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As the war in Gaza goes on, groups try to build bridges between Arabs and Jews

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The war in Gaza is tearing communities apart around the world. That's true in Israel, too, where Palestinian citizens of Israel make up about 20% of the population. NPR's Michele Kelemen spoke to groups trying to build bridges between Palestinians and Jews.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The city of Haifa with its hills and beautiful beaches is something of a test case for multiculturalism in Israel. Shahira Shalabi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was the deputy mayor of Haifa and a city counselor. She now runs an organization that promotes relations between Arabs and Jews.

SHAHIRA SHALABI: The idea of living together or living in the same space is becoming more and more central in Israel. And it means that we need a new model to manage the way that we live together in Israel because it's not separated. You know, the workplaces are not separated, are very shared. The public space is shared.

KELEMEN: We meet at Fattoush, an artsy cafe where life seems normal, but Shalabi says the war in Gaza is taking its toll on the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.

SHALABI: The more that the war is continued, the more the attack against Gaza and killing people continuing, the more that people becoming more and more angry. They want to go to the street. They want to demonstrate. They want to raise their voices, and no one is hearing them.

KELEMEN: Nearby in an old mansion that once housed a British consulate and before that an Iraqi oil company, Jafar Farah runs the Mossawa Center, an advocacy group for the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel. Soon after October 7, many local Palestinians were arrested for social media posts. He says one man lost his job for posting a quote from the Quran.

JAFAR FARAH: Look, we feel sorry for ourselves and to the Jewish population, because actually we are going in circles. The general feeling that we are in circles of violence - you know, nobody's safe.

KELEMEN: His wife works at a hospital where the staff is about 40% Palestinian, and he says many of them have family in Gaza.

FARAH: If in the past, we used to tell our Jewish neighbors, friends, you know, colleagues and et cetera what we see on the ground, what we get from our relatives, in this war, people just don't share information, don't talk to each other about what narrative you get and what stories you get and what pictures and what feelings you have.

KELEMEN: He says there's just disengagement.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SHOUTING)

KELEMEN: A short drive away, there's a kindergarten that's trying to buck that trend by teaching children both Hebrew and Arabic. Merav Ben-Nun founded the Hand in Hand school in Haifa about a decade ago so that her younger son could take part. And she notices a difference between him and his older brothers when it comes to the war in Gaza.

MERAV BEN-NUN: My kids who are not in hand in hand have become very nationalistic, very, like, you know, we need to fight this. We need to win. We need to be strong. We need to endure. That's the kind of education they're getting in general education.

KELEMEN: Merav Ben-Nun, who has a PhD from NYU in international education, says the Jewish families who send their kids here are aware of the Palestinian suffering in Gaza, but they tend to be more focused on the hostages held by Hamas. She's trying hard to keep these conversations going with parents of the schoolchildren.

BEN-NUN: Seeing your country falling apart strains you, but it hasn't strained our relationships. It actually made us realize how important what we're doing is, how we need to fight for it, how we need to support each other throughout this. And it's really - it's a really, really hard extreme time that we're all going through.

KELEMEN: Back at Fattoush Cafe, former Deputy Mayor Shalabi says, eventually, this war is going to end.

SHALABI: We are the ones who need to continue living together here in Israel, and we're thinking all the time about how to recover.

KELEMEN: And how to rebuild trust between communities. She says it's going to take a lot of work.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Haifa, Israel. 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.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.