- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 27, 2010

UMM EL-FAHM, Israel (AP) — Dozens of Jewish extremists hoisting Israeli flags defiantly marched through this Arab-Israeli town Wednesday, chanting “death to terrorists” and touching off clashes between rock-hurling residents and police who quelled them with tear gas.

As the unrest unfolded, an Israeli court convicted a prominent Arab-Israeli activist of spying for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in a plea bargain that will send him to prison for up to 10 years.

The court case and the violence in Umm el-Fahm added to mounting tensions between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority.

Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-fifth of the country’s citizenry, have grown jittery amid repeated questions about their loyalty by nationalist elements in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

The Jewish extremists converged on Umm el-Fahm, one of Israel’s largest Arab towns, because it is known as a stronghold of the country’s radical Islamic Movement. It was the second time Jewish ultranationalists have marched through the town in the past year and a half. Residents called it a provocation.

Khaled Hamdan, the town’s mayor, faulted police for protecting the protesters 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.

The scenes of Israeli Arabs — masking their faces with checkered headscarves, burning tires, hurling rocks at riot police, and scrambling to dodge tear gas and police fire — recalled images of violence between Israeli forces and the Arabs’ Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Police said 10 people were arrested, but no serious injuries were reported.

Hundreds of police deployed in the town after Israel’s Supreme Court authorized the march, which took place on the outskirts of town. Some 350 Arab residents gathered in anticipation of the rally, and youths threw rocks at police, who dispersed the crowd with tear gas and stun grenades.

Police kept journalists away from the 50-yard path of the march. But resident Amneh Jabari, a 38-year-old woman who lives along the march route, said marchers, hoisting white-and-blue Israeli flags and reciting prayers, chanted “Death to the Arabs” and “Umm el-Fahm will be Jewish.”

The Jewish militants are admirers of Meir Kahane, a U.S.-born rabbi who preached that Palestinians should be expelled from Israel and the West Bank. An Arab gunman assassinated Kahane at a New York hotel 20 years ago.

March organizer Baruch Marzel said the activists came to demand that the Israeli government outlaw the Islamic Movement, just as it did Kahane’s Kach Party.

The movement’s leader, Raed Salah, has called for a new Palestinian uprising against Israeli policies in Jerusalem and led violent protests against building projects in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“If the Kach Party was outlawed, then the Islamic Movement deserves to be outlawed 1,000 times over,” he said.

An Arab-Israeli lawmaker, Hanin Zoabi, told the Associated Press that police shot her in the back and neck with foam-tipped projectiles.

“I was hit twice, 10 seconds apart,” she said. “They were targeting me.”

Ms. Zoabi infuriated many Israelis earlier this year by joining a Gaza-bound international flotilla that Israeli commandos stormed at sea, sparking clashes that left nine Turkish activists dead.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirmed that police fired the projectiles, which are meant to disperse crowds but are not lethal.

The Arab minority makes up 20 percent of Israel’s citizens. Israeli Arabs are ethnically Palestinian, but unlike their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, they enjoy equal rights under the law. They often suffer discrimination and are statistically poorer and less educated than Israeli Jews. Tensions between the two communities run deep.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party has played heavily on the perceived disloyalty of the country’s Arab citizens.

His efforts to pass anti-Arab legislation could target people such as Amir Makhoul, the Arab activist who admitted to spying for Hezbollah in Wednesday’s plea bargain.

Makhoul’s lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, said his client admitted to passing information about the location of a military weapons factory to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah during Israel’s war against the group in 2006. Makhoul also told his contact where he believed captive Lebanese fighters were held.

Makhoul used a coded e-mail program to send the information to a community activist in Jordan who Israeli intelligence believes belongs to Hezbollah.

Makhoul knew the man, Hussan Jaja, through their mutual activism, and it appeared that Jaja wheedled him into giving over the information, Mr. Abu Hussein said.

He said the information that Makhoul shared is common knowledge and available on the Internet, but that Makhoul agreed to a plea bargain because of the difficulty of proving his innocence. The court is expected to sentence Makhoul in November. Without a deal, he could have faced life in prison.

Makhoul is a vocal critic of Israel, and the media was barred from reporting his arrest for weeks. His case is similar to that of another prominent Arab-Israeli leader, Azmi Bishara, a lawmaker who fled the country to avoid facing espionage allegations.

Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid and Daniel Estrin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.


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