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Israeli police accused of brutality in crackdown on demonstrating Israeli Arabs
Israeli Arab Knesset members and left wing activists participate in protest against the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, during the embassy’s official inauguration ceremony, Monday, May 14, 2018. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
JERUSALEM — An Israeli judge ordered the release of 19 Arab Israelis from police custody on Monday, capping a fraught weekend in the northern city of Haifa, the scene of multiple protests against Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip.
Video footage of police officers arresting demonstrators, shoving them into waiting squad cars and allegations by one activist that his leg was broken in police custody has sparked a debate over police brutality and the right of Israel’s Arab minority to protest publicly against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The heated debate has escalated to the level of name calling between politicians, with the right-wing Israeli defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, calling an Arab Israeli member of the Knesset a “terrorist” that should be locked up.
Israeli Arab citizens make up about a fifth of Israel’s population.
About 500 people turned out for the demonstration on Friday evening, eyewitnesses said. The majority were Arab with Israeli citizenship, though there was also a sprinkling of Jewish supporters. Haifa is Israel’s third largest city and about 10 percent of its roughly 300,000 residents are Arabs.
“It was peaceful, people were waving flags, Palestinian flags and chanting for freedom,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer and Haifa resident who was at the protest. “The police turned it into a showdown, they were pushing people back and then chasing after the younger protesters, needlessly,”
Among those arrested was Jafar Farah, a prominent Arab Israeli activist, head of Mossawa, an advocacy center for Arab citizens. He said that he was beaten in a police holding room Friday night and that a forceful kick to his leg by one officer shattered his knee.
“I intend to sue the policeman who kicked me in the knee and the police,” Farah said in a radio interview following his release Monday. “I do not trust the police investigation, there is proof of me standing on two legs before I was put in the patrol car. There is not much to investigate here.”
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List Arab faction in Israel’s parliament, slammed the police for the “brutal dispersal” of Friday’s protest and called on the attorney general to investigate the incident.
“In the past few days, we have witnessed an organized police attack against Arab demonstrators throughout the country in an attempt to suppress and silence the protest against the events in Gaza,” said Odeh, who also led demonstrations last Monday when the U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem.
On Saturday, Odeh attempted to visit Farah, who was taken to the hospital for treatment on his knee. He was blocked, however, by Israeli police and an angry exchange was caught on film, including Odeh cursing at the police officer.
“When I arrived at the hospital to check the condition of Jafar Farah, the policemen ignored my parliamentary immunity blocked my way aggressively,” said Odeh.
“Every citizen who believes in freedom of expression should call out against the conduct of the police in recent days and join us in protest,” he said.
Writing in Israeli daily Maariv on Monday, another Arab Israeli parliamentarian, Ahmad Tibi, called the police response a “huge scandal.” He said that protests by other minorities in Israel, such as Ethiopian-Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox, rarely draw such a reaction from the police.
On Sunday, the police’s internal investigations department said it would look into allegations of police violence in dispersing the demonstration in Haifa.
Speaking on Israel’s Army Radio station on Monday, Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan said people should not rush to judge the police and that an independent investigation would provide the answers to what exactly happened to Farah while in police custody.
He also announced that he planned to request the attorney general to open a criminal investigation into Odeh’s actions.
Israel’s hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also weighed in on the fray, writing on Twitter that Odeh and his associates “terrorists.”
“Every day that Ayman Odeh and his associates are free to walk around cursing at police officers is a failure of law enforcement authorities,” he wrote. “The place for these terrorists is not in the Knesset, it’s in prison. It’s time they pay a price for their actions.”
Tensions have been high over the past few weeks as Israel’s 2 million-strong Arab population has watched Israel’s lethal crackdown on Palestinians protesting in the Gaza Strip.
Last Monday was especially fraught as Israeli military snipers killed some 62 protesters and wounded thousands. Palestinians have dubbed the protests “the Great March of Return,” saying they want the freedom to return to homes and lands they were forced to leave upon Israel’s creation in 1948, they also say they want alleviation of the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
Israel has said a significant number of the protesters were members of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that runs the strip and which is designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union. They say that Hamas has used the protests as a cover to try to break through the fence into Israel and attack communities along the border.
There has been international criticism of Israel, describing the use of force as excessive and disproportionate against largely unarmed demonstrators.
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