The focus of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict suddenly shifted May 18 from Gaza and Jerusalem to Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. A pro-Palestinian demonstration attended by about 200 Arab Israelis was violently repressed by Israeli police. Nineteen protesters were arrested, among them the director of the Mossawa Center in Haifa, Jafar Farah. According to the human rights organization’s website, Farah had come to the demonstration to search for his son when he “was caught up in police interventions and arrested.”
Mossawa reported that when Farah “asked the police officers how [his son and others] came to be [bleeding], he was himself beaten and had his knee broken when a police officer kicked him in the leg.”
His injury was only the beginning of his trouble. According to Mossawa's website, “Mr. Farah along with several other detainees was taken to the hospital to receive medical treatment as a result of police brutality. He was diagnosed with a broken knee and given a cast. While the medical team originally stated that Jafar would need to remain in the hospital for observation, they later reversed this decision after police coercion and allowed him to be taken back into police custody on Saturday night [May 19]. While under police custody in the hospital, Mr. Farah was handcuffed by his uninjured leg to the bed and no one from his family nor even his personal doctor was allowed to see him. His personal lawyer was only allowed to see him on Sunday.”
Protests by Arab Israelis have become the subject of anti-Arab incitement by leading Israeli officials. When the head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, protested the Haifa police’s “brutal” dispersal of demonstrators, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attacked Odeh on his personal Twitter account May 20, calling him and his associates “terrorists” who belong in jail.
“Every day that Ayman Odeh and his associates are free to walk around cursing at police officers is a failure of law enforcement authorities. The place for these terrorists is not in the Knesset, it’s in prison,” he said. “It’s time they pay a price for their actions.” Israel's National Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav chimed in with similar anti-Arab statements that many felt were racist in nature.
The drama reached the Haifa Magistrate’s Court, where a marathon eight-hour session concluded on May 21 with the release of all the detainees.
After he was released, Farah called for an investigation into his case and the cases of others who were hospitalized. Mossawa's report read, “The Mossawa Center calls on the internal police investigation unit to conduct a thorough investigation and to bring those police officers responsible to justice.”
After his release, Farah stated, “It is the legal right of every citizen to protest the actions of their government without fear of arrest or violence. The brutality of the police and arrests of protesters on Friday are not the actions of a democracy.”
Aida Touma-Sliman, an Arab Knesset member from Haifa, told Al-Monitor that though Israeli law criminalizes incitement with racist overtones, some of the Israeli leaders inciting against Arabs do so with impunity. “Although the Israeli officials clearly incited racial violence, they can only be confronted legally if the government’s legal adviser agrees to lift their immunity,” she said.
Touma-Sliman said that the statements by Liberman and Erdan following the Haifa demonstrations reflect the prevailing atmosphere. “The entire state has moved to the right, and the atmosphere today in Israel resembles that in the 1930s in Europe, as it has all the components of fascism.” Touma-Sliman noted that a bus driver in Kufr Qassem, a Palestinian city in Israel, was brutally beaten by three Jewish passengers May 22, indicating, “This anti-Arab incitement that is being promoted by top Israeli officials is filtering down to the streets.”
Touma-Sliman told Al-Monitor that despite the anger and the incitement, she is hopeful that this sad chapter will soon end. She noted that a second demonstration on May 20 attracted nearly 1,000 people, many of them Jews standing against police brutality.
Johnny Mansour, a Haifa historian and political science lecturer at Beit Berl College in Israel, told Al-Monitor he sees a “demonization" of Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Israel is facing many challenges and is searching for an enemy to fight, but no one wants to fight them. Israeli officials are experiencing internal problems because [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, his wife and friends are facing corruption charges. They want to divert attention from their own problems and it is always easy to find a scapegoat. Now the Palestinian minority in Israel is the easiest target that they can attack.”
The war of words and police oppression have raised the atmosphere of anger and tension in Israel while the worldwide commendation of the brutality in Gaza continues to increase the cost of occupation for Israel.
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