This piece was written for Global Voices. Read this post in Español.
Eyewitnesses say a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset was shot in the face, while he and a dozen other Arab-Israeli politicians, activists and villagers were protesting in Umm El-Hiran, in the Negev Desert of southern Israel, against a planned Israeli government demolition to replace the Arab Bedouin village with a Jewish town.
Activists on the scene say minutes after their cars arrived in the village at six in the morning on January 18, 2017, police forces “came rushing in towards us from all sides, guns ablaze, in full riot gear, and started yelling and pushing people around.”
After the incident, Israeli media and the police claimed that the Member of the Israeli Knesset Odeh was injured by a Palestinian stone-thrower, but activists, and Odeh himself, assert that he was hit by a black sponge-tipped Israeli bullet.
After Odeh was shot, eyewitnesses say police tear-gassed the other protesters and the bulldozers started moving in. While this was happening, at a little distance down a hill, a Bedouin school teacher’s car rammed into a crowd of Israeli police officers. Eyewitnesses on the scene say his car was shot at before it accelerated and hit the crowd. Israeli police dispute this account.
Israeli forces carried out demolitions for eight hours after the incident.
Umm El-Hiran is one of the 40 “unrecognised” Bedouin Arab villages in the Negev region, which is home to tens of thousands and the Israeli government has slated for demolition. The issue of Bedouin villages in Israel is complicated because, despite resembling Israeli settlement practices in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, these villages are legally recognised as part of Israeli territory. Most of these communities set up villages after being displaced from their ancestral villages during the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe in Arabic, which saw the establishment of Israel and the expulsion of approximately 700,000 Palestinians.
Earlier this month, Israeli bulldozers destroyed al-Araqib, a southern Negev village that has been demolished more than 100 times since 2010.
These demolitions are happening in the context of Israel’s “Prawer-Begin” plan, officially known as the “Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev”, and affecting approximately 40,000 Arab Bedouins who are citizens of Israel. As Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, points out:
Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel, inhabitants of the Naqab (Negev) desert since the seventh century, are the most vulnerable community in Israel. For over 60 years, the indigenous Arab Bedouin have faced a State policy of displacement, home demolitions and dispossession of their ancestral land. Today, 70,000 Arab Bedouin citizens live in 35 villages that, which either predate the establishment of the State in 1948, or were created by Israeli military order in the early 1950s. The State of Israel considers the villages “unrecognized” and the inhabitants “trespassers on State land,” so it denies these citizens access to State infrastructure like water, electricity, sewage, education, health care and roads. The State deliberately withholds basic services from these villages to “encourage” the Arab Bedouin citizens to give up their ancestral land.
The 972Mag team has a special coverage of the Prawer-Begin plan.
So what really happened at Umm El-Hiran?
Global Voices received eyewitnesses accounts of events from two trusted sources on the scene. We are withholding the identity of our sources for their safety. The first source explains:
I arrived in Umm El-Hiran early on Wednesday morning together with two dozen Palestinian and Jewish activists who had travelled to the village from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva to stand in solidarity with the residents of Umm El-Hiran facing imminent demolition. That morning I had left Jerusalem at 4am and driven to UaH with fellow activists from All That’s Left, a Jewish anti-occupation collective. We arrived at approximately 5.30 am.
We had been following the events in Umm El-Hiran and maintained close contact with its residents via Rabbi Arik Ashermann, former director of Rabbis for Human Rights and who now runs an organisation called Haqel which is behind the The Four Villages Campaign. On the evening of the 17th, we organised our trip as we knew the demolition order had been issued for the next day. However, residents were still negotiating with the authorities well into the night of 17th/18th so when we went to bed we did not know whether we would need to go at all because we thought they might still come to an agreement.
Last time, the presence of Israeli members of parliament and Jewish activists had prevented the police from carrying out the demolition order. That was the basic idea – to use our privilege and our bodies to resist non-violently. That time the police arrived early in the morning on the day of the demolition but soon left again without touching anyone or anything. It was a calm interaction. None of us were the least prepared for the horror and the meaningless deaths we were to experience in Umm El-Hiran that day.
Who shot Odeh?
Our source continues:
When we arrived, Member of Knesset (MK) Ayman Odeh and his team as well as some four or five Palestinian students from Beersheva University were already there. Minutes after we had parked the cars and walked into the village with some of the residents, when we were on a little square about 100m below the mosque, we saw police vans arriving over the hills. Just minutes later, police forces came rushing in towards us from all sides, guns ablaze, in full riot gear, and started yelling and pushing people around.
This is when Ayman Odeh started identifying himself as a member of parliament and called on the forces to stop the attack which was completely unsolicited and unexpected. I was standing a couple of meters away from him when he was struck in the head by a rubber-coated bullet and blood started spreading all over his face. Other police forces started spraying pepper spray directly in the faces and even throats of people standing by, who started coughing, screaming etc. I saw my friends getting beaten and kicked by police as they tried to run to safety. This is when a little further up the hill the drive over [the car ramming] must have happened. All of a sudden we heard heavy shooting very close by but it was dark and the police kept throwing sound grenades so it was impossible to understand what was going on. Panic broke out among the people in the square and we tried to turn around and move out of the way but wherever we turned there were police forces blocking our way.
