On Friday afternoon, one resident of the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm was standing in a main square near the entrance to town with his 5-year-old son. The boy was holding a small red and black sign that literally translates into "Arab blood is not cheap," echoing a local vesion of the key messages heralded by the Black Lives Matter movement.
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“I live near the square and I thought it would be the right thing to do to come with my son,” the father said, who showed no inclination to approach the politicians or elected officials who had come to attend the mass demonstration at the square. Instead, he just stood there for half an hour and then returned home.
There were many people like him who attended Friday’s protest against police brutality in the Israeli Arab community – mothers and fathers with children, Umm al-Fahm residents who were not involved in politics and who came to protest and to demand their most basic right to personal security and to live without fear.
They didn’t attract particular attention and were never handed a microphone. They didn’t look particularly interesting. None were candidates for the Knesset or for any other public position. Many were rather quiet for a protest of this kind, but they were the people representing the silent and bleeding majority of the Israeli Arab community.
For the most part, that was what Friday’s demonstration reflected. No single party can claim that the protesters represented its political base. There were young and old, families and individuals, religious and secular, women with head coverings alongside young secular women, party stalwarts and people without any declared party affiliation.
There were also Jews who came to express solidarity and support. It seemed as though Umm al-Fahm no longer frightened them or aroused suspicions. On the contrary, Israeli Jews are starting to understand that personal security is a a basic right, and it would be entirely appropriate to block traffic on the main highway artery in this part of the country, Route 65, in demanding this.
The demonstration on Friday was the largest in the past year in Israel’s Arab community, and the goal was clear: getting Israel’s police to act against crime in the Arab community rather than simply building another police station.
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Some demonstrators called for the police presence in the city to be withdrawn altogether, but in practice, it appeared that most residents would not oppose a raid on a home or building where a cache of weapons was being hidden, or in order to arrest an organized crime kingpin or underling.
During the protest, there were those calling for the state to act, and there were others waving Palestinian flags, and it seemed possible to do both. The young people lifting the national flag claimed there was no contradiction in what they were doing. The flag, they said, was a way of expressing their identity.
A warning sign
The protest may have been directed primarily at the police, but it also presented a challenge to the country’s Arab parties and to the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee. The hounding of Knesset member Mansour Abbas, the head of the United Arab List, wasn't the main event at the protest, even if it did make headlines.
However, it did reveal something else: that no one is immune from criticism, and that polarization and tension are simmering among the country’s Arab parties in the runup to the Knesset election on March 23. The protest, and the accosting of Abbas, were a warning sign for the politicians: things could deteriorate further if they don’t come to their senses.
A number of Arab communities have experienced incidents of violence and crime over the past year. Some of them have held protests of their own. At the beginning of February, there was a large protest in Tamra following the killing of nursing student Ahmad Hijazi, who was caught in crossfire between the police and gunmen. His funeral turned into a protest attended by many thousands of people, but it never turned into a movement.
In Umm al-Fahm, the picture looks different. Friday’s demonstration marked the eighth week in a row of the current wave of protests. The Friday before, hundreds of people took to the plaza opposite city hall. The police decided at the time to use force to stop it rather than allowing it to die out, a portent of the much larger demonstration a week later.
The future of the movement, however, remains unclear. The Al-Hirak al-Shababi movement of young people is leading the protest, promising to continue to demonstrate on a weekly basis to further highlight opposition to the conduct of the police. Those same young people and local leaders don’t want to lose the momentum or the public sympathy that they have attracted.
Now is the time for the leaders of the Arab community and of the country in general to listen and realize the depth of the crisis – to contain the rage rather than fanning the flames, and to remember that Israeli Arab citizens have the same right to live in peace and security as their Jewish counterparts.