Analysis

Deadly Clash With Police Could Set Off Explosion in Israel's Arab Community

Police need to snuff out growing tensions, rather than fan the flames of rage over demolition of Arab homes.

Bedouin women react to the destruction of houses on January 18, 2017 in al-Hiran
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

The deadly incident in the Negev, in which a Bedouin civilian and a policeman were killed, is a flash point in the relationship between the State of Israel and the Bedouin living in Israel’s south.

A police operation to raze illegally built homes in the village of Umm al-Hiran went wrong and descended into violence. During the conflict, the police say, one of the residents ran over a policeman, and was shot and killed by other police. The chairman of the Joint List, Knesset member Ayman Odeh, was shot with a rubber bullet, which just fanned the fires.

WATCH: New police video raises questions about alleged car-ramming attack by Israeli Bedouin

New video raises questions about alleged car-ramming attack by Bedouin Police

The Bedouin claim that the driver was shot for no reason, but that argument sounds specious, because the fact is that a policeman was run over and killed. However, the police’s version is still to be substantiated. Mere months ago, what had been described as a vehicle-ramming terror attack in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat, turned out to be a misunderstanding in which the driver was shot and killed by police.

Of course, the police’s description of the event could be absolutely accurate. But for now, a whiff of bluster is evident in the haste with which the police spokesman’s office issued a categorical statement about the incident (one, by the way that employs exclamation marks, an unusual touch for an official announcement to the press). The Israeli army spokespeople have learned to be more careful in publicizing conclusions, at least regarding some of the incidents in the territories.

Israeli policemen detain a Bedouin man during clashes that followed a protest against home demolitions on January 18, 2017 in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, which is not recognized by the Israeli government, near the southern city of Beersheba, in the Negev desert.
An Israeli policeman was killed while taking part in an operation to demolish homes in the Bedouin village, with authorities claiming he was targeted in a car-ramming attack. The driver was earlier reported shot dead by police as residents disputed the police version of events, saying the driver was heading to the scene to talk with authorities in an attempt to halt the demolitions.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

One can't help but recall that when a wave of fires erupted last month Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, senior police officers and firefighters announced that many of the dozens of blazes had been set deliberately for nationalistic reasons. They may have been right, but as of now, not a single indictment has been filed and the last Arab Israeli arrested for alleged arson was freed this week.

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Yet surprisingly, the police hastened to connect the Bedouin driver involved in this morning's incident with ISIS. They claim the driver was an ISIS activist, but the announcement that they’re checking his ties with the Islamic organization looks a little premature.

After a truck driver plowed into a crowd in Jerusalem last week, killing four Israeli soldiers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed that the terrorist was an ISIS activist. Yet not a shred of evidence supporting that contention has come forth.

Israeli policemen stand guard as bulldozers demolish homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, which is not recognized by the Israeli government, near the southern city of Beersheba, in the Negev desert, on January 18, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Shin Bet security service is indeed worried about rising identification with ISIS among the Bedouin in the south. A year ago, a group of Bedouin teachers was arrested and accused of fostering ties with ISIS. But again, the logical leap from membership in some Islamic organization to activity for ISIS requires proof, that has yet to be presented.

The demolition of homes in Umm al-Hiran came just one week after a widely publicized mission to raze illegally built homes in the Arab town of Kalansua in central Israel. In late December, the whole nation was virtually paralyzed by the crisis over evicting the settlers from Amona. Meanwhile not a single home in Amona has been demolished, even though efforts to legislate a way out of the problem have proved unsuccessful. But Netanyahu and Erdan lost no time leveraging their enforcement of the law against Arabs.

>> While coddling illegal outpost, Israel demolishes Arab construction with glee | Analysis <<

The impression is that what is driving aggressive enforcement in Israeli Arab towns within the Green Line is the Amona crisis and public expectation of strong moves against terrorism after attacks like the one in Jerusalem last week.

Even if the state exhausted the legal options before evicting Bedouin from Umm al-Hiran, even if it had to take action, the question is how to go about a mission like that, and what message to give the policemen and the Bedouin community.

If the police present persuasive evidence, soon, that the driver's intent had indeed been to kill, and if police act reasonably to snuff out the tensions, the fire could be extinguished before it spreads to other Bedouin towns and throughout Israeli Arab society. The Israeli Arab Knesset members also bear responsibility for restoring the quiet, a responsibility that some of them seem reluctant to assume.

Still, there is no question that gasoline has just been poured onto tensions that had been simmering for a long time.

The problems of Arab society in Israel certainly don’t begin or end with tensions with the government, or police. Israeli Arabs talk about rampant crime in their towns, an absence of administrative enforcement, and a flood of illegal guns.

But alongside the violent demonstrations and clashes, note the following fact too: Since January 1, 2016, the day Nashat Milhem murdered three Israelis in Tel Aviv, 23 Israelis have been killed in terror attacks. More than 12 were killed by terrorists bearing Israeli identity cards, some of them Israeli Arabs, others residents of East Jerusalem. This is a worrying development and the Shin Bet knows that too.