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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 over a court-ordered operation to demolish illegally built homes, police said, while local residents accused the police of using excessive force against demonstrators.
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The conflicting accounts, and ensuing confrontations between police and Arab lawmakers, threatened to further strain relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Arabs often complain of second-class status in the Jewish state, while many Jews consider the Arab citizens disloyal for sympathizing with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a local man sped toward the forces deployed to the Umm al-Hiran village early Wednesday as they were securing the area ahead of its planned demolition. He said a jeep raced toward the troops, killing 34-year-old policeman Erez Levi. 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 Abu al-Qiyan was trying to leave town and only lost control of his vehicle after police shot at him. Abu al-Qiyan’s brother, Ahmad, said he was “murdered in cold blood,” and Amnesty International called for a probe into the reports of excessive force by police.
“he police are light on the trigger when it comes to Arab citizens,”the Arab advocacy group Adalah said in a statement in which it accused the police of a “culture of lying.”
Palestinians have carried out a number of vehicular attacks against Israelis over the past year and a half, and earlier this month a Palestinian truck driver rammed into a group of Israeli soldiers, 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 streaming 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.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan accused Odeh of stirring up the conflict and lying about what happened. He said he hoped the incident would not spark further divisions between Jews and Arabs in Israel, but that if it happens lawmakers like Odeh bore responsibility.
“He was there to enflame tensions and incite to violence,” he told Army Radio. “He contributed to a very serious event that may also have criminal implications for him.”
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 barriers to acquiring proper permits put in place by the state.
Wednesday’s evacuation plans involve a long-running dispute between Israel and the formerly nomadic Bedouin of the Umm Al-Hiran village. Israel moved part of a Bedouin clan to the state-owned land 60 years ago, but now wishes to relocate 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.
Arab-Israelis have risen to prominence in sports, politics, entertainment and the judiciary. But Jewish Israelis have long viewed the community with suspicion, as many of Israel’s Arabs closely identify 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.”