apartments and financial support in Acre are contributed by the Jewish Agency.
When Arab community leaders in Acre protested the entry of young Jews into their neighborhood, the tensions between the two groups forced the municipality to step in and arrange a meeting between the heads of Ayalim and the Islamic Movement in Acre.
At the meeting, the student group managed to convince the local Muslim leadership that the development of Acre was their primary goal, and its greatest beneficiaries would be the poor Arab community in the town.
"There's a lot of crime and drugs in this neighborhood,
To achieve that goal, Ayalim is tackling the Arab-Jewish divide head-on.
For Heskelovich and Maoz, this doesn't come from a specific commitment to coexistence, but simply because you cannot escape the problem if you want to do economic development work in mixed cities.
The first step in coexistence is to deal with the tensions within the group itself. Last year's group had both Arab and Jewish student participants, and the unresolved tensions between them "hurt the cooperation within the group," Heskelovich says. "It was hard to talk about Zionism or any other nationalism.
Three Arab students will be part of the 24-member group that begins the new academic year in Acre's Old City early next month. This year, "we're going to focus on creating a cooperative life together," insists Heskelovich.
Meanwhile, the group arriving in November will face a stiff challenge. Before deciding how they will spend thousands of hours of community work - each participant must give up to 500 hours over the year - the students will go door-to-door, introducing themselves to their neighbors and finding out from the residents what the community needs from them.
Some of the projects being offered: a beautician among the students hopes to offer cosmetics classes to local women, and Heskelovich hopes to establish a Salvation Army-style second-hand clothing store in the Old City.
The ethnic tensions that flared this month in the town will likely remain, Maoz and Heskelovich believe.
But "we don't need perfect harmony to do our work," insists Maoz, "as long as everyone knows where the boundaries are."
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