The usually quiet Galilee village of Peki'in erupted overnight Monday into violent confrontations between police and residents, in scenes reminiscent of the infamous October 2000 Wadi Ara riots.
More than three dozen police and protesters were wounded, leaving tensions high in the majority-Druse town on the slopes of Mount Meron. The town, which has a rich Jewish heritage, is generally seen as a model of coexistence and tranquility.
The clashes began before sunrise when approximately 200 border policemen, Yasam anti-terror officers and regular police under the command of Galilee Subdistrict chief Lt.-Cmdr. Nir Mariash entered the village to arrest seven local youths. The youths were all suspected of involvement in earlier acts of civil disorder, protesting a cellular phone antenna that was placed on the roof of a chicken coop in neighboring Moshav Peki'in.
"Ronen," the owner of the chicken coops, said Druse community elders had asked him to remove the antenna, but that he had not done so. Peki'in residents have complained of an already-high rate of cancer, with over 90 patients currently ill in the village, and the elders expressed concern that the antenna could only worsen the situation.
When the police entered the village, they were met by a few dozen youths, many wearing masks. The youths began to physically block police progress and throw stones and other heavy objects at the officers, who then arrested five of them.
Peki'in resident Mahmoud Saida said that the situation had only escalated after police officers entered the hilweh, the Druse house of prayer.
"That is something that we cannot accept. It cannot be that police entered the hilweh with weapons," Saida said, explaining that it was then that the village loudspeakers had alerted residents to guard the site.
Saida, a 54-year-old who proudly recalls his days in the IDF squad commanders' course with Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said that he and other older men had gone outside to try and help end the violence.
"We were shocked and surprised, because it was our soldiers against our youth. I have some influence over the youth, and so we succeeded with our bodies to guard the police, because the youth weren't going to hit us to get through to the police," he said.
At one point, a group of masked youths kidnapped a border policewoman with the intent of holding her hostage in what Israel Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen described as the most serious single incident of the day. Police said that a policeman who tried to rescue her was attacked and badly wounded, and that the Magen David Adom ambulance that came to evacuate him was also attacked, as were the brother-sister team of medics inside of it.
Finally, a local resident - a retired police officer - took the policewoman under his protection, and along with other community elders, guarded her in the hilweh.
The policewoman was held there for four hours while police and Druse elders negotiated her return, which came in exchange for the release of the five protesters who had been arrested earlier.
Mariash said later this should not be seen as giving in to pressure, and that the five would be rearrested after things calmed down.
In the violence that continued into the morning hours, more than 30 people were wounded, including at least 16 police officers. One policeman was in serious condition after being hit in the head by a rock, and a demonstrator was in moderate condition, suffering from gunshot wounds.
Police requested reinforcements, then withdrew from the town to hold a situation assessment as Northern District Police chief Cmdr. Shimon Koren arrived to take charge. Throughout the rest of the day, police commanders - including Cohen - conducted dialogue with Druse political and spiritual leaders, including the Druse community's spiritual head, Mawfik Tariq, who rushed to the scene as well.
Tariq was instrumental in securing the policewoman's safe passage out of the town and to the nearby Ma'ona police station, Saida said.
But even after the clashes subsided, a group of Peki'in youth set fire to the homes of local Jewish residents, police reported. The historic Peki'in synagogue, which has foundations in the Talmudic period, and the houses of the Zinati and Tuma families, the town's oldest Jewish families, were left unscathed.
Saida emphasized that this was no coincidence - that the Druse majority of Peki'in, whose sons fill the ranks of the police, IDF and Prisons Service, did not bear animosity toward Jews or Israel, but were merely furious at the police's course of action.
Ilan Tuma-Schecter, one of the few Jews living in the old part of the town, agreed.
"We've been living for years with respect for each other, and we really hope that it will continue. There has never been bloodshed between Druse and Jews in Peki'in," he said, expressing his hope that the situation in the town would soon improve. â€¢