Israeli Arab Leaders Tell Haaretz: Without Police, Our Protests Are Not Violent

It was evidently important for the Arab community to demonstrate unity: All were for the flotilla, for ending the blockade of Gaza and against what Israel did.


This article is part of a special edition of Haaretz, to mark Israel's book week.

A few minutes before MK Hanin Zuabi was slated to begin her press conference in Nazareth yesterday, an organizer removed the orange Balad party flag and replaced it with four Palestinian flags. It was evidently important for the Arab community to demonstrate unity: All were for the flotilla, for ending the blockade of Gaza and against what Israel did.

Liad Shoham and Mohammed Barakeh
Tomer Neuberg

In Arab villages in the Galilee, quiet reigned. The few violent incidents of Monday had died down. The strike called by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee was observed almost totally. In Dir al-Hana, Arabeh, Sakhnin, Kafr Kana and Nazareth, shops were closed and the streets were empty.

"I've been covering the Arab sector for many years, and I don't ever remember this kind of compliance," said Haaretz correspondent Jack Khoury, who accompanied me.

In Shfaram, a demonstration took place. A few hundred people decided to brave the heat. They applauded when city councilman Ahmed Hamdi shouted, "We condemn the navy's crime. This is a grave crime that must not be ignored." Someone in the crowd waved a Turkish flag.

Why is it so quiet here? I asked MK Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash ), who was present. The question surprised him. "There are no security forces here to cause provocations," he explained.

Shfaram Mayor Nahed Khazem agreed. "When the police stay away, everything passes quietly," he said.

But unlike the silent streets, Zuabi's press conference was stormy. The hall was packed with journalists from both Israel and abroad. "Even Al Jazeera and Alarabiya are here," someone said excitedly.

Zuabi was the first of the flotilla's participants to be allowed to go home. Police said they suspect her of conspiracy to commit a crime and weapons possession, but as a Knesset member, she has immunity.

When she entered the hall, she was mobbed by journalists. This small, energetic woman was the center of international attention. "Like a bride," an Israeli journalist said aptly.

For 20 minutes, she spoke nonstop in Arabic, almost without pausing for breath. She flipped back and forth through her notebook to make sure she did not forget anything. The neon lights of the hall's dance floor played over her face, constantly changing color. Then she switched to Hebrew.

"We're talking about a tragedy, a massacre," she began. "This was a humanitarian flotilla, intended to break a siege, an international flotilla. We demand an international investigation, that the UN investigate. Israel kidnapped and murdered people who had no weapons."

She repeated her demand for a UN probe at least five times. Whenever she said the word "Israel," her anger was apparent. Sometimes, it sounded like a curse.

According to Zuabi, when the flotilla was 130 miles from shore, 14 naval ships approached and opened fire without warning. Only journalists, nurses and a doctor were on deck; none of them carried weapons. All the other passengers were either in their rooms or fled there as soon as the shooting began. "I thought I wouldn't emerge alive," she said.

Over and over, she insisted that the passengers engaged in no violence, that the soldiers had come with intent to kill and intimidate, that it was all planned in advance.

When reporters confronted her with the video footage released by the army and the soldiers' testimony, and with the fact that several soldiers were wounded, Zuabi first evaded the questions, then finally insisted, "This is what I saw."

After the press conference ended, quiet returned. A few towns held protest marches, but there were no disturbances. Wadia Awada, a Nazareth newspaper editor who is also an analyst for Al Jazeera, said the quiet stemmed partly from fear over "the stupid, unwise and aggressive behavior of the state's leaders. It frightens us to live in a state with leaders like this."

And what will happen tomorrow? My interviewees shrugged. Anything could happen, they said; what is needed now is good sense.

The writer's latest suspense novel is "Mishpat Hozer" ("Retrial" )