UMM AL-HIRAN, Negev — Something smelled rotten. I couldn’t tell if it was the dried blood on Joint (Arab) List leader MK Ayman Odeh’s shirt, or the dead dog lying on the side of the desert road.
It was around 10 a.m. Wednesday, and we were at a roadblock where police were preventing anyone from getting through. Not even Odeh himself, who earlier in the morning was hit in the head by what he said was a sponge-tipped bullet, the police said was an errant rock thrown by Bedouin protesters, and the doctors at the hospital said they couldn’t say for sure.
There had already been two fatalities, and police didn’t want any more problems before they finished demolishing about a dozen homes and shacks in the unauthorized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, around a mile off in the distance.
Hours earlier, pre-dawn, a 47-year-old local schoolteacher named Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an drove his car into a group of police officers, killing 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34.
The police and Israel’s government were quick to call the incident another terrorist ramming attack, like the attack last week in Jerusalem that killed four Israeli soldiers. And just like the Jerusalem attacker, Al-Qia’an was immediately said to have ties to an Islamist group, and this explained why he went out to commit an attack.
The 34-year-old sergeant Levi leaves behind a wife and two children aged 2 and 5.
At Levi’s funeral, Police Chief Roni Alsheich repeated the claim that the driver who killed the officer had been radicalized, accusing him of goading children into violence.
“[Abu al-Qia’an] spread incitement at a school where six other teachers have been arrested for they affiliation with the Islamic State,” Alsheich said. “The terrorist looked for a group of police officers, accelerated and then hit them.”
Earlier, the deputy commander of the police southern district, Peretz Amar, said the incident was “a deliberate attack. This is clear. This is a fact. There is no other explanation, and anyone who tries to offer an alternative explanation wasn’t here at the time and doesn’t understand.”
A very different story was unfolding back in Umm al-Hiran.
Unsurprisingly, not a single person this reporter spoke to in the village said they believed the police’s version of events. Quite the opposite. They were fuming that the “murdered” teacher was now having his named slandered by the police.
Those on the scene said Qia’an was first shot by police, and then his car sped up and rammed into police. Video from the scene was cited by both the Israeli authorities and the local residents as proof of the veracity of their narrative.
“Is there a future after death? They came and killed a man, then demolished his home and left his kids on the street,” a nephew of Qia’an told me later, inside the village.
Some of Qia’an’s 12 kids were sitting or standing amid the rubble of their own home. One son was sitting on stones, almost like it was a sandbox. A daughter of around ten looked to be in a semi-trance, lifting up and putting down rubble over and over again, as if searching for something but not finding it.
I came upon them after asking a group of female residents of the village where they were going to sleep tonight. “You should ask about them,” they said, pointing to the children.
Where was their mother? They pointed to another part of the village, where most of Israel’s Arab leadership was gathering for an emergency meeting, at which they later declared a day-long strike for Thursday.
What did these women think about the police saying Qia’an was a terrorist?
“He was sleeping when his nephew called him from the mosque to say that there is a demolition today,” said one of the women, recounting that Qia’an then quickly took out the valuables from his home and brought them into his car.
“From the moment he arrived on the scene in his jeep, they swarmed around him like flies, shooting at him from all sides and yelling to each other ‘terrorist, terrorist,’” she alleged of the police.
Nobody in the village seemed to have been expecting the demolitions. Negotiations had continued until midnight, and while no deal was reached — Odeh had said there were only a few more details to be worked out — the tractors were not anticipated so soon.
I watched one girl pick what seemed to be her school textbooks and notebooks out of the rubble of her home. A group of men had already managed to extract what seemed most necessary: around a dozen mattresses.
Raid Abu Al-Qia’an, designated as the spokesperson for the village, said those whose homes were destroyed would sleep in their relatives’s homes in the village. He said around 70 homes were still left.
Most of the village was still standing, including its mosque; police demolished eight homes and four shacks.
“This is what Bibi wants,” Qia’an’s nephew said, referring to the prime minister.
Members of the Joint (Arab) List gathered here concurred, arguing the demolitions were the latest ploy by Netanyahu to prove to his base that he was tough on Arabs. After it was agreed late in December that the illegal West Bank outpost Amona would soon be evacuated, Netanyahu made it clear he would increase the rate at which illegally built Arab homes in Israel proper are demolished, to show Jews and Arabs are treated “equally” under the law.
Earlier in the day, a few hundred residents of nearby Israeli-Bedouin towns and villages had come to the police roadblock to show their solidarity with Umm al-Hiran.
When I asked a group of young men in their early 20s to share their thoughts, they said no thanks.
Why not? Well, they said, they were afraid that tomorrow the police would come and arrest them for incitement. Didn’t I know about the case of the man from the Bedouin city of Rahat who was arrested for a sarcastic Facebook post?
As an Arab Affairs reporter who regularly interviews Palestinians, I’m used to people telling me they are afraid of government reprisals. But not in Israel — until now.
An older man who was listening decided he wasn’t afraid, and spoke his mind.
Sa’ed Abed, from the nearby town of Hura, said he knew Qia’an well. “Yes, he was a religious man. But he was not built for something like this.”
In 2013, Israel approved the establishment of two new Jewish communities, called Kesif and Hiran. To make way for the new towns, Umm al-Hiran, which is unrecognized by the authorities, was to be removed. “To build a Jewish settlement in place of an Arab settlement that exits, it’s a little disgusting,” Abed said.
“I think Netanyahu did this crime in order to disrupt the rumors that have come out,” Abed added, referring to the current multi-pronged investigations into allegations of graft and quid pro quo involving the prime minister. “But this won’t help him… Enough already, we need a solution for the Bedouin community and for the Arab community in general.”
The government says Umm al-Hiran’s residents are to be moved to the nearby Bedouin village of Hura, home to around 300 families, with compensation offered.
Israel’s Supreme Court approved the removal, having ruled in 2015 that the village was built on state land and its Bedouin residents had no legal rights to it. The court noted in November that the Bedouin villagers have been told they would receive 800-square-meter plots in the nearby town of Hura, built by the government in 1989 specifically to absorb and urbanize Bedouins from the surrounding unrecognized villages and tent encampments.
It is unclear when the other residents will be moved.
AFP contributed to this report.