Arab leaders and lawmakers on Wednesday placed the blame for deadly morning violence in the village of Umm al-Hiran squarely on police and the government.
Home demolitions at the unauthorized Bedouin village in the Negev were disrupted early Wednesday when a car, driven by local schoolteacher Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, slammed into the police line, killing one officer, 34-year-old Erez Levi, and moderately wounding another.
Police opened fire and killed Abu Al-Qia’an as the protest around them devolved into a violent riot.
Joint (Arab) List head MK Ayman Odeh, who was lightly wounded in the fighting, said a massive police force of some 100 officers “attacked the residents of Umm al-Hiran. They just fell on them, they hit me and shot at me with brutality.”
Odeh says he was hit by a sponge-tipped bullet, while police reportedly maintain that he was hit by a rock thrown by a protester.
The police violence, Odeh told Army Radio in a morning interview, “was ruining everything.”
His office said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had called him to inquire about his condition.
In a statement, the Israel Police said Abu Al-Qia’an was an “Islamic Movement activist” who “accelerated toward the officers with the intent of carrying out a ramming attack.”
The statement said authorities were “examining the attacker’s (possible) affiliation with Islamic State.”
However, his relatives denied he was a member of the Islamic Movement and noted he was a school teacher. “These are complete lies,” a man identified as the driver’s brother told Israel Radio, adding that Abu Al-Qia’an was trying to leave the area when police opened fire on his car.
The conflicting reports may be the result of the confusion and predawn darkness in which the ramming took place, as shown in a police video released Wednesday afternoon.
Drone footage of the incident released later in the day appeared to show at least one policeman opening fire on the vehicle before it accelerates into a group of police officers.
Abu Al-Qia’an’s mother, Sara Abu Qia’an, insisted her son was a victim not an assailant. Speaking to the Arab Israeli radio station a-Shams, she insisted, “The claims of the police are lies. My son would never do what they claim.”
In a video posted online Wednesday, she is seen shouting, “Why’d they have to shoot him? They’ve destroyed me! Oh my life!”
In videos posted online by activist groups, one far-left activist, Israeli mathematician Kobi Snitz, said he witnessed the ramming incident, and insisted the driver did not have control of the vehicle when it struck the officers.
“Police came in a very pressuring and threatening way, pointed live firearms at people,” he said in the video (Hebrew link). “It looked [like a] very dangerous [situation] from the start. As soon as they got to the upper part of the village… I very quickly heard live fire in single rounds. After that I saw a white pickup truck that started driving far away from the officers, drove away from them, not toward them.”
That’s when police opened fire, Snitz said. “After [the vehicle] started moving, he was probably frightened, trying to flee, bursts of gunfire came from police, from all sides, surrounded the truck, shot from all sides, some from in front, some from the back. At some point, the driver must have been hit, lost control [of the vehicle], continued to descend the hillside, that’s when the officers were hurt. But as far as I could see, the driver was hurt and not in control of the vehicle” when it struck the officers.
The village itself was sealed off by some 500 police after the violence, according to a top official in the Southern District Police. The demolitions were continuing within the police cordon, while officers were holding off many dozens of Bedouin youths from nearby villages who came to the site to protest the morning violence.
In the nearby town of Hura, local leaders announced a public strike. Thousands of schoolchildren were sent home.
The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, an umbrella of Arab Israeli rights groups, was holding emergency meetings about the situation Wednesday.
A demonstration was planned in Haifa’s German Colony at 7 p.m. Wednesday to protest the “killings and destruction” in the Negev.
Another Arab Joint List MK, Taleb Abu Arar, said in a statement that “what happened this morning at Umm al-Hiran was a war declared by the police and the state against the Arabs. The young man who was killed was a teacher. He was killed in cold blood.”
He claimed police “sprayed the scene with live, indiscriminate fire, even hitting their own cars.”
“The demolition of homes must be stopped, and [the state] must sit and talk with the residents.”
Abu Arar blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the flare-up. “The prime minister of Israel is willing to do anything, and to sabotage anything, to cover up his own crimes,” a reference to an ongoing spate of graft investigations against the prime minister.
Activists at Umm al-Hiran claimed the residents did not seek violence.
In a tweet by activist Anan Maalouf shared by Odeh spokesperson Reut Mor, the activists said, “We understand the police is inciting in the media and claiming the activists in Umm al-Hiran belong to Islamic State. Here we are, the real [people] in the village, Jewish and Arab students who are opposed to the expulsion.”
— Anan Maalouf (@AnanMaalouf) January 18, 2017
MK Dov Khenin, the lone Jewish lawmaker in the Joint List, said eyewitness accounts from the violence were “difficult.”
“I will demand an impartial investigative committee that will look into all aspects of how this was handled,” he said. “This committee should also hear all the evidence about Netanyahu’s decision to order a wave of home demolitions in Arab towns as part of his policy of marking them as enemies.
“The residents of Umm al-Hiran even expressed a willingness to leave their village, on which the government wants to establish a Jewish religious village, in exchange for an alternative” place to live, Khenin said in a statement. “Someone decided, made a choice, to do this by force, to light a great fire.”
Referring to Netanyahu, Khenin observed dryly, “The deeper the investigations, the higher the flames.”
Meretz lawmaker MK Issawi Freij also referred to Netanyahu’s corruption investigations. The prime minister “understood that the only way to take attention away from his investigations” was to “declare war” on the Arab community, he accused.
He added that there was no excuse for violence, “especially not attacking police officers.”
Other Arab lawmakers also weighed in.
Joint List MK Hanin Zoabi accused police of “spreading lies to justify its extreme violence and the killing” of Abu Al-Qia’an.
“This is wild, racist incitement meant to justify the expulsion of the residents of Umm al-Hiran. The residents of the village are fighting for their homes and the right to live on their lands,” she said.
She accused the media of naively trusting the police’s version of events “instead of criticizing and investigating what happened in the field.”
MK Ahmad Tibi, also of the Joint List, said the violence “proved yet again that the State of Israel and its police treat Arab citizens like enemies.”
He criticized Netanyahu for treating the problem like a military one.
Tibi called for “international protection under international law” for Israel’s Arabs, since “yet again we have proof that the Arab minority is under assault by the arms of the state.”
The village has long been a flashpoint for clashes.
The roughly 700 residents of Umm al-Hiran are the descendants of a Bedouin clan that was removed in 1948 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.
The Arab legal aid organization Adalah, which has represented residents of Umm al-Hiran in court, said the deaths at the village Wednesday were “the responsibility of the Israeli court system and the Israeli government.”
It called the Supreme Court ruling permitting the demolition of Umm al-Hiran “racist.”
And it accused the Israel Police of “seeing the Arab public as a whole as an enemy. The finger of the Israel Police is very light on the trigger when faced with Arab citizens.”