Together with four other people, I got separated from the rest of the group and the police was pushing us further and further up the hill. By 6.30am it was all over. More and more police reinforcements had come in, all of the streets leading to the village were lined with police cars, according to my estimate there must have been at least 200 members of police forces including troops on horses. As we left, there were snipers on the roofs and all around us on the hills.The bulldozers came much later.
You must imagine that Umm El-Hiran is located in a valley and on the planes of the surrounding hills. From about 7am to 2.30pm the police completely shut down the village. They round up residents outside the mosque and let them wait there the entire time. There was also a group of women and children who were separated from the men and were waiting on one of the surrounding hills. There was a group of young and some adult men who left in a group of 40-50 people and joined us on the side of the hill where we were waiting by that point. We were standing on the main road, from which the road leads down to the village and from which you can oversee the whole village.
It must have been between 8 and 9am when journalists and MKs from the Joint List started to arrive. Haneen Zoabi and Ahmed Tibi were among those who tried to break through police lines later that morning and demanded to be let into the village as the police started moving in trucks and demolition equipment. That is when scuffles broke out between the police and the MKs and other people around them. In response some Shabab from the village started picking up stones and throwing them at the police. It is important that this was the first time that day someone threw a rock or something like a clash happened. The police reacted by beating and pushing people, chasing after them and everyone standing near on horses which was terrifying.
After the confrontation at around 6am no one of the press or other civilians were let in. The only journalist who was there when it all happened was Keren from ActiveStills. All other journalists not only arrived much later but they were way too far away, watching from the hilltop where by that point I, too, was standing. So they just adopted the police report. Also the police had jammed phone networks and it was almost impossible to get phone service that day.
The police reports as quoted in JPost and other media were blatantly lying from the beginning. The police denied that they were using this kind of rubber-coated bullet and instead claimed Ayman Odeh had been hit by a rock. I know for a fact that this is not true as we were standing just meters away. In fact, a friend, who was standing right next to Odeh, snatched the rubber-coated steel bullet that hurt the MK, hid it in his backpack, photographed it and later handed it over to another MK Dov Hanina from the Joint List to avoid confiscation. It was a huge fucking steel bullet, easily 8-10cm long. My friend has forwarded these photos to AP and other press outlets. You can also ask Odeh’s aide, Anan Maalouf for more details.
Abu Qi’an’s car ‘veered toward officers only after he was shot’
The driver of the car, a Bedouin school teacher named Abu Qi’an, and an Israeli police officer were killed during the demonstration.
Two versions of the car-ramming incident have surfaced. The first, put forward by the Israeli government, claims that “Abu Qi’an drove his vehicle and struck and killed at least one officer.” Police also claimed, without offering any evidence, that Abu Qi’an had “connections” to ISIS.
The second version of events, put forward by activists and witnesses, and corroborated by drone footage shot at the scene, says that Abu Qi’an’s “car veered toward the officers only after he was shot and lost control of the vehicle.” Speaking to The Times of Israel, a 26-year-old activist at the Center for Jewish Non-Violence, Uriel Eisner, said that police fired at Abu Qi’an’s vehicle before it accelerated toward officers. Meanwhile, Israel’s Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked blamed the death of the police officer on the Arab members of the Israeli Knesset and left-wing NGOs that were present.
Regarding the alleged car-ramming attack, our second source explains:
Accordingly, the driver, a school teacher from the village, tried to move his car. Like all other residents he knew the demolition was imminent. The police came in with full force and ready for a fight. According to those witnesses, the police opened fire as soon as they saw the car moving, as a result of which the driver either panicked or completely lost control. Keep in mind that this was happening on a slope so it could be that he lost control and the car rolled down into the village as a result. This version is also plausible if you watch the helicopter video released by the police that same day.
So while at present I cannot preclude the possibility of this being an attack, I have serious doubts about the version told by the police, who immediately labelled it a car ramming attack caused by Daesh (ISIS). It would make sense to me that in view of car ramming attacks in the past months, the police on the ground might have overreacted and started shooting at the driver as soon as they saw the car moving or even before.
There is no history of violent confrontation in Umm El-Hiran. In fact, the residents had been in negotiations with authorities until just hours before the violent onslaught.
The police forces came prepared for a violent confrontation and with a combat mindset, they came in full combat gear and with their weapons drawn. Their faces looked manic with fear or hate, “drugged up”, as one woman put it. In my opinion, they alone are responsible for escalating the situation on the ground that morning. They recklessly endangered civilians and themselves and are responsible for the death of the Bedouin man and the policeman killed that morning.
We and all other non-resident were not let back into the village until the police had destroyed a couple of houses and police units had withdrawn. As residents held a meeting and started mourning, police drones were flying overhead. When we finally left at about 3.30pm, residents had already started gathering some of the rubble.
Beyond some more existential questions, here are some thing I wondered about when standing on that hill watching the demolitions for about eight hours.
Why did the police already come in with their weapons drawn, looking to carry out violence against anyone present? Who gave the orders for such a violent onslaught? What were policemen told before descending on the village? What does this have to do with Netanyahu’s personal orders to “Enflame the Negev”?
Why did the press immediately report this as an attack? Who benefits from this version of events?