An Arab-owned restaurant in the Israeli city of Haifa has been caught in a whirlwind of legal action and threats of violence after staff refused to serve a soldier in military uniform, an incident that is rapidly tarnishing the city's reputation as a model of good Jewish-Arabs relations.
The soldier, Raviv Roth, has launched a damages claim for US$16,000 (Dh58,700) over his treatment at Azad, a restaurant located in a bohemian neighbourhood of the northern port city. Mr Roth's lawyer alleges that the restaurant broke anti-discrimination laws and humiliated the soldier, while Azad's owner says he only wants to ensure a relaxed and non-partisan atmosphere for all his customers. Since the incident occurred three weeks ago, soldiers and right wing students have staged a large demonstration outside Azad demanding a boycott of the restaurant, and Azad's staff have received dozens of calls threatening to kill them or burn the premises down.
A Facebook group demanding Azad's closure has attracted tens of thousands of supporters. The local municipality has launched its own legal action to close the restaurant, arguing it has violated licensing conditions in refusing to serve the soldier. "I can't believe what's been happening," said Anas Deeb, Azad's owner. "The soldier and municipality have been waging a vendetta campaign against me ever since they learnt we have a dress code that does not allow uniforms. Our policy is not 'against' the army - it covers every uniform, even the boy scouts'.
"Everyone is talking as if we refused to serve the soldier, but that's not true. He was told he was welcome here any time but only if he first changed out of his army uniform." One in 10 residents of Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel with a population of 270,000, is Arab. The city is often cited as a unique example in Israel of a multicultural community that has sought to integrate, rather than marginalise, its Arab population.
But the rapid escalation of tensions over the Azad incident risks creating a deep ethnic fissure, as has occurred in other mixed cities in Israel. In Acre, 20km up the coast, ethnic strains led in late 2008 to clashes between groups of Arab and Jewish youths. Several Arab families were chased out of mixed neighbourhoods and had their homes set on fire. In Israel, where most of the secular Jewish population is conscripted for three years and many men continue to do annual reserve duty until their 40s, soldiers are often treated as heroes.
Buses give soldiers discounted tickets, those who have served in the army are entitled to lower tax rates, cheap mortgages and preferential rights to buy land and employers often specify that only former soldiers will be considered for jobs. Almost all of Israel's Arab citizens, who comprise a fifth of the country's population, are exempted from the army and do not receive such benefits. Mr Deeb, 30, said he established his restaurant - whose Arabic name means "Free man" - to offer a space where the city's Jews and Arabs could "mix as equals and without intimidation".
"Haifa is famous for being a multicultural city," he said. "Many of my clients are Jews, so this case has nothing to do with discrimination. All I want is peaceful dialogue. "Places all over the world have dress codes, including requirements to wear a tie or a jacket, and no one makes any fuss. Why is an army uniform any different?" Mr Roth's lawyer, Pinhas Weller, said Mr Deeb had until this weekend to pay compensation to the 23-year-old soldier or he would be sued in the courts. Mr Roth, he said, had been told not talk to the media by the army.
Mr Weller added that the refusal to allow the soldier entry to Azad was no less discriminatory than refusing to serve someone because of his skin colour or his religion. "In Israel, most people at some stage in their life wear a military uniform and the army is seen as protecting our way of life," he said. "If you refuse to serve someone in the army, it says something about your attitude to the country."
Similar sentiments were expressed at a demonstration outside Azad this month. Police had to stop protesters breaking into the restaurant as they waved Israeli flags and held banners saying "Don't discriminate against soldiers" and "Soldiers keep us safe". One man was filmed shouting at customers and staff inside: "Until you're shut down, we won't leave this spot and we'll give you trouble. The soldiers protect you and me too. It's because of them that you exist - All of Israel, all businesses, will welcome the army and those in uniform with respect."
However, human rights lawyers say the restaurant has broken no laws. Anti-discrimination legislation, introduced in 2000, covers race, religious affiliation, nationality and sexual orientation, but not military service. Sawsan Zaher, of the Haifa-based Adalah legal centre for the Arab minority, said the involvement of the municipality was of particular concern. "We regard this as a case of harassment by city officials," said Ms Zaher. "In arguing that the restaurant should have its licence revoked because it discriminated against the soldier, the municipality is including a licensing criterion that is not authorised by the law."
Jafar Farah, head of Mossawa, a Haifa-based advocacy group for the Arab minority, said his organisation had been monitoring a growing number of cases in which public places in Haifa refused Arabs entry. tMr Farah said the city's climate of coexistence was breaking down, partly as a result of an influx during the 1990s of right wing immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Today, a quarter of Haifa's population is Russian-speaking.
The city's deputy mayor, Yulia Shtraim, a member of the far-right party of Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, which is popular with Russian speakers, made headlines during last year's local election when she barred Arab reporters, but not Jewish journalists, from party rallies. "Unfortunately, the soldier in this case is being backed by far-right groups who want to present this incident as an example of Arab disloyalty to Israel," said Mr Farah. "That is dangerous because it could play well in parts of Haifa where Lieberman's party has attracted voters with its slogan of "No citizenship without loyalty."
* The National