At least four Israeli cities, including the commercial capital Tel Aviv, have temporarily banned Arab labourers from working in their schools as they struggle to calm public fears fuelled by the worst surge of Palestinian street attacks in years.
Israel’s cabinet also imposed more security measures on Sunday after further Palestinian stabbings this weekend, widening police stop-and-frisk powers that will effectively allow them to search anyone on the street.
A party representing Israel’s Arab minority called the municipalities’ edicts “racist”.
Israel’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the municipalities, said it appealed to “all mayors to continue to act with respect and equality towards all their workers, irrespective of religion, ethnicity or gender”. It did not ask them to repeal the restrictions.
Forty-one Palestinians and seven Israelis have died in recent street violence, which was in part triggered by Palestinians’ anger over what they see as increased Jewish encroachment on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound.
“We are preserving the status quo, we will continue to do so,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in public remarks on Sunday to his cabinet, referring to the site that is also revered by Jews as the location of two destroyed biblical temples.
Netanyahu is to meet US secretary of state John Kerry in Germany in the coming week as part of an effort by Washington to restore calm. Kerry also plans to hold talks in the Middle East with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but no precise location has been announced.
The Palestinian dead include attackers wielding knives and protesters shot by Israeli forces during violent demonstrations. The Israelis were killed in random attacks in the street or on buses, and with parents demanding swift action to safeguard schools, cities have added more armed guards at their gates and police have increased patrols.
Citing security concerns, Tel Aviv and the nearby cities of Rehovot and Hod Hasharon avoided using the word “Arab” in announcing on their websites and emails to residents that maintenance workers and cleaners - many of whom are Arabs - would not be allowed into schools.
Another city, Modiin-Maccabim-Reut, midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, said “minority members” - a term Jews in Israel often use for Arab citizens who make up 20 percent of the population of eight million - would be banned from working in its schools.
Dov Khenin, a legislator from the Joint Arab List, the largest Arab party, said on Israel Radio that “under cover of anxiety, dangerous measures of racist exclusion are being advanced”.
Spokesmen for Tel Aviv and Rehovot said Jews as well as Arabs would be covered by the temporary ban.
“Owing to the sensitive situation, the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa will not permit the entry of construction workers and labourers - Jews and Arabs alike - to educational institutions for on-going work,” city spokeswoman Gali Avni-Orenstein said in an email to Reuters.
But Doron Milberg, director-general of the municipality of Rehovot, which said its own ban on labourers also applied to Jews, acknowledged that Arabs would be most affected by the decision because “those who work in construction ... are the minorities”.
Two of the alleged assailants in attacks on Israelis over the past two weeks were Israeli Arabs. The others were Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Israel, which has poured hundreds of troops into its cities and set up roadblocks in Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, said that on Saturday four Palestinians were shot dead and a fifth seriously injured in thwarted knife attacks.
Pope Francis on Sunday appealed for an end to violence in the Holy Land, urging Israelis and Palestinians to take concrete steps to ease tensions.
“At this moment there is a need for much courage and much fortitude to say ‘no’ to hatred and vendettas and to make gestures of peace,” he told tens of thousands of people after a mass in St Peter’s Square.