An arson attack targeting first-grade classrooms at a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem sparked a wave of condemnation Sunday as months of racial tensions in the city showed little sign of abating.
Meanwhile, hundreds protested Saturday the Israeli cabinet's decision to endorse a controversial draft law that enriches Israel as a "Jewish state."
On Saturday, Israeli settlers torched the "Hand-in-Hand" bilingual school and scrawled on its walls racist anti-Palestinian slogans in Hebrew reading "Death to Arabs" and "There's no coexistence with cancer," Israeli police said, describing the attack as a "very serious incident.”
Nadia Knane, the school's headmistress, said one of the first-grade classrooms had been badly damaged by the fire, and said the settlers had tried to set light to the second classroom but it didn't catch.
"After I saw what was written, I realized it was not just a fire. They wrote 'Death to Arabs' and 'Kahana was right' -- words which have a lot of meaning," she told Israeli army radio.
Meir Kahana was a Zionist rabbi whose Kach party was banned over incitement to racial hatred against Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular but whose ideology still inspires loyalty among Jewish extremists.
"The school had been targeted several times in recent months but every other time was outside the school. This is the first time it was inside," the headmistress said.
"The fact that they went into a first grade class is really crossing a red line."
Speaking to AFP, Hatam Mattar, head of the parents' committee, denounced it as "a barbaric attack.”
Outside the school, dozens of people gathered Sunday to condemn the attack, holding up banners in Hebrew and Arabic reading "Spread the light instead of terror.”
Several Israeli officials condemned the arson attack, including Israel’s Education Minister Shai Piron who denounced the attack as a "violent and despicable incident” that “undermines the foundations” of the so-called “Israeli democracy." Meanwhile, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni went to the school “in a show of solidarity.”
In the past few years, the school -- which has 624 pupils ranging from nursery age to 12th grade -- has been targeted by a string of racist graffiti attacks.
Hate crimes by Israeli settlers against Palestinians and their property, referred to as “price tag” attacks, are endemic and Israeli authorities rarely intervene in the violent attacks or prosecute the perpetrators.
A report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that there were at least 399 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in 2013.
Unrest has gripped annexed East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank on an almost daily basis for the past four months, flaring up after a group of Zionist settlers kidnapped and brutally killed 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir because of his ethnicity.
Last month, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah slammed Israel for failing to hold Zionist settlers accountable for a recent wave of violence against Palestinians.
"The Israeli government has never brought settlers to account for the terrorism and intimidation they commit [against Palestinians]," Hamdallah said.
More than 600,000 Israeli settlers, soaring from 189,000 in 1989, live in settlements across the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, in contravention of international law.
Racism by Israeli authorities
As firefighters extinguished the fire at the Hand-in-Hand school, hundreds of left-wing Israelis were demonstrating Saturday against a controversial draft law that enriches Israel as a "Jewish state."
The rally was organized by Israel's Peace Now settlement watchdog and held across the street from the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli police said approximately 800 people attended the demonstration.
Peace Now said the rally was "an opportunity to let the democratic camp's voice be heard" against the draft law, which embodied "nationalism, racism, and aggression" threatening to "ruin our country."
Earlier this week, the Israeli cabinet voted in favor of the proposal to anchor in law Israel's status as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
Israel would no longer be defined in its Basic Laws as "Jewish and democratic," but instead as "the national homeland of the Jewish people.”
Critics said the proposed change to the laws that act as Israel's effective constitution could institutionalize discrimination against its 1.7 million Palestinian citizens.
The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) said that the state's Jewish identity is already contained in its 1948 declaration of statehood.
"However, that declaration also emphasizes the Jewish state's absolute commitment to the equality of all of its citizens – an essential component missing from the proposals being presented to the government today," IDI president Yohanan Plesner said in a statement.
Protesters Saturday held signs reading "we won't let you ruin the country" and "the nation-state law of the right-wing government is democracy for Jews only" in the crisp evening.
"Go home, release us from your oppressive, racist, extremist, and inciting regime," MP Tamar Zandberg of the opposition Meretz party said at the demonstration.
The rally came just one day after Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship be offered financial incentives to leave Occupied Palestine and relocate to a future Palestinian state.
As one of the most strident voices in favor of the separation of Israelis and Palestinians, Lieberman added that Palestinians living in Jaffa and Acre, two mixed cities on the Mediterranean coast far from the West Bank, should be encouraged to move if they want.
"Those (1948 Palestinians) who decide that their identity is Palestinian will be able to forfeit their Israeli citizenship and move and become citizens of the future Palestinian state," he wrote Friday in the manifesto, entitled Swimming Against the Stream, published on his Facebook page and his party's website.
"Israel should even encourage them to do so with a system of economic incentives," he said.
Palestinian citizens of Israel, who account for about 20 percent of the population in Occupied Palestine, are the descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land when the Zionist state was established in 1948. The majority of Palestinians were killed, expelled from their homes, or detained in work camps.
Palestinians with Israeli citizenship complain of routine discrimination, particularly in housing, land access and employment.
Lieberman’s proposal echoes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenge earlier this month for 1948 Palestinians to go and live under Palestinian rule in the West Bank and Gaza, after many protested against the deadly police shooting of a young Palestinian with Israeli citizenship during an attempted arrest.
"To all those who are demonstrating and shouting their denunciation of Israel and support of a Palestinian state, I can say one simple thing: you are invited to move there – to the Palestinian Authority or to Gaza," Netanyahu said.
"I can promise you the State of Israel will not put any obstacles in your way," he told a meeting with Likud legislators.
The demonstrations in northern Occupied Palestine came against a backdrop of soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions in annexed East Jerusalem, where there have been near-daily clashes over Israeli violations at the al-Aqsa mosque compound as well as illegal settlement activities and discriminatory laws.
Lieberman, whose ultra-nationalist party is a core part of Netanyahu's coalition, has previously spoken about redrawing borders but not about using incentives to encourage Palestinians to uproot to a Palestinian state.
Palestinian leaders continue to demand the establishment of an independent state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with East Jerusalem – currently occupied by Israel – as its capital.
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