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Police go on high alert following riots in Kafr Kanna

Arab sector striking Sunday in protest at killing; PM, top ministers stands by cops; officer who shot Kheir Hamdan says colleagues feared for their lives

Israeli police officers wait for command to advance towards rioters throwing rocks during clashes at the entrance to the Arab village of Kfar Kanna, in northern Israel, on November 8, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Israeli police officers wait for command to advance towards rioters throwing rocks during clashes at the entrance to the Arab village of Kfar Kanna, in northern Israel, on November 8, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel Police chief Yohanan Danino on Saturday decided to raise the national alert level to the second highest following riots that broke out in the Galilean town of Kafr Kanna in response to police killing Friday of an Arab man. Israel’s Arab sector has called a one-day strike Sunday in protest of the killing.

Kheir Hamdan, 22, was laid to rest Saturday night amid riots against police and protests by thousands of residents of the town. Danino stood by his subordinates, and responded to the “baseless aggression” against police in Kafr Kanna saying, “the police command under my authority gives complete support to the soldiers, officers and volunteers of the Israel Police.”

Israeli Arab leaders voiced outrage over the police’s conduct in Friday night’s incident, in which police shot and killed Hamdan, who allegedly attempted to stab officers who were dispatched to arrest a relative of his.

Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who was urged by demonstrators to resign, called on the public to calm tensions and wait for the result of a police investigation into the officers’ actions, Israel Radio reported.

Screenshot from Panet showing a photo of Khdeir Hamdan, 22, who was shot by police November 7, 2014 during an attempted arrest.
Screenshot from Panet showing a photo of Khdeir Hamdan, 22, who was shot by police November 7, 2014 during an attempted arrest.

Aharonovitch said in a statement Saturday evening that the police officers who attempted to arrest Hamdan feared for their lives after a man armed with a knife attacked them with intent to injure, which is why they responded in the manner they did. He added that he would continue to lend his support to police officers in the line of duty protecting the public, and expressed regret over the hostile reactions of those trying to agitate and gain political capital.

The driver of the police patrol car, the officer who fired the fatal bullet, was quoted by Channel 2 late Saturday night saying he fired because he feared his colleagues’ lives were in danger.

Officials said officers arrived to arrest a relative of Hamdan’s on suspicion of throwing a stun grenade. When Hamdan attempted to stab one of the officers, the police shot and critically injured him, they said. Police added that they warned the man by firing in the air, and when he didn’t desist, he was shot in the chest.

A short, edited surveillance video of the incident, which surfaced Saturday on the popular Israeli-Arab news website Panet, showed a different sequence of events.

In it, Hamdan is seen attacking a police van, banging on the windows. An officer gets out and, as Hamdan is seen retreating, shoots him. Hamdan writhes on the ground, before police drag him into the van.

He was taken to hospital where he died of his wounds.

After the video surfaced, police said they were launching an investigation into the killing, and the police district involved said it would lend full cooperation to the investigation. Danino called an emergency meeting on the situation.

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the rioting in Kafr Kanna following Hamdan’s death, saying that those who don’t respect the law will be punished with “utmost severity,” and threatening to strip citizenship from those who call for Israel’s destruction.

“Israel is a nation of law. We will not tolerate disturbances and rioting,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “We will act against those who throw stones, block roads and call for the establishment of a Palestinian state in place of the State of Israel. Whoever does not honor Israeli law will be punished with utmost severity. I will instruct the Interior Minister to evaluate revoking the citizenship of those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel.”

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett also defended police conduct, saying the officers acted appropriately under the circumstances.

“A frenzied Arab terrorist attacked our police officers with a knife in an attempt to kill them. The response of our police was what was expected of our security people,” the economics minister said.

“It’s possible and necessary to investigate. Always. But it’s not ‘murder in cold blood,'” Ynet quoted him saying, in reference to remarks made by the mayor of Kafr Kanna about Hamdan’s death. “We definitely must not abandon our security forces who were sent to protect us.”

Bennett went so far as to draw a correlation between Hamdan and the perpetrators of attacks in recent weeks on Israeli civilians and security personnel in Jerusalem.

“If we don’t give support we’ll see more and more Israelis murdered with knives, firecrackers and run over by cars,” he said, referring to the use of firecrackers by Palestinian protesters against police in Jerusalem, and the recent attacks in Jerusalem in which Palestinians careened into pedestrians. Four people were killed in two car attacks in Jerusalem in recent weeks, and many others injured.

Left-wing politicians, however, leveled blame at Aharonovitch. Meretz party chairwoman Zehava Gal-on said that the police officers involved in the shooting should be investigated, but so should Aharonovitch, “who just last week said that ‘a terrorist who harms civilians should be sentenced to death,’ as the person who gave the seal of approval for murder and a clearly illegal order.”

“The norms of the occupation and police assassinations that have seeped from the territories into Jerusalem are threatening the Arab citizens of Israel,” Gal-on said.

Meretz MK Issawi Freij said that the actions of the police in Kafr Kanna were carried out in the spirit of Aharonovitch, “who demanded that police kill anyone who ‘harms’ Israeli citizens. He is responsible for the death in Kafr Kanna, no less than the police who pulled the trigger.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, on the other hand, voiced support Saturday for Aharonovitch’s remarks, saying that “every terrorist who harms civilians should be sentenced to death, and [I] support the Israel Police for acting in this spirit of zero tolerance for terrorism.”

“Incidents such as those that took place in recent days and yesterday,” he said, referring to the shooting of Hamdan, “are grave occurrences, [and] we must deal with them accordingly — with determination and efficiency.”

Kadima party MK and deputy speaker of the Knesset Nahman Shai wrote on Facebook that the incident in Kafr Kanna “is another step in the deterioration of the security situation.”

“We’re standing before a large, large test in Jewish-Arab relations. It’s liable to widen to a conflict whose scope we haven’t seen in many years,” Shai wrote. “We must not settle for an internal police investigation, but we must appoint an external investigation body to urgently investigate the incident, transparently and openly. Time is of great importance, before the fire spreads. Knesset must discuss the issue urgently.”

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