Investigators at the Justice Ministry on Sunday launched an inquiry into police officers’ conduct during a protest in the Arab Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm on Friday, amid allegations of brutality and excessive use of force.
The matter is being handled by the Police Internal Investigations Department and comes in response to complaints by the Arab rights groups Mossawa Center and Adalah.
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 dozens of demonstrators wounded, including a mayor and a Knesset member, after police fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannons as they clashed with the protesters.
Hundreds of demonstrators had rallied in the city of Umm al-Fahm on Friday to protest against organized crime in the community and police’s failure to extinguish it.
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.
Mahameed said Sunday that he was attacked on the orders of the area police commander. “I’m cutting off all contact with the police until they issue a public apology,” he said.
At least 11 of the protesters were hospitalized, while the rest were treated at the scene.
Police said eight officers were lightly hurt and said police were responding to demonstrators hurling stones and fireworks at them. Locals say it was the police that initiated the violence, rather than the demonstrators.
Footage from the protest showed police using a riot shield to shove a woman into traffic.
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
One city resident told the Kan public broadcaster that officers had deployed water cannons without provocation.
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.”
Arab Israeli officials have accused police of racist behavior and of 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 Arab people have died violently inside Israel.
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.
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.