The alleged car-ramming incident that killed a policeman during protests over planned home demolitions in the southern town of Umm al-Hiran on Wednesday was a “terror attack,” said Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.
“It was not a car-ramming incident; it was a terror attack that murdered a policeman,” Erdan told Israel Radio.
Erdan accused Arab lawmakers of inciting the violence, in particular Arab Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh, who was lightly wounded in the protests.
According to police sources, the driver of the ramming vehicle, identified as local schoolteacher Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, was shot and killed after driving his Land Cruiser into the police line in the southern town. Police said that the driver was not on a marked road and sped in their direction from a dry riverbed.
Police identified the officer killed as 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34, from Yavneh. Senior police official Alon Levavi, deputy head of the Southern District Police, told Israel Radio that Levi was a member of an elite police unit.
Drone footage of the incident released Wednesday afternoon appeared to show at least one policeman opening fire on the vehicle before it accelerates into a group of police officers.
Uriel Eisner, 26, an activist for the Center for Jewish Non-violence who witnessed the incident, confirmed to The Times of Israel that police fired at the vehicle before it accelerated toward officers. Eisner speculated that the driver was trying to leave the village in order to avoid confrontation with police.
Arab Joint List party leader MK Ayman Odeh was struck in the head by a sponge-tipped bullet in the clashes and several other people were reportedly seriously wounded in the clashes.
Odeh told Army Radio after the clashes that he was injured when “police officers set upon me and beat me and shot at me brutally.”
But Erdan blamed Odeh for helping to incite the clashes, saying that Odeh was only there “to fan emotions and to incite violence,” he said in an interview with Army Radio.
He said that he does not believe “a single word of all the lies that [Odeh] knows are lies” and that Odeh “is only putting on a performance with a crybaby voice because he most likely understands that he has contributed to this very serious event.”
Erdan threatened that “there very well may be criminal consequences for MK Odeh.”
He called on lawmakers from Odeh’s party, the Arab Joint List to “stop the violence.”
“Every statement could have serious repercussions on the ground. Take responsibility for your words and stop inciting and fanning the violence.”
Erdan defended the response of the police to the car-ramming and the violent clashes, writing on Twitter in Hebrew that “anywhere [people] try to murder police officers protecting a court-ordered demolition — the response will be the same response.”
“I hope that this day will not mark a turning point in relations between the Bedouin and state authorities, but if so, MK Odeh has a major role in that,” he told Army Radio.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked also condemned violence against police officers, saying “nothing justifies the horrible terror attack and the terrible violence that occurred there.”
In an interview with Israel Radio, Shaked said “there were lengthy negotiations for many years” in which “the residents were offered alternatives and other options.”
She did not address why those talks fell apart but said, “I assume that the police had a reason for deciding to carry out the demolition overnight.”
In a statement, Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) slammed the violence in Umm al-Hiran as “one of the worst [cases] seen in the south in recent years, which must be answered with a strong, uncompromising response.”
He called on the Israel Police and public security minister to increase enforcement of building and zoning laws in the Negev, “and to demolish all the remaining illegal buildings in the Hiran area — today.”
A former army major-general, Galant said the car-ramming, “in which a terrorist exploits riots…to carry out an attack, reflects the potential for terrorism that is created when the Bedouin population is incited against the state and its institutions.”
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Moreshet Radio that the government was working to encourage building in the Bedouin community, but not if it violates the law.
He said that in two weeks security forces will begin to demolish the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona, noting that home demolitions are not directed exclusively at the Arab community.
Around 500 police officers descended on the village to evacuate illegal buildings slated for demolition. They fired tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets to disperse the protesters.
The roughly 700 residents of Umm al-Hiran are the descendants of a Bedouin clan that in 1948 was removed from its original village, a site on which Kibbutz Shoval now sits.
Today, there are plans to replace the Bedouin village with a town to be called Hiran. According to reports, the new town would have 2,400 housing units, which would be filled largely by Jews from the nearby community of Meitar.
As part of a much-criticized government urbanization plan for the semi-nomadic Bedouin encampments that dot the Negev desert, the Bedouin villagers were told they would receive 800-square meter family plots in the nearby town of Hura, which was built by the government in 1989 specifically as a place to absorb Bedouins from nearby unrecognized villages.
The court said that since the Bedouins could theoretically live in the new town, this did not constitute discrimination.
The inhabitants of Umm al-Hiran refused the court’s offer, and appealed to have their case heard before a High Court of Justice panel. The final appeal to keep their village from being demolished was struck down in January 2016.