Israeli riot police fired tear gas to break up clashes today in Umm El-Fahm, a bastion of Israeli Arab nationalism, where far-right Jewish extremists held a court-sanctioned march. Angry residents threw stones at helmeted police who were deployed in their thousands for the rally in the northern Israeli town. Police responded with tear gas, sound grenades and water cannon to disperse the demonstrators but there were no immediate reports of injuries.
Police said 15 officers were hurt during the clashes and three people had been arrested, while Israeli media said 16 people had been hurt, including an MP with the left-wing Meretz party and a deputy police chief. Carrying Israeli flags, the far-right protestors marched for a half hour under heavy police protection on the outskirts of Umm El-Fahm, prevented by the police and hundreds of angry residents from entering the town.
The Jewish demonstrators had petitioned the High Court to allow them to march in the city, a stronghold of the radical wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, to demonstrate their right to march anywhere in Israel. Far right-wingers in Israel often accuse the state's Arab citizens of being a fifth column and of supporting Palestinian militants. Among the leaders of the march was Baruch Marzel, who led the anti-Arab Kach party that was banned in 1994 and who has been questioned several times by police in connection with attacks on Arabs. Another leader was Michael Ben Ari, an MP with the far-right National Union settler party.
Arab residents said the protest was meant to provoke and had to be stopped. "This is not just a simple provocation," the head of the Islamic Movement Sheikh Raed Salah said, saying Israel's extreme right wanted to "legitimise the transfer" of Israeli Arabs from the country. "We have to fight to stay here and we must prevent by all means Marzel and company from entering into Umm El-Fahm." Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli Arab MP, added: "Freedom of expression should not mean the freedom to expel and incite against the Arab citizens."
Mr Ben Ari denied the claim. "There are hostile elements who say that the State of Israel is a provocation," he told Ynet news website. "But all we are doing is waving the Israeli flag. "All we are demanding is loyalty to the state ... we are not here to provoke or expel anyone." Israel's High Court signed off on the Umm El-Fahm march in October, but police then called off planned demonstrations on several occasions. The court ruled again in favour of a march in January.
Marzel had planned to monitor voting in Umm El-Fahm during the February 10 Israeli election, but the authorities withdrew permission at the last minute for fear of violence. Arabs make up about 20 per cent of Israel's population of nearly seven and a half million, and are the descendents of those who remained in Israel following the creation of the Jewish state and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. *AFP