HAIFA, Israel — Over the past few days, the north of Israel caught fire.
The whole region has been a tinderbox for weeks as Israelis and Palestinians have clashed over access to the al Aqsa compound in the historic old city of Jerusalem.
The al Aqsa mosque sits on the site of the historical Jewish Temple, and right-wing Israelis have been campaigning for the right to pray on the grounds of the al Aqsa compound, enraging Palestinians, regardless of creed.
Things have gotten ugly. Tit-for-tat car rammings have left toddlers and infants dead, assassination attempts targeting right-wing Israeli activists have incited Israeli demonstrators, and the extra-judicial killings of Palestinian suspects has enraged the Arab population.
On Monday, a 25-year-old woman was stabbed to death near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvu, hours after an Israeli soldier was stabbed and seriously wounded by a Palestinian resident at a train station in Tel Aviv.
Yet until very recently the violence seemed to have little effect on the lives of the Palestinian minority inside Israel. These descendants of Arabs who took Israeli citizenship in the aftermath of Israel’s establishment in 1948, number approximately 1.7 million, which is about 20 percent (PDF) of the Jewish State’s population. Many Palestinian-Israelis claim they are unfairly discriminated against prompting some to declare that Israel needs “a civil rights movement” to deal with their status as second-class citizens.
The majority of them live in the north of Israel, in and around the cities of Nazareth and Haifa. The area has long been peaceful, missing out on the turmoil common to the Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Until this weekend.
The first spark came early Friday morning, when a Palestinian from the West Bank working illegally inside Israel was set on fire in the Israeli village of Tamra, a few miles north of Nazareth. Although the assailants remain unidentified, many in the village suspect that Israelis torched him for crossing the border illegally.
The Daily Beast talked with Micky Rosenfeld, the head spokesman of the Israeli police, who said that the man was “dropped off” at a hospital in Haifa in “moderate to serious condition.” An investigation into the background of the incident was opened by local law enforcement, but there was no comment on who the suspects might be.
Then early Saturday morning, a Palestinian citizen of Israel was killed by police in Kafr Kanna village, also near Nazareth. Khair al-Din Rouf Hamand, 22, was shot fatally by officers after assaulting a law enforcement vehicle with a knife. The authorities were trying to arrest another man suspected of throwing a stun grenade when Hamdan attacked.
If you were to look only at the CCTV video of the incident, it’d be hard to blame the officers for their actions. Unfortunately, the police made a statement. They said a warning shot was fired in the air. That does not appear to be the case in the video. Hamdan also appears to be retreating when the lethal shot is fired.
Kafr Kanna erupted, and The Daily Beast was on the ground for Saturday’s protest, which looked like a snap-shot of the Ferguson riots in the United States. The highway exit leading to the village was blocked by dozens of police vehicles. A helicopter was circling overhead, and Palestinians set fire to tires and barrels to keep the more than 100 police officers at bay.
The policemen responded by shooting “skunk water,” an Israeli invention that smells like a rotting flesh and “shit” cocktail. Moshe Weizman, the spokesman of the North District police, told The Daily Beast “40 or 50 kids” had been throwing stones at Israeli forces, and that “no gas has been used on them.” Almost immediately after he finished his sentence, the first shots of teargas rained down.
Weizman said that the Mahash was investigating possible violations of protocol surrounding Hamdan’s killing. “Mahash” is the term for the Israeli Ministry of Justice Police Investigation Unit, Israel’s version of internal affairs.
A recent report (PDF) by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, found that Mahash closes 72 percent of its cases without any investigation and another 10 percent are dropped for lack of evidence.
How do these tensions play out on the ground?
In Kafr Kanna, because of the blocked highway exit, The Daily Beast was forced to use a backdoor entry to town. When we drove down the main road, signs of clashes were everywhere. The road was scorched with burning wood and tires. Residents had placed makeshift roadblocks, including wooden beams and furniture, on roads leading to the protest. They were only allowing people from Kafr Kanna to join. But these barricades didn’t hamper turnout: the Israeli daily Haaretz estimated that 5,000 people marched against Israeli forces, out of a total population of approximately 18,000.
Najwan Berekdar, an activist from Nazareth, was one of the few not from Kafr Kanna to participate. She told The Daily Beast that she felt it was a must to attend the protest because it was obvious that Hamand, the victim, did not pose a threat to the police officers. “This wasn’t about self-defense, it was about Palestinian blood being worthless to Israel.”
Israeli politicians disagree. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, said that if the Israeli public failed to back the officers who shot Hamdan, “more and more Israelis will be murdered by knives, firecrackers and vehicular attacks.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t pleased with the unrest, either. He said that he would not tolerate “disturbances and riots” and will “direct the interior minister to consider stripping the citizenship of those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel.”
Later Saturday evening, The Daily Beast was present for a protest that took place in the center of Haifa. It had been planned days in advance to show solidarity with Jerusalem, but adapted to recent events. Protestors chanted “with our blood and our souls, we will avenge you, oh martyr.”
People from across the political spectrum attended. Islamists stood next to communists waving Palestinian flags and hurling insults at Israeli officials.
Police officers were on the scene, monitoring the demonstrators. This did not stop the crowd from calling for another Intifada.
And it seems like another Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, might be on the way. In the normally tranquil north, Palestinians are being attacked, rioting, throwing stones at Israeli buses and demanding vengeance for the deaths of martyrs.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee called a general strike on Sunday for Palestinian citizens of Israel and demanded that Netanyahu fire Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who recently said he hoped for all terrorist attacks to end in a “death sentence” in after a Palestinian suspected of killing Israeli civilians in a “vehicular terror attack” subsequently having was hit and killed by a cop car.
That same day, clashes intensified in Kafr Kanna, leading to the arrest of some 20 demonstrators. In the Arab village of Sha’ab, roughly 20 miles northwest of Kafr Kanna, the Israeli flag was replaced by the Palestinian equivalent at a local police station. In Taibe, another northern village, an Israeli was dragged out of his car which was then set on fire.
Berekdar commented on the “culture and mentality of fragmentation” pervasive among Palestinian citizens of Israel, but recent happenings appear to be joining them together. The protests are spreading. Haifa in the north, Tel Aviv in the middle, and Beersheba in the south of Israel have all joined Jerusalem and the West Bank in rallies.
It seems that the fuse has been lit. If Israeli and Palestinian leaders don’t work together and put it out, the Holy Land may join the rest of the Middle East exploding in flames.