As a group of young protesters blocked the main road in downtown Nazareth late Sunday night, setting garbage dumpsters on fire and confronting police, a well-known local arrived on the scene and began pushing the demonstrators back toward the sidewalks, urging them to return home.

When he was done, Mayor Ali Salam asked the police to leave.

A day earlier, Salam had explained his opposition to the demonstrations erupting in Arab towns and villages across Israel in an interview with Kul Al-Arab, Israel’s most widely-read Arabic language daily.

“Commerce, economy and tourism in the city of Nazareth will be damaged after such events,” the recently elected mayor said. “Tourists will think a hundred times before visiting the city. Patriotic positions are not [expressed] in such a manner.”

Through his presence at the scene on Saturday, Salam continued, he had prevented police intervention which could have led to fatalities, as it did during the riots of October 2000 when Arab Israeli youth were swept up in the nationalistic fervor of the Second Intifada. Thirteen young citizens were killed then in clashes with the police.

Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam, January 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam, January 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

Salam was not the only Arab mayor out on the streets these past few days, trying to prevent demonstrations from spinning out of control, said Riad Kabha, director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva. In Kfar Qara, regional council chief Hassan Athamneh convinced demonstrators not to block the highway and in Baqa al-Gharbiya Mayor Mursi Abu Mokh did the same, speaking on national television and radio against violent protests.

But while a mayor’s concern for his city’s well-being may seem run-of-the-mill, Salam’s scathing critique of Arab politicians and their destructive role in inciting the youth was highly unusual.

“My criticism is for the leadership,” he told Kul al-Arab. “If the leadership wanted to organize some activity it should have remained present with the youth and not left the area after shouting slogans, leaving the youngsters alone … it should have controlled the situation … I am worried about the escalating harassment of Arab youth operating outside their villages and towns. We must examine things so that they don’t slip out of control.”

A third intifada could be averted, he concluded, “if the Arab leadership united and adopted rational decisions.”

Salam’s remarks were met with scorn by local branches of the Arab political parties. The Nazareth chapter of Balad, a secular Arab-nationalist party with three seats in the Knesset, called his comments “miserable” and “dangerous,” and demanded an apology. Hadash, a socialist party with four parliament members, condemned Salam for exonerating the Netanyahu government and “blaming Arab leaders for what had happened.”

Hanin Zoabi, an MK who lost Nazareth’s municipal elections to Salam last year, called his comments “irresponsible and unpatriotic for a person wishing to fulfill his official leadership role toward his city.”

“This is Israeli language, not Palestinian language,” she wrote on her Facebook page on Sunday, “and we will never recognize it as Palestinians.”

According to Kabha, who used to head the Basma Regional Council southeast of Haifa, that exchange precisely reflects the current crisis of Arab leadership in Israel.

‘The recent demonstrations showed the huge disconnect between the local leadership and the general [Arab] political leadership’

“The recent demonstrations showed the huge disconnect between the local leadership and the general [Arab] political leadership,” he said, adding that many of the demonstrators — mostly young Arabs — were largely insubordinate to any form of leadership.

“They are searching for a way to express their anger,” he said. “They feel as though the Arab leadership — both local and national — is doing little or nothing to respond to Jewish provocations. Their frustration stems from fear.”

Aziz Haidar, a researcher of Arab Israeli society at Jerusalem’s Truman and Van Leer institutes, said street demonstrations were encouraged at times of crisis especially by Balad, which is meagerly represented in Arab municipal authorities and institutions.

Sociologist Aziz Haidar, June 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Sociologist Aziz Haidar, June 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Hadash, despite being significantly weakened in recent municipal elections, still has more control over local and national institutions, and therefore prefers organized activity,” Haidar told The Times of Israel.

Demonstrators also came from distinct socioeconomic and age demographics, Haidar noted. Rioters are usually teenagers with no financial obligations, members of the middle-lower or lower class in Arab society which vote for Arab parties and suffer from high unemployment rates.

“Sixty to seventy percent of Arabs work outside their towns, so it’s important for mayors to maintain the calm so that workers can reach their jobs safely,” he said. “Merchants also want suppliers to be able to enter Arab towns. Today, Arab business-owners in garages or restaurants are dependent on their Jewish clients. These people see the importance of protest, but want it quiet, allowing them to return to normal.”

To calm spirits in Arab society, Jewish and Arab demonstrators should be treated equally by law enforcement agents as well as by the media, said Kabha, the former regional council chief.

“Arabs taking to the streets are called ‘rioters’ while Jews chanting ‘death to the Arabs’ are referred to as ‘demonstrators’ or ‘protesters,'” he said. “This leads to bad things.”