Al-Ahram Weekly – 11 April 2002
Israel’s Palestinian citizens, enraged by the military assault on their ethnic kin in the occupied territories, risked the first mass confrontations last week with Israeli security forces since the police killed 13 of them at the start of the Intifada, in October 2000.
The clashes occurred at several locations as the Arab minority tried to bring food and medical aid to the “closed military zones” declared around besieged West Bank cities by the Israeli army.
Arab towns and villages in Israel have amassed huge stockpiles of supplies over the last few weeks but have struggled to secure permission to get the aid through.
During protests in support of a convoy of trucks hoping to reach Jenin on Tuesday, two Arabs were wounded when a soldier passing in a civilian car fired live bullets at a small group of demonstrators.
Some 30 Jews from the nearby Magen Sha’ul settlement had set up an informal roadblock several kilometres before the Jalame checkpoint, the entrance to the army’s military zone. Watched by Israeli police, the settlers waved Israeli flags and burned tyres and, when the demonstrators tried to pass them, threw stones.
According to eyewitnesses, as the protesters threw stones back, a passing soldier drove over to the settlers and then fired at the crowd. A young woman, Valentina Abu Oksa, and an unidentified young man were injured.
A police spokesman said the soldier had been arrested.
Another group of Jews from the same settlement advanced on the larger group of demonstrators being held with the aid trucks at a police roadblock close to Jalame.
When the settlers grabbed an Arab youth and started to beat him, armed border police on horseback drove the settlers back. They then confronted the demonstrators, who eventually agreed to leave after the army agreed to allow the supplies through.
However, yesterday it was unclear how close the supplies were to Jenin.
A similar confrontation at the normally quiet A-Ram checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, turned ugly when peace activists demanded that an aid convoy be allowed to reach Ramallah. They were met by a wall of heavily armed soldiers supported by armoured vehicles.
As the demonstrators, drawn from the Palestinian minority and radical leftwing Jewish groups, massed at the barriers, organisers tried to negotiate with the army over allowing four supply trucks through to Qalandiya, the checkpoint marking the entrance to the temporary Palestinian capital.
After a standoff lasting two hours, army commanders agreed to let one truck approach. But as the vehicle remained stuck at the barriers, and other demonstrators formed a human chain to pass bags of rice from another truck towards the checkpoint, troops fired a volley of tear gas canisters and stun grenades.
As clouds of gas exploded from all directions, sending the crowd scattering in confusion, soldiers ran at the demonstrators, hitting the nearest with batons.
The injured included women who had been at the front of the demonstration to highlight its peaceful nature. Iris Bar, from Haifa, was one of those who had a cut to the head from the falling canisters. “There were tear gas canisters raining down on us,” she said.
A photograph published in the Israeli press confirmed her story that she had also been hit with a baton from behind by a soldier as she tried to run away.
Juliano Merr, 45, an Israeli film star who is half Arab and half Jewish, had a bloody gash over his left eye which he and other witnesses said had been caused when police kicked him as he was held on the ground. He was also one of several protesters saying they had been hit by rubber bullets.
“Five or six policemen were on top of me at once,” he said. “There seemed to be no reason for the attack on us. It happened just as everyone thought the truck was going to be let through and was cheering.”
Auni Khalil, an Israeli Arab doctor representing Physicians for Human Rights, who had cuts to his arm and leg, said he had been set on by police even though he was wearing a doctor’s coat bearing the group’s insignia.
About 30 people needed medical treatment.
There were other worrying signs of a backlash against the Arab minority asserting its rights to free speech.
Three demonstrators were arrested at a protest outside the American Embassy in Tel Aviv last Thursday after Palestinian flags were raised in front of the building. Police charged into the crowd with batons, injuring some 25 people, including six who needed treatment at the scene.
Police officials told Israeli television afterwards that officers had acted to prevent the waving of the flags, which they called an illegal act.
It was a worrying development for the Arab minority. The legality of Palestinian flag-waving has been unclear since April 2000 when 13 students were arrested at a demonstration at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Afterwards the attorney- general ruled that local police commanders had discretion to detain demonstrators who raised the flag if it was likely to promote hostility to Israel.
The decision has yet to be tested in the courts, largely because police have kept away from Arab areas since the clashes of October 2000. But if Arab protesters continue to take their campaigns into Jewish areas, there are likely to be more violent clashes and arrests.
At the weekend, large demonstrations were staged in many Arab towns. In Nazareth 10,000 demonstrators chanted “Sharon is a murderer” as they marched down the main street.
At Umm Al-Fahm, in the central Triangle region, the main Wadi Ara road was closed for an hour by youths throwing stones at cars before police moved in to arrest seven of them. It was an event heavy with symbolism for both sides: the last time the road was shut, at the start of the Intifada, police shot dead three protesters after they were ordered to reopen it.
Police have been taking a particularly harsh line against the Bedouin in the Negev.
Leaders at the town of Rahat were not allowed to deliver to the Palestinians $3,500 in cash and 100 tons of rice, sugar and flour they had collected.
And this week there was a spate of belated arrests following 30 March Land Day demonstration. Five days after a rally near Beersheva, two community leaders, Youssef Al-Atawneh and Abdel-Karim Atika, were detained, accused of expressing support for a terror organisation.
By Tuesday five more demonstrators, including Ibrahim Baransi, the leader of the Arab student union at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, had been taken into custody. It was unclear whether the organisation referred to in the police indictments was Hizbullah or the Palestinian Authority.
Morad Al-Sana, a Beersheva lawyer for the Adalah Legal Centre for Arab minority rights, said: “We have been warned to expect many more arrests in the next few days.”
According to the Web site of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, the police used undercover agents at the Land Day demonstration and filmed the demonstrators. It is the first time the event had been held in the Negev.
Dr Rawda Atallah, head of the Arab Cultural Centre in Nazareth, the parent organisation of the Arab Youth Centre in Rahat run by Atika, said: “A political decision has been taken to victimise the community leaders among the Bedouin to nip their protests in the bud. The Negev has traditionally been quiet and I suspect the authorities have been unnerved by the strength of feeling shown on Land Day and the fact that they can no longer rely on the support of the Bedouin.”