Riot police protecting 30 far-right Israeli extremists who marched in the country's largest Arab town yesterday chanting "death to terrorists" used a barrage of tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesting residents.
Ten arrests were made during clashes between stone-throwing Israeli Arab youths and riot police after the arrival of the marchers, who were led by two of the country's most extreme right-wing activists, Hebron settlers Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben Gvir.
Hundreds of armed police were deployed at the flashpoint on an outer edge and elsewhere in Umm el-Fahm to keep apart local Arab protesters and Jewish ultranationalists taking part in the short symbolic march, which had been permitted by Israel's Supreme Court. The court decision had fuelled tensions between some Israeli Jews and the country's Arab minority, already exacerbated by a series of legislative proposals targeting Arab Israelis and promoted by Avigdor Lieberman, the country's hard-right foreign minister. These include the demand that newly naturalised citizens should pledge loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish state".
After a resident shouted that he had seen a bus bringing the marchers to the neighbourhood, at least two stones were thrown at a protective cordon of police carrying riot shields. Within seconds officers fired tear gas canisters and stun grenades, scattering bystanders, reporters, and around 350 Arab and other demonstrators, including a few from the small ultraorthodox Jewish anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta.
As a minority of the Arab protesters – mainly youths, some masked by headscarves – returned to burn tyres and throw stones at police, undercover officers, dressed as Arabs, made arrests.
Police said four officers had been slightly injured. One arrested teenager could be seen bleeding from a head wound as he was frogmarched away by police. Two Arab Knesset members taking part in the protest, Hanin Zoabi and Afu Aghbaria, were lightly injured by stun grenades. Police kept journalists away from the marchers. But Amneh Jabari, 38, a woman who lives by the designated route, told Associated Press that the marchers brandished Israeli flags and recited prayers, chanting "death to the Arabs" and "Umm el-Fahm will be Jewish".
The leaders of the march are admirers of Meir Kahane, an overtly racist US-born rabbi who demanded that Palestinians should be expelled from Israel and the West Bank. He was shot dead by an Arab gunman in a New York Hotel exactly 20 years ago.
Mr Marzel said that the activists had come to demand that Israel's government should ban the Islamic Movement, which dominates the local council here, as it had Kahane's Kach Party. "If the Kach Party was outlawed, then the Islamic Movement deserves to be outlawed 1,000 times over," he said.
But Khaled Hamdan, the town's mayor, criticised police for protecting the marchers and their leader, calling them "a madman and a bunch of racists. The purpose behind this (march) clearly is to provoke and to cause chaos," he said.
One Arab resident, Adeeb Mahdid, 56, said the marchers were not representative of Israeli Jews. "Arabs cannot do without the Jews, who come here to our shops and are welcome," he said. "Baruch Marzel is just trying to hurt good relations between us."
The march coincided with the separate conviction of an Israeli Arab political activist, Ameer Makhoul, who confessed to espionage for Hizbollah in a plea bargain. He was arrested in May.
Rabbi Meir Kahane: The Ultranationalist
Meir Kahane was an American-Israeli Orthodox rabbi, ultra-nationalist and politician. A passionate activist for Jewish causes in New York, he emigrated to Israel in 1971. Soon after his arrival, he established the militantly anti-Arab Kach party, declaring that all Arabs should be deported. He led Kach to parliament in 1984 before it was eventually banned as racist; his most famous work, They Must Go, has been likened to Mein Kampf.
In 1990, after delivering a speech to mostly Orthodox Jews in Manhattan, he was assassinated by an Arab gunman. The significance of his death became apparent after no charismatic leader emerged to replace him as head of the Israeli right-wing movement. Kahanist ideology later spawned two factions, Kach and Kahane Chai ("Kahane Lives"), deemed as terrorist organisations by the Israeli and US governments. He remains a figurehead of the anti-Arab sentiment, and is still revered among right-wing Israelis.