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In Arab-Israeli community, few blame militants for rocket attacks

NAZARETH, Israel—Sheik Abu El-Walid Ghazalain stood amid dozens of mourners Thursday and held up photographs of the two Arab-Israeli brothers, ages 3 and 7, who were killed by a Hezbollah rocket while playing soccer.

"Israel has killed these two," the white-bearded sheik said as he stood next to the boys' shell-shocked father. "Not Hezbollah."

The confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah hit Nazareth on Wednesday when a Katyusha rocket slammed into Israel's largest Arab-Israeli community and killed the boys.

Hezbollah may have been behind the attack, but few people in this city—not the mayor, nor the grieving father, nor taxi drivers—were willing to criticize the militants for the boys' deaths.

Instead, many pointed their fingers at Israel and accused their leaders of being warmongers.

"Israel could have avoided this," said Abed Taluzi, 45, the father of the two children. "It could have been solved through negotiations."

The political debate surrounding her sons' death mattered little to Ihad Taluzi, who sat on a couch between red-eyed relatives and couldn't stop talking about her boys in the present tense.

"Mahmoud and Rabia are young," she said as a stream of tears fell onto her black dress. "They don't know war. They don't know rockets. They only know how to play."

Israel's 1.3 million Arab citizens include Muslims and Christians and make up about 20 percent of the population. They've always been trapped between worlds.

From the turbulent creation of Israel in 1948, through two Gulf wars and their Palestinian cousins' decades-long struggle for an independent state, Arab-Israelis often have had their loyalty tested and called into question.

Although they're full citizens of Israel, they face challenges that make many of them feel like outsiders. They're underrepresented in Israel's parliament, where they hold 10 percent of the Knesset's 120 seats. They're often viewed with suspicion by the Jewish majority: A recent poll found that 60 percent of Jewish-Israelis saw Arab-Israelis as a security threat. Arab-Israelis aren't drafted like Jewish-Israelis into the military. Many in Israel view military service as an honor.

Lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman, a rising political force, has floated the controversial idea of forcing Arab-Israeli towns and cities to be placed under Palestinian Authority rule in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank that would be absorbed into Israel.

"We are second-class citizens and this has become very clear," said Ahmad Zurbi, a member of the Nazareth city council's Islamic opposition party.

Their allegiance was tried again this week when, without warning, Hezbollah rockets slammed into Nazareth, the boyhood home of Jesus, according to the Bible.

One of the rockets exploded on a narrow hillside street where Mahmoud, 7, and his 3-year-old brother, Rabia, were playing soccer.

The two became the first Arab-Israelis to die in a conflict that's killed at least 29 Israelis and more than 350 people in Lebanon in just over a week.

When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called to offer his condolences, Nazareth Mayor Ramez Jaraysi urged the Israeli leader to stop attacking Lebanon and accept a cease-fire to prevent more needless deaths.

"What does it matter who was responsible?" said a visibly angry Jaraysi on Thursday. "It's not important. What's important is that this war must stop, and the international community must call on both sides to stop."

Miri Eisin, a government spokeswoman, said Israel had no choice but to launch a powerful counterattack after Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others last week.

"We understand the cries for diplomacy," Eisin said. "But we think that, after six years of Hezbollah holding the northern area of Israel hostage, holding the Lebanese government and Lebanese people hostage, that Israel cannot continue to accept a situation where there is a terrorist organization fully deployed on our northern border."

The dead boys' aunt, Wafiqa, who has three sons who were nearly killed by the rocket, said Hezbollah "did not mean to hit us."

"I would sacrifice my life for (Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah. I hope victory will come to the Arab nations," she said.

One of the biggest questions on Thursday was why the city's air raid sirens never gave a warning on Wednesday in Nazareth.

An Israeli military source said that Nazareth, like other largely Arab communities, wasn't connected to the automated alert system because it didn't want the sirens to go off to commemorate Israel's high holy days. In such cases, the military sends out beeper alerts for the communities to activate the sirens manually. But Nazareth didn't inform the government that it wasn't connected to the automatic alert system, the source said, so no beeper alert went out on Wednesday.

All day Thursday, however, there was no official explanation from the Israeli military.

The silence was all taxi driver Ahmad Mohammed needed to believe that his nation had let down its Arab citizens once again.

"They're not concerned about our well-being," he said.

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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