UMM AL-HIRAN, Israel — In the predawn hours, hundreds of Israeli police in riot gear, supported by helicopters, horses and armored personnel carriers, swept into this little, hardscrabble Bedouin village. Their mission: to demolish homes, barns and sheep pens deemed illegal.
Then things got ugly.
A Bedouin schoolteacher rammed his SUV into police, killing one officer — Sgt. Maj. Erez Levi, 34, the son of a police officer.
The driver, Yaqoub al-Qian, was shot and killed. Israeli officials quickly called the incident a terrorist attack and said they suspected that the assailant was inspired by the Islamic State.
But the driver’s brother told The Washington Post he was just trying to get his vehicle — packed with family possessions — out of the village. Villagers said the ramming was unintentional.
A grainy night-vision video taken from a police helicopter appears to show muzzle flashes from Israeli forces shooting at the slow-moving vehicle before it suddenly accelerates, swerves, rams into the police, then crashes.
The early morning deaths quickly became tinder in an incendiary environment in which Arab citizens of Israel complain of being treated as second-class citizens or worse.
During the demolition raid, Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, head of a coalition of Arab parties in parliament, was injured.
Odeh said he was hit twice by sponge bullets fired by police. Authorities denied the charge. Police said that Odeh’s injuries were from rocks thrown by protesters. Israel’s top ministers accused him of incitement.
After being treated at a hospital, Odeh returned — his T-shirt bloodied and his head bandaged — and held up the bullet he said struck him in the face.
The site of the unrest, Umm al-Hiran, is one of dozens of small, unrecognized Bedouin hamlets in Israel’s Negev Desert. The Israeli government says the villages are “illegal,” and the homes are regularly demolished.
These villages are in Israel, not the occupied West Bank. The Bedouins are Israeli citizens. Three generations of Israeli Bedouins have served in the Israeli army, where they are famous for their skill as trackers.
But their relationship with Israel is fraying. Many of the roughly 240,000 Bedouin citizens here claim that the widespread demolitions are part of a grand plan to push the Muslim tribes from their ancestral lands. Bedouins have increasingly identified with the struggles of Palestinians, including their fight against Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Israeli officials counter that they offer the Bedouins subsidized homes and land inside planned communities.
But the Bedouins often refuse to abandon their pastoral lifestyle and say the cities they are pressed to live in are slums.
Arab members of Israel’s parliament arrived at the scene to denounce police violence and what they called the government’s unfair treatment of Israel’s Bedouins.
“This is all part of a plan to rid the Negev of Palestinians. To expel us and replace us with Jews,” said Haneen Zoabi, a member of parliament.
One of her fellow legislators, Yousef Jabareen, pointed to a nearby hilltop where a planned community, mostly for Jewish residents, is under construction.
“They get rid of us, and they build for them,” Jabareen said. “That’s called apartheid.”
Israeli activists at the scene said the soldiers came looking for a fight.
“They brought the violence with them,” said Isaac Kates Rose, 24, from the peace group All That’s Left.
Another witness, Michal Haramati, 30, said she first heard shots and only then saw a white SUV drive erratically down a hill and hit the police officers.
Bedouin villagers and activists said no rocks were thrown when Odeh was shot and that police were lying.
“No, no, no. No stones were thrown. Police were pushing people, throwing stun grenades and firing sponge bullets,” said Kobi Snitz, 45, another Israeli activist.
Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, confirmed that officers used stun grenades and sponge bullets to suppress what he described as a riot.
Odeh, who had turned out to support the roughly 700 villagers and prevent the demolition, said the police employed excessive force.
“Police officers fell upon me, beat me, shot me. They shot me brutally. But I am less important. What is important is that two people may have been killed there. It’s a shame they’re destroying everything,” he said.
Police said they had evidence that the Bedouin driver was a member of a local Islamist movement. But so are some members of the parliament.
Police said the driver, Qian, may have been motivated by the Islamic State.
As evidence, police posted a photo of a newspaper they found in his house dating to Nov. 5, 2015, that had front-page articles about a car-ramming incident in the West Bank and a plane crash in the Sinai blamed on the Islamic State.
The newspaper was the popular Israel Hayom, in Hebrew, owned by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Villagers told reporters that Qian was a respected member of his community, a school principal married to three women and the father of 20 children. Israeli authorities said he taught hate in his classroom.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Odeh and other Arab members of the Israeli parliament had incited the violence.
Odeh “is putting on some kind of charade, with a whining voice, because he apparently understands that he has made a contribution to a very severe incident, which may also have criminal repercussions,” Erdan said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed: “Not only does this incident not intimidate us, it strengthens us. It strengthens our determination to enforce the law everywhere.”
Yair Maayan, director of the Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority in the Negev, said the villagers had moved to the Umm al-Hiran area in the 1990s and built homes there without a permit.
He said the land was owned by the Israeli government and that a legal case to move the residents to the nearby Bedouin town of Hura began in 2004.
“The court took 13 years to reach the decision that the families had robbed the land and had to be moved, their houses destroyed,” he said. “Since May 2015 until today, we have been negotiating with the families to move them to Hura.”
Maayan said the government had offered the villagers about 150 free properties and additional compensation to build new homes. He said that at least 20 families have moved to Hura over the past few years.
“Last night, the rest of the families came to sign the contract to move to Hura, but at the last minute decided they did not want to do it and canceled the agreement,” he said.
Police on Wednesday moved forward with their plans, demolishing a dozen structures, including barns, animal pens and homes.
According to a 2016 report by the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, 1,041 structures in Bedouin villages were demolished between 2013 and 2015. A further 1,711 structures were destroyed by their owners after receiving demolition orders.
“The house demolition policy is a complicated policy based on various laws and operated by several authorities,” the report concluded. “The enforcement authorities use many tools: eviction and demolition orders, severe penalties, imposition of costs and civil lawsuits, short time frameworks and high legal costs, making the struggle against the house demolition policy a struggle in which the authorities gain more and more power over time against Bedouin citizens.”
The report noted that existing Bedouin towns are already overcrowded and unable to absorb more residents, especially when government building permits are almost nonexistent.
Eglash reported from Jerusalem.