Amid protest and widespread condemnation of his government’s policies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to reassure the Arab community in Israel that he wants it to be a full part of Israeli society.
“Most Arab citizens of Israel want to integrate into Israeli society,” he posted on Facebook on Monday. “I also want this and therefore my government is investing tremendous resources to achieve this goal.”
His Facebook post came as hundreds of Arab protesters gathered outside the Knesset, demonstrating against a series of home demolitions in the Arab community and the death of a schoolteacher in disputed circumstances last week.
Arab leaders have accused Netanyahu of deliberately stepping up demolitions in Arab communities in an attempt to deflect anger ahead of the expected demolition of the illegal West Bank settlement of Amona.
The demonstration, including convoys from the north and south of the country, was 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.
One of the main demands of Monday’s protesters was that police release the body of Abu Al-Qia’an, a schoolteacher from the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, who was killed by police after his vehicle slammed into a group of policeman guarding the demolitions.
The High Court later ordered his body released.
The protesters also called for Public Security Minister Gilad Edran 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.
Netanyahu has been accused in the past of using fear of the Arabs to stir up his right-wing base, most famously in the 2015 elections, when he urged people to get out and vote because “Arabs are going to the ballot boxes in droves, they are being bused in by left-wing NGOs.”
The comments immediately drew fire, with Netanyahu’s opponents saying he was inciting to racism against Israeli citizens exercising their democratic right to vote.
In his Facebook post Monday, Netanyahu criticized what he termed “extremists” inciting within the Arab community trying to work against the goal of inclusion.
“It pains me that there are extremists within Arab society who incite the Arab community to go in the opposite direction.”
Netanyahu did not speak about those protests or the home demolitions. But as an example of incitement, the prime minister referred to protesters who interrupted a speech given last week by a liaison for the Free Syrian Army.
“Israeli-Arab students came to disrupt a public meeting about the situation in Syria… and attacked government policy. They claimed that the Syrian exiles who participated in the conference were traitors to the Syrian people.”
Netanyahu spoke of the fact that the protesters met with a furious response from the Syrians, who accused them of failing to understand what true oppression involves.
“You are living in a paradise compared to Syria,” Issam Zeitoun, a liaison for the Free Syrian Army with the international community, told the protesters last week as they refused to stop shouting and allow the event to continue. “You should be ashamed.”
Netanyahu added that Arab citizens of Israel have a good deal “not just in comparison with Syria, but compared to many countries in the Middle East and the world.”
The altercation the prime minister referred to occurred at a packed hall at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where a Free Syrian Army liaison and a Syrian Kurdish representative spoke to students at an event organized by the university’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
“I wasn’t surprised by what happened. I expect that people will behave like this when I speak at an Israeli institution because it is really a serious matter,” Zeitoun told The Times of Israel afterwards.
“Many Syrians and Palestinians see us as traitors,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can judge Syrians for speaking with Israelis in public.
“The intensity of the conflict, and the number of the people we have lost, is too great, and I will personally do all that I can and speak with everyone, not just in Israel, but around the world, in order to change the situation,” he added.
After the protests had died down, Zeitoun told the crowd that Israeli aid to Syrians, which includes Israel’s well-known medical assistance — more than 2,000 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals since 2013 — is not enough to influence the population to be more pro-Israel. He said there needed to be some action on the political level for the majority of Syrians to be swayed in its attitude to the Jewish state.
Dov Lieber contributed to this report.