'In Umm al-Fahm, We Protected Democracy'

David Cohen describes rightist march in Arab town as legitimate; 28 hurt in clashes, including top cop.

Police Commissioner David Cohen on Tuesday said his officers protected Israel's democracy by quelling violent protests held against a march by far-rightists in the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm.

"This morning, 2,500 policemen went in to ensure the existence of the democratic process in the State of Israel," said Cohen.

Twenty-eight people were wounded during clashes between police and demonstrators near the march on Tuesday morning. The far-rightists began the march at 10:00 A.M. and ended it about 45 minutes later. The clashes, however, continued for some two hours after the march had been concluded.

The police chief added: "The events finished after a number of policemen were wounded by the throwing of stones and police employed various techniques to disperse the demonstration, although all-in-all this was a process that began about two months ago with a request for a legitimate protest."

Deputy police commissioner Shahar Ayalon and fourteen other policemen were wounded by stone-throwing demonstrators; twelve Umm al-Fahm residents were hurt in scuffles with police, according to Magen David Adom emergency services.

Leftist lawmaker Ilan Ghilon (Meretz) was also wounded in the incident when police fired tear gas grenades in a bid to disperse the crowd.

The clash erupted after police arrested three Israeli Arabs who had scuffled with officers. The detainees had gathered for a counter-demonstration held by Umm al-Fahm residents.

Police declared the rally to be illegal and ordered the Israeli Arab protestors, some of whom were waving Palestinian flags, to leave.

After the counter-demonstration, Ghilon told Israel Radio: "We arrived in order to restrain. I feel okay, but there were a number of applications of gas that were perhaps unnecessary, on the roads as well as in the clash."

Earlier Tuesday, more than 2,500 police officers deployed in and around Umm al-Fahm, Israel's largest Arab city, ahead of the rally, for which the far-rightists had received High Court approval.

The marchers were refused permission to enter the city itself, however, and were only allowed to march on roads outside residential areas, but within the city's municipal boundaries.

The far-rightists planned to wave Israeli flags during the march.

Police officers accompanied by dogs patrolled the protest route on Monday, searching for roadside bombs. Others visited the area to prepare for being stationed there on Tuesday.

Haaretz learned that in each of the city's four main neighborhoods, residents organized for what they saw as an inevitable clash with the far-rightists.

"If the authorities do not change their mind and ban the march, we will have to prepare for clashes," one local political leader said on Monday.

The march organizers, for their part, were concerned that police would do just that, and that the procession will be cancelled at the last minute.

Far-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir told Haaretz Monday, "Cancellation of the march would be a sign that the police force is bankrupt. If they cannot protect us, it's a sign that they should not be in their position."

Ben-Gvir said organizers were not worried about possible clashes and plan to acquiesce to a police request that they not bring their weapons to the march.

'We're not afraid of Arab gangs'

"We live in a city of 150,000 Arabs and we are not afraid of the gangs in Umm al-Fahm," said Ben-Gvir, a longtime resident of Hebron. "I cannot understand how nobody has been arrested in the town, given the threats made against us," he added.

The organizers of the march sent a letter to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz on Monday, urging him to ensure police take firm action against "the many incidents of incitement recorded so far." In the letter, the organizers say they were "surprised to discover that the police have done nothing to stamp out this phenomenon and to implement the law - which could encourage the thugs to believe that their threats will have the desired effect and that the police will cancel the march."

In Umm al-Fahm on Monday, a small group of protesters set up a vigil outside the town's police station, calling for the procession to be banned.

Umm al-Fahm mayor Sheikh Khaled Hamdan said at a press conference on Monday that residents will prevent the right-wingers from entering their town, and will use force if necessary.

"We have no desire for clashes," he said, "and we are not planning on confrontations with the marchers or the police. Our position is that we will try to block them with our bodies, but peacefully and quietly."

Meanwhile, a general strike has been called in Umm al-Fahm for Tuesday. Businesses, schools and government offices will be closed to protest the rightist march. MK Afu Aghbaria (Hadash) also called on the Israeli left to join the counter-demonstrations in the city. He claimed that the incoming government could adopt a similar approach to Israeli Arabs as the rightist marchers.

"When they attack Umm al-Fahm, they attack the entire Israeli-Arab population. We will protect our town and our homeland," he said.