Analysis

Israel's Arab Community Is Crying Out for Justice. This Is What Its Leaders Must Do Now

With the memory of the deadly clashes of October 2000 still fresh, demonstrators and police prove protests against violent crime can be peaceful. Will they be effective, too?

Israeli Arabs protest against police inaction in Umm al-Fahm, October 3, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Israeli Arabs have always viewed blocking a major road as a recipe for face-to-face clashes with the police and the security forces. Almost exactly 19 years ago, this perspective received painful confirmation when Israeli police opened fire at Arabs who were blocking roads and burning tires at key intersections in the Galilee and the Wadi Ara region, in what is known in Hebrew as “the events of October 2000.”

This past week, the scenes were completely different. There were no young masked men, wearing keffiyehs and rocks in hand; no smoke rising from piles of trash and burning tires; and no policemen aiming their rifles and firing both live ammunition and sponge-tipped bullets.

The past week’s pictures showed whole families – fathers, mothers and children. They showed both old and young, including students of all ages. Everyone was marching with uncovered faces, holding signs protesting the violence in the Arab community, and turning out on major roads and intersections in large numbers.

>> Read more: ‘Like a war zone’: Five Israeli Arabs recount living in fear without police protection ■ A police force of and for all citizens | Opinion ■ An Israeli problem | Haaretz Editorial

It happened on Thursday in Majdal Krum and on nearby Route 85, and it happened Friday and Saturday at dozens of other locations in the Galilee, the Wadi Ara region and the Negev. There was no apparent fear of conflict with the police. Quite the opposite.

Theirs was a cry directed at anyone who would listen, directed both at the country’s leaders and the Arab community: We can’t take it anymore. The Arab community isn’t apathetic. It wants personal security – and it’s the state’s job to provide it. It’s the job of the government and the police. But it’s also the job of local political, social and religious leaders.

“My life is only worth a single bullet,” declared one sign carried by a 5-year-old boy riding on his father’s shoulders in Majdal Krum on Thursday. Across from the father there were dozens of policemen, deployed in a line along the side of the road to prevent the demonstrators from approaching train tracks.

Israeli Arabs protest against police inaction in Majdal Krum, October 3, 2019.
Gil Eliyahu

The demonstrators blocked the road, but the atmosphere wasn’t at all tense. There was a feeling that everyone, including the police in the field, understood that this was a legitimate protest, and nobody wanted any unnecessary confrontation.

A young man who threw a bottle of water at the police was immediately ejected from the crowd by the organizers, one of whom used hand signals to tell the police not to take action, that they would take care of it themselves. The message went all the way to the top ranks of the Israel Police.

In two days of protests during which traffic was halted on a large number of roads, there were no clashes, no injuries and no arrests. The quiet understandings reached between the organizers and the police proved that things could be done differently. And perhaps the police understood that they weren’t facing rioters, but rather ordinary citizens who were demanding a fundamental right: personal security.

Israeli Arabs pray ahead of protest against police inaction in Umm al-Fahm, October 3, 2019.
Amir Levy

At the same time, the Arab community’s political leadership – first and foremost the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which is comprised of Arab Knesset members and mayors – understood that the community’s response to its call to take to the streets wasn’t happenstance. The Arab community, which had been apathetic about public protests for more than a decade, turned out en masse this time over a civic issue that directly affects their lives.

Some said the success of the Arab parties’ Joint List in last month’s Knesset election provided a tailwind for the protests. But the Arab leadership also understands that the shows of public support won’t last if they don’t produce results.

Now that the Arab community has responded to its call and taken to the streets, it’s the leadership’s job to make use of the momentum, to bring the community’s demands to the decision makers and present operative plans. This is also the moment for the cabinet, the Public Security Ministry and the police to delve into the reasons for the protest, propose plans and allocate resources for their war on crime and violence in all its aspects.

Last week proved that it is possible to do things differently when the will exists, viewing Israeli Arabs as citizens rather than enemies.