Officials in Israel’s Arab community on Saturday harshly criticized police and called for an investigation following clashes at a protest the previous day that saw at least 35 demonstrators wounded, including a mayor and a parliamentarian.
Hundreds of demonstrators had rallied in the Arab Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm on Friday to protest against organized crime in the community and police’s failure to extinguish it. But dozens were wounded after police fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannons as they clashed with the protesters.
Officials from Umm al-Fahm’s municipality and from the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, a top panel of Arab community leaders, decided in a meeting Saturday that protests will continue next Friday, and stated that an “inquiry commission must be established immediately.”
Meanwhile, dozens of demonstrators gathered Saturday outside the Haifa Magistrate’s Court to protest against the arrest of four suspects during the Friday clashes. The court later released three of them.
עכשיו מחוץ לביהמ"ש בחיפה – תושבי אום אלפחם, ואיתם פעילים, ערבים ויהודים מכל הארץ, מפגינים למען שחרור העצורים מההפגנה השבועית נגד האלימות בחברה הערבית, שהתקיימה אמש באום אלפחם.
בושה ל@IL_police שעוצרת בברוטליות מפגינים לא אלימים ולא עושה כלום כדי למגר את הפשע המשתולל בחברה הערבית. pic.twitter.com/Rpxga14F2h
— עומדים ביחד نقف معًا Standing Together (@omdimbeyachad) February 27, 2021
Arab Israeli officials have accused police of racist behavior and using excessive force to deal with the protests. Video from the scene showed police beating and kicking protesters as they lay on the ground.
Umm al-Fahm residents have been holding weekly demonstrations against violence and organized crime for nearly a month and a half. Since the beginning of 2021, 21 Arabs have died violently inside Israel.
Medics said at least 35 protesters were injured at Friday’s protest, including Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen. Jabareen was hit in the back with a rubber bullet during the protest; the lawmaker was rushed to a local hospital and was released later in the evening.
Umm al-Fahm mayor Samir Subhi Mahameed, who accompanied Jabareen, was also struck by officers and received medical treatment.
Another man was in serious condition after apparently being struck in the head with a stun grenade. The victim, an Umm al-Fahm resident identified solely by his first name, Muhannad, was taken to Rambam hospital in Haifa for emergency treatment.
At least 11 of the protesters were hospitalized, while the rest were treated at the scene.
עוד תיעוד קשה בו שוטרים ומסתערבים, תוקפים חבר מועצת העיר אום אל פחם כשהוא על הרצפה. pic.twitter.com/XCyWvOuwjP
— |فرات نصار|פוראת נסאר|FURAT NASSAR (@nassar_furat) February 26, 2021
Police said eight officers were lightly hurt and said police were responding to demonstrators hurling stones at them.
“Despite repeated attempts during the week to reach understandings with the protest leaders, including the mayor, we did not receive their cooperation, which led to a violent riot [in which] civilians and police were injured,” police said in a statement.
According to police, officers had responded to a violent riot during which protesters attempted to block the entrance to Umm al-Fahm as well as an adjacent highway. Four people were arrested at the scene for involvement in violent disturbances.
כך החל המשטרה בדיכוי המאחה השקטה נגד האלימות באום אלפחם.שימוש במכתזית והתזה ישירה של מי בואש,ירי רימוני הלם וגז מדמיע,שימוש באלימות נגד עצורים pic.twitter.com/mpJZaIEDYR
— sami abed alhamid سامي عبد الحميد (@samiaah10) February 26, 2021
Mayor Mahameed denied police were attacked, saying protests were peaceful until officers began using force to disperse the crowd.
“The ones who started it were the police, without any provocation on our part,” Mahameed told The Times of Israel.
“There was a silent prayer. The preacher gave a Friday sermon telling worshipers not to behave violently. Then young activists [started] marching with 21 coffins — symbolizing the 21 victims this year in Arab society. Without any provocation, police started spraying water at the protesters and hurling stun grenades and firing rubber bullets,” Mahameed recalled.
Footage from the scene shows officers shoving him after a commander pointed in his direction.
“Then I heard the station commander tell his forces, ‘I do not want to see anyone here,’ and told his officers to attack me specifically. That’s when they beat my head,” the mayor said.
Mahameed acknowledged that some Umm al-Fahm residents had thrown stones at police, but maintained that police had provoked the confrontation. Before the police began to forcefully disperse the crowd, he said, the demonstration had been entirely peaceful.
“As for communicating with us and working to establish calm? There has been nothing of the kind. Today, they began pummeling the young protesters immediately,” Mahameed claimed.
One clip showed police shoving a woman into traffic with a riot shield.
תגידו, איזה עונש הייתם מקבלים אם הייתם דוחפים מישהו לכביש מול משאית?
ואם המישהו הזה שדחפתם הוא שוטר?
אז למה למשטרה מותר?
— Incognito (@IrakiW) February 26, 2021
In another clip, officers are seen clearing the main square using police shields, with one of the cops shoving to the ground an unsuspecting older woman who was facing the other direction as another officer lunged at Jabareen.
שוטר מכה באמצעות מגן שהחזיק בידו צעירה ללא שום סיבה מוצדקת שנראית לעיין שהיתה עם איפוד זוהר ששימש את הסדרנים במחאה נגד האלימות באום אלפחם pic.twitter.com/URZsjoPgNG
— sami abed alhamid سامي عبد الحميد (@samiaah10) February 26, 2021
“The brutal and racist police attacked non-violent protesters who were simply demanding personal security in the face of the crime in Umm al-Fahm,” said Jabareen, adding that an officer struck him in the back with a stun grenade, resulting in injuries that required hospitalization.
“The commander of the Umm al-Fahm police station must resign immediately. This is the demand of the entire Arab public. The police, who are tough on protesters and weak on criminals, will not break us. We will continue the protest,” the lawmaker added.
פוניתי לקבלת טיפול רפואי במרכז אלנור באום אלפחם יחד עם ראש העירייה ועשרות הפצועים.
כדור הגומי שנורה על גבי הוא לא הסיפור – הסיפור הוא משטרה גזענית שאלימה על מפגינים, וממשלה שמפקירה את החברה הערבית כבר יותר מדי שנים. אנחנו דורשים צדק וביטחון אישי! pic.twitter.com/hzS1ZhObwY
— Yousef Jabareen (@DrJabareen) February 26, 2021
Organized crime is largely seen as the engine of the spread of violence in Arab cities and towns. Arab Israelis blame the police, whom they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations.
The number of homicides among Jewish Israelis since 2016 has remained relatively constant: 38 in 2016, 44 in 2017, 35 in 2018, and 36 in 2019, according to the Israel Police.
Among Arab Israelis, however, it has climbed significantly over that same period: 64 in 2016, 67 in 2017, 71 in 2018, 89 in 2019, and 96 in 2020, according to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, which works to advance shared society initiatives in Israel.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report