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Protesters mass in Jerusalem to demand freeze on Arab home demolitions

Over 200 vehicles converge en route to the Knesset, following deaths of a policeman and a Bedouin villager last week

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Am activist holds up a sign reading, 'Democracy can't founded on the bodies of dead protesters,' during a demonstration against demolitions of Arab Israeli homes, in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on Monday, January 23, 2017 (courtesy Joint List)
Am activist holds up a sign reading, 'Democracy can't founded on the bodies of dead protesters,' during a demonstration against demolitions of Arab Israeli homes, in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on Monday, January 23, 2017 (courtesy Joint List)

Two convoys of at least 100 vehicles each cut across southern and northern Israel on Monday morning on their way to the Knesset in Jerusalem, where they assembled to protest the recent demolitions of homes belonging to Arab citizens, and a deadly incident that occurred during one recent demolition.

The convoys to the Knesset, one of which left from the Arab village of Qalansawe in the north, where 11 homes were recently demolished, and the collective of drivers from the south, is part of a series of protests called by Israel’s Arab leadership, including the Joint (Arab) List faction and the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, following home demolitions last week in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, which sparked violent clashes and the death of a villager and a policeman.

Israeli police have been adamant in their claim that officer Erez Levi, 34, was intentionally killed by a local resident, Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, whose vehicle slammed into a group of policeman guarding the demolitions.

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)
Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

Abu Al-Qia’an, 47, a teacher and father of 12, was himself killed when police opened fire on him. Activists and villagers at scene have argued he did not intend to attack anyone, and only lost control of his vehicle after police opened fire on him. Both video from the scene and an autopsy report appeared to confirm that Abu Al-Qia’an was shot before he rammed into the officers, but do not definitively explain the subsequent car-ramming.

One of the main demands of Monday’s protesters is that police release the body of Abu Al-Qia’an. Police are demanding the family agree to have a small, private funeral at night, a condition normally imposed for funerals for terrorists.

Video and images from January 23, 2017 protest show Joint (Arab) List MKs Ahmad Tibi and Talab Abu Arar, along with other protesters who stopped at the Latrun Junction waiting for the arrival of protesters coming from the south, waving a black flag of mourning, and chanting: "The people want the corpse of the martyr," referring to Abu Al-Qia’an
Video and images from January 23, 2017 protest show Joint (Arab) List MKs Ahmad Tibi and Talab Abu Arar, along with other protesters who stopped at the Latrun Junction waiting for the arrival of protesters coming from the south, waving a black flag of mourning, and chanting: “The people want the corpse of the martyr,” referring to Abu Al-Qia’an

The protesters are also calling for Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to step down, accusing him of inciting against the Arab public, after he lent his voice to the police claim that Al-Qia’an was motivated by radical Islamist ideology — a claim the police have yet to prove.

Video from the protest showed Joint (Arab) List MKs Ahmad Tibi and Talab Abu Arar, along with other protesters, assembled at the Latrun Junction as they waited for the arrival of protesters from the south, waving a black mourning flag and chanting, “The people want the corpse of the martyr,” referring to Abu Al-Qia’an.

Police officer 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34, who was killed in an alleged car-ramming attack at Umm al-Hiran, January 18, 2017. (Courtesy)
Police officer 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34, who was killed in an alleged car-ramming attack at Umm al-Hiran, January 18, 2017. (Courtesy)

“We are flocking in our cars to stop the hate and incitement; we are moving en masse to demand recognition of unrecognized [Arab] villages and to stop the demolitions, and demanding planning and expansion. We are flocking to release the body of the victim Yaqoub Abu Al-Qia’an,” Tibi said in a statement.

The convoy that came from Qalanswa caused a traffic jam on one of Israel’s main routes, Route 6, after it was temporarily halted by police. The protesters arrived in Jerusalem in the afternoon and set up a demonstration in the Rose Garden, across the street from the Knesset.

MK (Joint List) Jamal Zahalka, who took part in the convoy, said in a statement: “Hundreds of cars in the convoy caused traffic jams. We want to send a message against home demolitions. Our public will not calm down and won’t be silent until a complete freeze of demolitions and appropriate plans for Arab towns are provided. There is a housing shortage and the government, instead of building, destroys.”

Israeli officials say they only demolish homes that do not have the necessary permits, but Arab representatives say these are almost impossible to obtain.

Tibi proposed a bill Sunday calling for a 10-year freeze on demolitions in Arab towns and villages, in exchange for more rigorous enforcement of planning rules by Arab officials.

A convoy of protesters cruise down Highway 1 on their way to the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2017, demanding, among a number of things, a freeze on demolitions of illegally built Arab homes until the government provides building plans for Arab communities across the country. (Credit: Courtesy)
A convoy of protesters cruise down Highway 1 on their way to the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2017, demanding, among a number of things, a freeze on demolitions of illegally built Arab homes until the government provides building plans for Arab communities across the country. (Courtesy)

“Planning, housing, land and demolition of houses are the most critical problems between the state and its Arab minority,” Tibi said.

He admitted the bill was unlikely to pass as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed it.

Joint (Arab) List leader MK Ayman Odeh has in the past requested the state freeze demolitions for two years, and in return Arabs would stop building homes without permits while planning was worked out.

A poll published Friday found that half of Arab Israelis believe demolitions of illegal Arab construction are motivated by racism on the part of the government.

Netanyahu pledged to crack down on illegal construction in the Arab community last month, as he sought to soothe tempers over plans to demolish buildings at the unrecognized Jewish settlement outpost of Amona. The High Court later granted the outpost a 45-day stay of execution.

AFP contributed to this report.

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