umm el-fahm protest 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
The defiant masses, the waving of large Palestinian flags and clashes between rock-throwing protesters and police responding with tear gas and stun grenades was a scene reminiscent of the intifada.
But Tuesday's riots - which erupted as a group of far-right Jewish activists marched through the outskirts of the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm, waving Israeli flags and singing "Am Yisrael Hai" - were not connected to "the occupation." They occurred over the far more complex issue of Arab identity, and the place of Arabs in a Jewish state.
Some 30 injuries were reportedly sustained by police officers, protesters and even journalists, including at least six people who were hospitalized. But more than 2,500 police had been dispatched to the area, and no one was seriously injured.
It was clear that march leader Baruch Marzel, who lives in Kiryat Arba and has previously been accused of violence against Palestinians, wanted to send a political message to the residents of Umm el-Fahm.
"Inside Israel, citizens of Israel want... to make Israel part of an Islamic nation and destroy the state of Israel," he said, minutes before the march. "We're coming into their headquarters - into the main city of Islam in Israel, Umm el-Fahm, to say this belongs to us... belongs to the state of Israel."
LAST FALL, the High Court of Justice defended the activists' right to march in the outskirts of Umm el-Fahm on the basis of democracy and freedom of speech. But Arab residents and their supporters considered the march "a pure provocation," with some even accusing Israeli officials of complicity in the decision.
"It is a message from the settlers, but also from the Israeli establishment," said Abed Anabtawi, secretary of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, who attended the protest. "We understood the message, and that's why our people are responding to this message in the way we can."
The majority of the hundreds of Umm el-Fahm residents and their supporters who protested the march did not pick up stones. Many said they just wanted to block "the racists" from entering their town.
But at one point, scores of young protesters in the crowd began to hurl rocks at police, prompting them to fire several rounds of tear gas into the crowd. Police also used tear gas and stun grenades to keep protesters from approaching the marchers or the officers. The battle lasted more than an hour and a half.
But Tuesday's riots did not happen in a vacuum. They were sparked at a particularly sensitive time, as suspicion and distrust are growing between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
For many Arabs, the rise of Israel Beiteinu and its leader Avigdor Lieberman - who campaigned on the slogan "No citizenship without loyalty" - is evidence that they are not wanted in Israel.
And while they have the right to vote and run in local and national elections, they feel increasingly marginalized in the political realm, where their voices are often dismissed as radical or irrelevant to the goals of the Jewish state.
Activists say inequities, such as severe shortage of classrooms in the Arab sector, and laws they charge are discriminatory, such as those that prevent them from living in the country with their spouse from the West Bank or Gaza, make them feel like second-class citizens.
Many Jews, too, say they are increasingly concerned about incendiary remarks or incitement by some Israeli-Arab leaders, particularly Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the more radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement, who is frequently portrayed on satellite networks as the defender of Jerusalem and the Aksa Mosque.
Concerned government officials speak of an increasing radicalism in the Israeli Arab community and an increasing identification with Hamas. Recent news reports have highlighted a number of cases of Arabs being charged with spying for Hizbullah or attempting to plot terror attacks.
Just as the much larger Acre riots last October, which involved clashes between Jewish and Arab residents, the Umm el-Fahm protest-turned-riot is a reminder that Jewish-Arab relations are at a significantly low point. And the next explosion, however and wherever kindled, may not be as benign.