Five days after police entered the Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev to evict residents and demolish 10 illegally constructed homes, hundreds of Israeli-Arabs from across the country protested Monday in front of the Knesset.
The demonstrators, who had a permit to assemble, also demanded the release of the corpse of an alleged terrorist whose vehicle rammed and killed an officer carrying out the demolition orders and evictions. Later on Monday, the High Court ruled that the body would be returned to his family.
Sr.-St.-Sgt.-Maj. Erez Levi, 34, was killed during a suspected vehicular attack carried out by Yacoub Abu al-Kaeean, 50, after Levi and other officers arrived to implement Wednesday’s home demolition orders in the unrecognized village.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Kaeean’s shooting was justified, aftersurveillance footage showed policemen signaling his vehicle to stop and firing at it. However, villagers claimed that Kaeean, a popular teacher, was innocent.
Several eyewitnesses disputed police accounts, contending that Kaeean – a member of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement, who taught math and computer science at the small village’s school – lost control of his vehicle after being shot by police.
Nonetheless, Israel Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich and President Reuven Rivlin concluded police acted properly to a life-threatening attack.
Umm al-Hiran, which has a population of approximately 400, has been the scene of an extensive legal battle between its Beduin residents and the state.
The residents, who are represented by Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel – were moved there under military edict in 1956, after being evicted from land on which they were living after 1948.
Although they have lived in the area for decades, the community was never given legal title to the land. Thus, the High Court of Justice ruled 2-1 in 2015 that the land belongs to the state, clearing the way for the demolition of the village.
A new town called Hiran, composed of mostly religious Jewish families, is planned in place of Umm al-Hiran. Although its residents have been offered 800-square-meter plots of land in the nearby Beduin town of Hura and financial compensation, protesters on Monday said the demolitions are unacceptable and a manifestation of racist policies.
Standing in the Wohl Rose Garden opposite the Knesset, MK Jamal Zahalka (Joint List) joined hundreds of protesters to demand the immediate cessation of demolitions, and the return of Kaeean’s corpse, which remains in police custody.
“First of all, we want his body returned without conditions from the police,” he said.
“But we are really protesting against the demolitions of [Arab] houses – not just in Umm al-Hiran, but everywhere. We suggested to the Israeli government a solution for this problem, including freezing all demolition orders, and we will stop anybody from building another unauthorized house in our communities.
Our leadership will guarantee that.”
Zahalka said the protest was also intended to encourage bilateral negotiations about how to prevent the future construction of unauthorized homes inside pre-1967 borders.
“We have spoken to many architects, engineers, and [community] planners and believe this problem can be solved,” he said.
“But my question is: If we can solve this problem through negotiations, then why do it unilaterally? Why do it by force, when we can get an agreed-upon solution?” Citing previous demonstrations during the past week in the South attended by thousands of Arab-Israelis, Zahalka said protests will continue until a compromise is reached.
In another matter, when asked to respond to US President Donald Trump’s pledge to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Zahalka said, “we are strongly against that. If it happens, we will demonstrate, and I think there will be a strong Palestinian response,” he cautioned.
Ibrahim Hijazi, who organized Monday’s demonstration via the High Arab League, echoed Zahalka’s sentiments, adding that the demolitions have racial underpinnings.
“We have three messages for Netanyahu and all of his ministers,” said Hijazi. “They should stop destroying houses right now; they should give permission to build houses and expand our communities everywhere; and cease plans to destroy 50,000 more houses that they said are not legal.
“If they want to treat us as enemies, then say so. We say that we are still citizens and have our historical and human rights, and those rights allow us to ask right now to stop what is happening, and allow us to live a normal life without being treated like enemies.”
According to Hijazi, the demolition orders are based on race more than the law.
“No prime minister can use these terms when he is talking about his citizens,” he said. “I can’t understand if he is talking about us or people from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS.
If the prime minister keeps pushing us against the wall, we will not be silent. We have the human right to defend ourselves and defend our homes.
“This racist policy must be stopped. If the Jewish people wants to keep its humanity, it must stop these demolitions.
That is why we’re here, because they are making these decisions in [the Knesset],” he said Raed Abu al-Kaeean, the nephew of the driver who was killed in Umm al-Hiran, demanded the return of his uncle’s body for burial.
“I demand that the police release his body without any conditions so that we can bury him in a formal religious ceremony for all to see,” he said, adding that he wants Netanyahu to apologize for the death.
In terms of the homes slated to be razed, Kaeean said the owners had no choice but to build them due to the government’s refusal to grant permits.
“First, they should offer solutions before tearing down the homes,” he said.Eliyahu Kamisher contributed to this report.
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