The heated debate has escalated to the level of name calling between politicians, with the right-wing Israeli defense minister calling an Arab member of the Knesset a “terrorist” who should be locked up.
Israeli Arabs, descendants of Palestinians who stayed when Israel was formed, make up about 20 percent of the population but don’t identify with the state’s Jewish character and have lagged behind Jews in standard of living.
They are viewed by right-wing Israelis as a fifth column with split loyalties and have been increasingly criticized by government officials. During the 2015 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the threat of Arabs voting to gain support.
Though once apathetic about politics, members of the group have increasingly become involved and now have 13 legislators in the parliament.
About 500 people turned out for the demonstration on Friday evening, eyewitnesses said. The majority were Arab with Israeli citizenship, though there was also a sprinkling of Jewish supporters. Haifa is Israel’s third largest city and about 10 percent of its roughly 300,000 residents are Arabs.
“It was peaceful, people were waving flags, Palestinian flags and chanting for freedom,” said Diana Buttu, a Haifa resident and the former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority, who was at the protest. “The police turned it into a showdown, they were pushing people back and then chasing after the younger protesters, needlessly.”
Among those arrested was Jafar Farah, a prominent Arab Israeli activist, head of Mossawa, an advocacy center for Arab citizens. He said that he was beaten in a police holding room Friday night and that a forceful kick to his leg by one officer shattered his knee.
“I intend to sue the policeman who kicked me in the knee and the police,” Farah said in a radio interview following his release Monday. “I do not trust the police investigation. There is proof of me standing on two legs before I was put in the patrol car. There is not much to investigate here.”
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List Arab faction in Israel’s parliament, slammed the police for the “brutal dispersal” of Friday’s protest and called on the attorney general to investigate the incident.
“In the past few days, we have witnessed an organized police attack against Arab demonstrators throughout the country in an attempt to suppress and silence the protest against the events in Gaza,” said Odeh, who also led demonstrations last Monday when the U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem.
On Saturday, Odeh attempted to visit Farah, who was taken to the hospital for treatment on his knee. He was blocked, however, by Israeli police and an angry exchange was caught on film, including Odeh cursing at the police officer.
“When I arrived at the hospital to check the condition of Jafar Farah, the policemen ignored my parliamentary immunity blocked my way aggressively,” Odeh said.
“Every citizen who believes in freedom of expression should call out against the conduct of the police in recent days and join us in protest,” he said.
Writing in Israeli daily Maariv on Monday, another Arab Israeli parliamentarian, Ahmad Tibi, called the police response a “huge scandal.” He said that protests by other minorities in Israel, such as Ethiopian Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox, rarely draw such a reaction from the police.
On Sunday, the police’s internal investigations department said it would look into allegations of police violence in dispersing the demonstration in Haifa.
Speaking on Israel’s Army Radio station on Monday, Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan said people should not rush to judge the police and that an independent investigation would provide the answers to what exactly happened to Farah while in police custody.
He also announced that he planned to request that the attorney general open a criminal investigation into Odeh’s actions.
Israel’s hawkish defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, also weighed in on the fray, writing on Twitter that Odeh and his associates were “terrorists.”
“Every day that Ayman Odeh and his associates are free to walk around cursing at police officers is a failure of law enforcement authorities,” he wrote. “The place for these terrorists is not in the Knesset, it’s in prison. It’s time they pay a price for their actions.”
Tensions have been high over the past few weeks as Israel’s 2-million-strong Arab population has watched Israel’s lethal crackdown on Palestinians protesting in the Gaza Strip.
Last Monday was especially fraught as Israeli military snipers killed some 62 protesters and wounded thousands. Palestinians have dubbed the protests “the Great March of Return,” saying they want the freedom to return to homes and lands they were forced to leave upon Israel’s creation in 1948. They also say they want alleviation of the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
Israel has said a significant number of the protesters were members of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip and that is designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union. They say that Hamas has used the protests as a cover to try to break through the fence into Israel and attack communities along the border.
There has been international criticism of Israel, describing the use of force as excessive and disproportionate against largely unarmed demonstrators.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include that Diana Buttu was a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority.