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Thousands protest against violent crime in Arab communities after student killed

Demonstrators gather in Tamra, where nursing student Ahmad Hejazi, 22, was killed in a shootout between police, suspected criminals this week

Thousands protest on Saturday, February 6, 2021 in the Arab-Israeli town of Tamra, northeast of Haifa, where a nursing student was killed earlier in the week in a shootout between police and suspected criminals. (Screenshot: Twitter)
Thousands protest on Saturday, February 6, 2021 in the Arab-Israeli town of Tamra, northeast of Haifa, where a nursing student was killed earlier in the week in a shootout between police and suspected criminals. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Thousands of people from across the country gathered on Saturday afternoon in the northern Arab-Israeli town of Tamra to protest against violent crime and inadequate law enforcement in Arab communities, in the aftermath of a fatal shootout this week between police officers and local criminals in which an innocent bystander was killed.

Ahmad Hejazi, a 22-year-old nursing student, was shot during a gun battle between police and suspected criminals in Tamra, a city of some 35,000 northeast of Haifa, on Monday night. According to police, two gunmen armed with automatic M-16 rifles were firing on a house when officers who had been lying in wait for the pair, apparently in a preplanned ambush, opened fire.

Hejazi, who had left his house when he heard gunfire, was shot and killed. A doctor — a passerby, police said — was wounded as well.

The incident sparked outrage, protests and an investigation.

Organizers of the demonstration on Saturday told Channel 12 that the gathering was meant to send a message: “No to violence and no to crime.” Route 70 near Tamra was blocked as a result of the demonstration and police instructed drivers to use alternative routes.

According to Israeli news daily Haaretz, some 10,000 people took part in the demonstration.

Protesters held signs addressed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against perceived government inaction.

“Mr. Netanyahu, a sea of ​​words and a drop of deeds,” read one of the signs at the protest, Channel 12 reported. “What are we waiting for? Weapons are killing us,” read another sign. A third read, “The government is abandoning its citizens — our blood is not red enough.”

Saturday’s mass protest was preceded by a string of demonstrations this week in Arab towns across the country, including Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm and Tira, in addition to Tamra.

Nursing student Ahmad Hijazi, who was shot and killed in the crossfire between police and criminal gunmen on February 2, 2021 (Courtesy: Hijazi family)

On Tuesday night, Hejazi’s funeral drew over 10,000 mourners in violation of coronavirus restrictions against crowds. The procession was conducted in nearly total silence, with the only sounds the call of a prayer leader and the buzzing of a police drone overhead.

As the last prayers in the funeral service rang out, mourners began overturning trash cans and setting them ablaze. Others launched scattered fireworks over the crowded highway.

The outpouring of grief underlined a seeming paradox many Arab communities are grappling with: As they are wracked by organized crime and unrelenting bloodshed, the outcry for effective policing has reached a fever pitch in recent years. But many are also wary of an increased police presence, pointing to incidents like the killing of Hejazi.

Thousands attend the funeral of 22-year-old nursing student Ahmad Hijazi near the Arab city of Tamra, northern Israel, February 2, 2021 (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

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.

While their political leadership has long demanded police intervention to crack down on the spread of weapons and organized crime, Arab Israelis are also deeply mistrustful of police.

The scene of a deadly shootout between police and criminals in Tamra, February 1, 2021. (Screenshot: Facebook)

Including Hejazi, 11 Arab Israelis have died under violent circumstances so far in 2021, including three killed by police gunfire. An additional six Palestinians have been killed violently inside Israel. Last year saw a record number of homicides among Arab Israelis, with 96 violent deaths, the majority of them young men killed by gunfire.

It is not yet clear if Hejazi was killed by fire from the police or the suspects. The Justice Ministry’s internal affairs unit has opened an investigation, but details of it remain under gag order. A spokesperson refused to say whether an autopsy had been performed.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has vowed to pass a wide-ranging plan to combat violence and crime in Arab communities, likening the struggle against organized crime to the fight against terrorism.

The premier has recently been campaigning for support from Arab Israelis ahead of the March elections, in a stark about-face from his party’s previous unsubstantiated warnings of electoral fraud in Arab communities and repeated attacks on Arab lawmakers.

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