Thousands of protesters gathered in the Arab town of Arara in northern Israel on Saturday to protest the recent wave of government-ordered home demolitions in the Bedouin and Arab communities.
Waving Palestinian flags, protesters called for an end to what they claimed was state-sanctioned racism and excessive police force against Arabs that lead to the deadly car-ramming incident in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran last Wednesday.
The protests, which were reportedly peaceful, came three days after intense clashes erupted when a local Umm al-Hiran resident rammed his car into policeman Erez Levi, killing him.
The driver, Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, was shot dead by police, and Israeli officials were quick to brand the deadly incident a terror attack.
But local residents and activists insisted that Abu Al-Qia’an was first shot by police, and was not in control of the vehicle when he rammed the police line.
According to a Friday report by Channel 10 news, the initial autopsy report on Abu al-Qia’an indicated the 47-year-old father of 12 may have lost control of his vehicle after he was shot in the knee by police.
Police surveillance videos from the scene did not definitively resolve questions over the fatal incident.
Protesters at the Saturday demonstration bitterly castigated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top security officials for rushing to brand Abu al-Qia’an an Islamist terrorist.
“This is the right time to demand the Israeli government stop the home demolitions, because continuing this policy will only ignite the situation here and the members of this government will be responsible for the consequences,” Arara resident Tawfik Mohammaed told the Ynet news website.
“It’s unfortunate that the government and police continue to slander the Arab community, just like in the wave of wildfires when they arrested Arabs they accused of nationalistically motivated arson, but eventually released them all.”
Attending the protest was MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint (Arab) List, who vowed that Israel’s Arab minority would not surrender to policies of the Netanyahu government defined by “demolitions and incitement.”
Tibi demanded the resignation or dismissal of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich for what he called a “campaign of incitement, slander against Abu al-Qia’an and the wider Arab public.”
“We want a discourse based on rights, not a discourse of bulldozers,” Tibi said.
The MK further demanded that Abu al-Qia’an’s body be released to his family without the preconditions police set for his burial, as is often done with bodies of Palestinians terrorists.
In the days after the attack, Netanyahu, Erdan, Alsheich and other officials insisted that Abu Al-Qia’an had links to the Islamic State terror group, and called the attack “terrorism” and “murder.”
After video footage of the incident was released, Netanyahu and other senior officials reiterated that it was an intentional terror attack.
Erez Levi “was killed in a vehicular terror attack,” Netanyahu said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
The predawn incident took place as police were carrying out a demolition of several homes in the unrecognized village, in accordance with a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that the village was built on state land and its Bedouin residents had no legal rights to it, even though Israel had originally moved them onto the site decades ago.
Israel’s Arab minority has long maintained that state-sponsored discrimination makes it impossible for them to obtain planning permission to expand their communities. The result is that many families resort to building homes without permission, leaving them liable to demolition.
There has been a string of demolitions of Arab homes in northern and central Israel, most recently in the town of Qalansawe in central Israel.
After 11 illegal structures were demolished in early January, the Joint List branded the demolitions “an unprecedented crime and a declaration of war against the residents of Qalansawe and the Arab public.”
The Knesset faction also claimed the demolitions came in response to the impending evacuation of the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona, and to divert attention from the ongoing police investigations into Netanyahu’s alleged corruption.
A poll published on Friday found that half of Arab Israelis believe demolitions of illegal Arab construction are motivated by racism on the part of Netanyahu’s government.
Dov Lieber and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.