An Israeli Arab rammed his vehicle into a group of police officers on Wednesday, killing one of them before he was shot dead during clashes in southern Israel, police said. Local residents, however, accused the police of using excessive force and said the man lost control of his vehicle after he was shot.
The incident took place as protesters were demonstrating against the court-ordered demolition of illegally constructed buildings in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran. It threatened to further strain relations between the government and Israel’s Arab minority.
Arab citizens often complain of second-class status, while many Israeli Jews view them as disloyal because they largely sympathize with the Palestinians.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a local man sped toward the forces deployed to Umm al-Hiran early Wednesday as they were securing the area ahead of the planned home demolitions.
A jeep raced toward the troops, killing 34-year-old policeman Erez Levi, Rosenfeld said. Troops opened fire at the driver, killing Yaakub Abu al-Qiyan, 50, whom Israeli officials later identified as belonging to an Islamist group. The clashes continued, and several policemen were wounded.
Local residents said al-Qiyan was trying to leave town and only lost control of his vehicle after police shot at him. His brother, Ahmad al-Qiyan, said he was “murdered in cold blood,” and Amnesty International called for a probe into the reports of excessive force by police.
“The police are light on the trigger when it comes to Arab citizens,” the Arab advocacy group Adalah said in a statement that accused the police of a “culture of lying.”
Police released footage filmed from a helicopter showing a car flanked by police officers speeding up and driving toward the forces. It is not clear from the video at what point police opened fire but a voice on the video says “shots have been heard” after the car drives toward the forces. The car continues for several seconds and then slows down and a caption at the bottom of the video says police “block the car” and “neutralize” the driver.
Palestinians have carried out a number of attacks using cars to ram into Israelis over the past year and a half. Earlier this month, a Palestinian truck driver rammed into a group of Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem, killing four.
Lawmaker Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List in the Israeli parliament, was wounded in Wednesday’s clashes, along with several others. Odeh was evacuated to a hospital with blood streaking down his forehead.
In a shaky voice, he told Israel’s Army Radio that he was shot by overzealous officers who were deployed after extensive negotiations to delay the demolition broke down.
“This is a direct order from (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu, who wants to enflame the area,” he said. “This is a disgrace.”
Israeli police said he was likely struck by a rock thrown by one of the protesters, and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan accused Odeh of lying about what happened. Erdan said he hoped the incident would not spark further divisions between Jews and Arabs in Israel – but that Odeh would be to blame if it did.
“He was there to enflame tensions and incite to violence,” Erdan told Army Radio. “He contributed to a very serious event that may also have criminal implications for him.”
In a statement, Netanyahu called on lawmakers to stop inciting to violence. “The Bedouin public is part of us, we want to integrate it into Israeli society and not radicalize it,” the prime minister added.
The demolitions were eventually carried out.
Arabs make up a fifth of Israel’s population. They enjoy full citizenship but frequently face unfair treatment in areas like jobs and housing.
The Israeli government recently vowed to crack down harder on illegal Arab construction following criticism from Jewish settlers, who face a court-ordered evacuation of an illegally built outpost in the West Bank.
Last week, authorities demolished 11 homes in the central city of Kalansua, sparking a general strike among Israeli Arabs, who say the problem stems from long-standing state-imposed barriers to acquiring proper permits.
Wednesday’s evacuation plans involve a long-running dispute between Israel and Umm al-Hiran. Israel moved part of a Bedouin clan to the state-owned land 60 years ago, but now wishes to relocate the remaining residents to a government-designated Bedouin township.
An adjacent part of the village slated for future demolition is zoned for a new development catering to religious Jewish families with ties to the West Bank settlement movement.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qasem said the demolitions are “ugly crimes targeting the Palestinian existence and future and uprooting the Palestinians from their land.”
Arab-Israelis have risen to prominence in sports, politics, entertainment and the judiciary. But Jewish Israelis have long viewed the community with suspicion. Israel’s Arabs include the descendants of Palestinians who remained in Israel after the 1948 war, and many of them closely identify politically and culturally with Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the housing dispute must be resolved and urged all sides to refrain from letting the incident spiral into further conflict.
“I turn to all leaders across Israel, particularly in the Arab community, and say this is a stressful and difficult time, and we must all work together and do everything in our power to bring calm, in words and in actions,” he said. “We must find a solution and a plan to deal with this burning national, social and civic issue – before it is too late.”