JERUSALEM // Israeli police clashed with Palestinian demonstrators in Umm al Fahm north-west of the West Bank yesterday, after an Israeli court had allowed a far-right demonstration to go ahead at the edge of the town. Dozens were arrested and about 30 people needed medical treatment after police used tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons to disperse crowds which had arrived to protest against the far-right march.
Israeli officials said 2,500 police officers had been deployed to prevent clashes, which erupted after three residents of Umm al Fahm were arrested shortly after the protest ended. David Cohen, the Israeli police commissioner, said police had been deployed in numbers to "ensure the existence of the democratic process in Israel". But Ahmed Tibi, a member of the Israeli parliament, said the demonstration was a "conspiracy against Arab citizens" and should not be justified as an act of free expression.
The Israeli activists had gathered to demonstrate in support of a suggestion by Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, a far-right party invited to join the next ruling coalition, that Palestinian citizens of Israel should swear an oath of loyalty to the state. The counter demonstration in Umm al Fahm was organised on Monday when it became clear that the march would go ahead. A general strike in the city was observed yesterday and Khaled Hamdan, mayor of Umm al Fahm, said residents would prevent such demonstrators from entering their city "with our bodies".
As residents converged yesterday, police declared the counter-demonstration illegal and moved to disband protesters. Among those injured in the clashes was Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Mr Salah told the Agence France-Presse news service that the demonstration was a show of support for the idea of transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel from the country. "This is not a simple provocation. This is an attempt at legitimising the ideology of transfer."
Mr Lieberman, who has agreed to join Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister-designate, in a new coalition government and is on course to be foreign minister, has proposed that predominantly Palestinian areas of Israel be transferred to a Palestinian state in any peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. One of the areas Mr Lieberman specified in his suggestion includes Umm al Fahm. "The vision I would like to see here is the entrenching of the Jewish and the Zionist state. I very much favour democracy, but when there is a contradiction between democratic and Jewish values, the Jewish and Zionist values are more important," Mr Lieberman said in 2004.
Mr Lieberman's party finished strongly in Israel's recent elections, becoming the country's third largest, ahead of the Labor Party. Mr Lieberman's support is believed to be especially strong among Russian immigrants. But his vision of an Israel free of non-Jews has seen him labelled a racist, as was yesterday's demonstration. "The whole demonstration was racist," Jamal Zahalqa, a former member of parliament, said. "Freedom of expression should not be used to justify racism. Racism is criminal and should be punished by law."