Israel's Arab sector is on strike over alleged police brutality following the death of two men from the southern, Bedouin city of Rahat. Sami Al Jaar, 22, died during a police operation near his residence, struck by a stray bullet. Sami Al Ziadna, 45, died from tear gas inhaled at Al Jaar's funeral that had been fired by the police. More than 20 were hospitalized for their injuries, including Rahat's mayor, Talal Al Krenawi. In solidarity, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee declared a national general strike of the Arab sector, closing schools, businesses, and public institutions. Israeli police maintain that the deaths were not intentional, but rather, collateral damage incurred from other, nearby violence. In their own defense, police remarked:
In a democratic country, in which law and order are at its core, there can't be a situation in which residents attack lawmen who came to do their job. This is challenging the rule of law. We expect the leaders in the (Arab) sector to prevent a further deterioration of the situation and work to restrain the rioters. We won't allow anyone to hurt policemen and will act determinedly against outlaws.
It is intolerable that Arab citizens [are faced with] such significant danger, including the risk of death, during any friction with police forces. Such a reality points to serious failures in the conduct of the police in confronting Arab citizens. The government must decide whether to continue to blindly support these institutional failings and to deepen the distrust, alienation and fear of the police among the Arab public, or decide on a comprehensive review of police conduct against Arab citizens through the legal and judicial tools at its disposal.
Ever since the shelving of the Prawer plan the Israeli police have taken a particularly violent and aggressive approach against the Arab-Bedouin citizens with the intention of ‘teaching them a lesson'… In addition, the Police Investigations Unit doesn’t investigate these serious incidents in a fitting and professional manner, and thus enhances the police perception of the Arab citizens as the enemy whose blood can be shed.
The Begin-Prawer Plan, which was cancelled in December 2013, intended to relocate tens of thousands of Bedouins into communities that had been formally established by the Israeli government in order to better provide basic services, such as electricity, water, sewage, and health and educational services. Bedouin communities objected, saying that they had not been consulted as key stakeholders in the plan. It is estimated that there are 200,000 Bedouins who are citizens of Israel's Negev region, 100,000 of whom live in villages that are “unrecognized” by the government and where their most fundamental needs as citizens are not met.
The city of Rahat, home to an estimated 55,000 people, was established in 1972 by the Israeli government to provide permanent residence to the semi-nomadic tribes. It is one of seven Bedouin towns recognized by the government of Israel.
On Sunday, January 18, 2015, an estimated 8,000 mourners gathered at the Rahat cementery to memorialize Al Jaar and stand in solidarity with his family. The police and Rahat's mayor agreed that the police would secure the main road but not approach the burial site due to high tensions.
Witnesses report that a police car driving by the ceremony was met with fury and that members of the crowd reacted immediately by throwing rocks at the vehicle. In response, a large police force advanced upon the mourners, firing tear gas, sound grenades, and cork bullets (which are deemed non-lethal). Tear gas inhalation was reportedly Al Ziadna's cause of death. This second casualty made an already tense situation more dire.
A community page on Facebook, Breaking News: Rahat, dedicated to the recent protests posted this video footage from Al Jaar's funeral:
Reporting from the scene, Activestills, an organization of Israeli activists specializing in photojournalism, broke the news of Ziadna's death, writing:
On Twitter, Avi Blecherman, who identifies himself in his profile as a “citizen journalist… social justice and human rights fighter,” posted images of Al Ziadna's funeral on Monday, January 19, picturing large gatherings of people in the cemetery, mourning collectively. He tags them #PoliceBrutality and #BlackLivesMatter, aligning with the US-based movement protesting police violence against African Americans, and the murders of Trayvon Martin (2012) and Michael Brown (2014) in Ferguson, Missouri.
On Facebook, the page “I Am Palestinian, I Am Not A Terrorist” shared photos of solidarity protests around the country. Pictured here is a mixed Arab-Jewish event at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the midst of a developing situation, Israel's President Reuven Rivlin phoned Rahat's Mayor Al Krenawi, conveying his condolences and urging that they find a solution to the current crisis, saying, “It is important that we do this together.” Disclosure: The author works at an Arab-Jewish organization in Israel that promotes the rights and welfare of the Bedouin community.