Dozens of Jewish extremists hoisting Israeli flags defiantly marched through this Arab-Israeli town on Wednesday, chanting “death to terrorists” and touching off clashes between rock-hurling residents and police who quelled them with tear gas.
As the unrest unfolded, an Israeli court convicted a prominent Arab-Israeli activist of spying for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in a plea bargain that will send him to prison for up to 10 years. The activist, Amir Makhoul, greeted supporters in court with a smile and a victory sign.
The court case and the violence in Umm el-Fahm added to mounting tensions between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority.
Israeli Arabs — one-fifth of the country’s citizens — have grown jittery as nationalist elements in Isareli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have questioned their loyalty to the state.
They are ethnically Palestinian, but enjoy equal rights under Israeli law, unlike their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. Still, they often suffer discrimination and are statistically poorer and less educated than Israeli Jews. Tensions between the two communities run deep.
The Jewish extremists converged on Umm el-Fahm, one of Israel’s largest Arab towns, because it is a stronghold of the country’s radical Islamic Movement. Jewish ultranationalists held a similar march in the town last year.
Umm el-Fahm Mayor Khaled Hamdan faulted the police for protecting the protesters and their leader, calling them “a madman and a bunch of racists.”
“The purpose of this [march] clearly is to provoke and to cause chaos,” he said.
The scenes of Israeli Arabs — their faces masked by checkered headscarves, burning tires, hurling rocks at riot police and scrambling to dodge tear gas and police fire — recalled violence between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Police said 10 people were arrested, but reported no serious injuries.
Israel’s Supreme Court authorized the march, and hundreds of police deployed in town. The march was on its outskirts.
About 350 Arab residents gathered to await the rally, and youths threw rocks at police, who dispersed the crowd with tear gas and stun grenades.
Police kept journalists away from the march’s 50m path. Nearby resident Amneh Jabari, 38, said marchers chanted “death to the Arabs” and “Umm el-Fahm will be Jewish” while waving white-and-blue Israeli flags and reciting prayers.
The Jewish militants are admirers of Meir Kahane, a US-born rabbi who preached that Palestinians should be expelled from Israel and the West Bank. An Arab gunman assassinated Kahane at a New York hotel 20 years ago.
The movement’s leader, Raed Salah, has called for a new Palestinian uprising against Israeli policies and led violent protests against building projects in Jerusalem’s Old City.