Last week, a shocking case of Israeli police brutality in the occupied West Bank was reported in the Washington Post. Officers accosted three young Palestinians out delivering groceries, beat them and took photographs of themselves holding up the Palestinians’ bloodied heads “like hunting trophies” for the camera. Aggression and erratic behavior on the part of Israeli police is routine in the Occupied Territories — and familiar to Palestinian citizens of Israel itself.
At a press conference on September 12, Israeli Maj. Alik Ron announced that 41 Palestinians from the town of Umm al-Fahm in Wadi ‘Ara near the Galilee — including “senior members of the Islamist movement” — had been arrested for attempting to kill “collaborators” (Palestinians who work for Israel’s police and intelligence forces) and arms smuggling. Ron, police commander of Israel’s northern district that is home to 750,000 Palestinians, said the 41 arrests were indicative of “nationalist activities unprecedented in their scope since in the 1980s.” He also accused Muhammad Barakeh, an Arab Member of the Knesset and leader of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE), of “inciting” Palestinians to “attack the police.” Just two days later, it emerged that all of Ron’s accusations were untrue.
The press conference provoked a firestorm of Israeli media attacks on Umm al-Fahm. In the last two weeks, writers have described the town — personified by its Islamist mayor, Shaykh Raad Salah — as a “nationalist Arab underground,” a seedbed for “errant weeds” and even an “Islamic autonomy” in the heart of the Jewish state. Alarmed, right-wing Israeli Jewish politicians began referring to Israel’s Palestinian citizens as a “malignant growth” and calling on the government to ban the Islamist movement.
Ron’s incitement of Israeli Jewish opinion against Palestinians in Israel is not just US-style law-and-order hysteria, but calculated politics. His accusations were aimed at intimidating Palestinian political organizing in the Galilee, and at bolstering his own ambitions to forge an “anti-Arab” alliance to counter Prime Minister Ehud Barak heading into Israel’s pending elections.
Law and Order in Umm Al-Fahm
Umm al-Fahm suffers from the blights that afflict many of Israel’s one million-strong Palestinian minority. The town has endured land confiscation and house demolitions, it lacks meaningful planning and zoning powers, unemployment and crime is high among the young and poverty among the old. In 1948, when Israel annexed Umm al-Fahm (in violation of the UN partition plan), its 6,000 residents owned about 124,000 dunums of land. Today 38,000 residents own 20,000 dunums.
Every one of Ron’s charges against Umm al-Fahm proved to be disingenuous, at best. Two days after the press conference the district prosecutor in Haifa — as well as local commanders of Shinbet, Israel’s internal security service — quietly informed the frantic media that 33 Umm al-Fahm residents had been detained and twelve indicted but that none of them had been charged with “nationalist offenses.” Nor was there any connection between the detainees and the Islamist movement, whether the “southern wing” headed by Shaykh Abdallah Nimr Darwish or the more radical “northern wing” headed by Salah.
The accusation of planned “collaborator attacks” referred to a year-old case where an Umm al-Fahm clan had tried to burn down the house of a kinsman, Khalil Jabrin, who once worked for Shinbet. But this attack was probably apolitical, a mere retaliation for Khalil’s murder of three relatives who had “refused to build a house for him.” The alleged “gun running” is an old phenomenon in the Galilee. Israeli and West Bank Palestinian dealers fuel trade in arms, which are purchased sometimes for wedding celebrations but mainly by rival criminal gangs. Umm al-Fahm residents — and people in most other Palestinian towns in Israel — charge police with showing indifference to the resulting mayhem. One day after Ron’s press conference, a Palestinian money-changer was shot dead during the mid-morning rush hour in Nazareth. The next day the city observed a one-day commercial strike to protest police inaction.
Local Dispute, National Implications
Nor does there seem to be much substance to the allegations that Barakeh “incited” violence against police. Barakeh freely admits that at a recent protest against house demolitions in the Galilee he declared that “the right to a roof over one’s head takes precedence over the duty to obey the law,” though he denies calling for Palestinians to attack the police. What troubles Barakeh is the “intolerable ease” with which Israel’s Attorney General, Elyahim Rubinstein, opened a police investigation against him based solely on Ron’s accusations. Given the “legal difficulties” Rubinstein experienced opening an investigation into Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s comments in August that Arabs were “snakes” whom “God regrets ever having created,” Barakeh suspects a double standard.
Media and politicians’ campaigns against Umm al-Fahm’s Islamists and Barakeh turned a local dispute into a national one. On September 13, the Arab Monitoring Committee in Israel — an ad hoc umbrella group representing the “Arab consensus” among the Palestinians’ various political streams — vowed huge protests should Barakeh be called for interrogation by the police. On September 15, 40,000 Palestinians assembled in Umm al-Fahm’s soccer stadium, ostensibly in defense of the Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem, but also in solidarity with Salah, whose northern Islamist wing organized the rally. Barakeh spoke to the crowd, in a rare display of unity between the Islamists and the Communist-led DFPE.
Palestinians in Umm al-Fahm cite three possible causes for Ron’s strange outburst and the sensationalist publicity that followed. The first was the September 15 rally itself. Called by the Islamist movement’s northern wing to demand Islamic and Palestinian sovereignty over the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities knew it would draw massive support. Ron could have been trying to deter attendance at the rally by releasing the specter of “Islamic terrorism.”
If so, his tactic failed, and not only because of the numbers at the rally. On September 20, local elections were held for the first time in four Palestinian townships in the Negev. The Islamist movement won two of them. Commanding the support of around 25 percent of Palestinian electorate — and municipal control over three of their biggest cities (Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm and Kafr Qasim) — the Islamic movement, north and south, is now the most popular movement among Israel’s Palestinians.
Ron’s political ambitions may also have prompted his overblown accusations. Due to retire as police commander next year, Ron has reportedly contacted right-wing leader Ariel Sharon about securing a place on Likud’s electoral list. Sharon apparently wants to form what some have called an “anti-Arab alliance” for the next Israeli elections, made up of settlers, Orthodox Jews, Russian immigrants and the Mizrahi poor. He sees this bloc as a means of undermining Barak’s recent advocacy of civil reforms aimed at separating religion from state in Israel. Barak has proposed drafting a constitution, establishing civil marriage and permitting public transportation to run on the Sabbath. Given Ron’s record in the Galilee — and Sharon’s entanglement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre eighteen years ago — both men would seem perfectly suited for such an anti-Arab crusade.
Finally, it is obvious to Palestinians that an ideological crisis currently besets the Jewish identity of Israel. Roughly, this crisis pits “secularists” who define “Jewishness” in national terms against “Orthodox” who define Judaism in exclusively religious terms. With Shas — the Orthodox movement which mostly represents non-European Mizrahi Jews — this schism overlays other fractures based on ethnicity and class. In the midst of such turmoil, Umm al-Fahm — and the Arab and Islamic presence it signifies — may be the easiest of scapegoats for a society worried about preserving a unified Jewish identity.