UMM AL-FAHM: Israeli police and Palestinians clashed in northern Israel on Wednesday as a group of extreme right-wing Israelis tried to march through the Arab Israeli town of Umm Al-Fahm.
Hundreds of police clad in riot gear fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse angry Palestinian youths, many with scarves wrapped around their faces, which burned tyres and hurled stones in protest ahead of an extremist rally in their town.
Tensions were high as around 20 Israelis turned up for a protest march calling for a ban on “the radical wing of the Israeli Islamic Movement”, which is led by the firebrand preacher Sheikh Raed Salah.
"Death to terrorists!" they shouted, waving banners reading: "Make the Islamic Movement illegal," and "Death to Raed Salah," although they were prevented from marching by police who hemmed them in with three coaches, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
Police said they arrested 10 Arab Israelis for stone throwing, and at least one person was wounded — the town’s member of parliament, Afu Agbaria, who was taken to hospital after a tear gas canister slammed into his leg, an AFP correspondent said.
The controversial march roughly coincides with the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a right-wing extremist who routinely referred to Arabs as "dogs" and called for their expulsion from Israel.
"The Islamic Movement is part of the international Islamic jihad," said MP Michael Ben Ari, who said it had ties to the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Ahead of the march, Arab municipal officials and dozens of counter-protesters waving Palestinian flags gathered in the town, AFP correspondents said, as police deployed in force to prevent clashes.
"Free Palestine!" residents shouted as they waved Palestinian flags from the rooftops. "With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you, Palestine!"
Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said several hundred police, including undercover units, were deployed in and around the town to prevent clashes.
"We have deployed large numbers in the vicinity of Umm Al-Fahm and mobilized special units to maintain calm during a demonstration by Jewish activists," he told AFP ahead of the controversial march, which was given the green light by Israel’s Supreme Court.
Agbaria, an MP from the bi-communal communist Hadash party, said the march was "provocation against the people of Umm Al-Fahm and the Arab minority".
"They are attacking the legitimacy of the Arab presence in the country in coordination with the right-wing extremists in the government," he said.
Others were blunter.
"We will not allow them to enter Umm Al-Fahm. If they pass, it will be over our dead bodies," Ahmad Buwerat, 75, said ahead of the march.
"We have Jews come here every day to visit the market and drink coffee, and they are welcome," he said. "But these demonstrators are fascists and racists and Nazis."
Kahane, an American-born rabbi and political leader, was shot dead by an Arab gunman in Manhattan in November 1990, and his Kach movement was outlawed by Israel in 1994 for inciting racism.
Israeli Arab political leaders fear, however, that his controversial ideas are gaining new currency under Israel’s predominantly right-wing coalition government.
Israel’s Arab minority, which comprises 20 percent of the population, is made up of ethnic Palestinians who enjoy equal rights under the law but often suffer discrimination in employment, housing and other areas. They tend to be poorer and less educated than Israeli Jews, and tensions between the two communities runs deep.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party has played heavily on the perceived disloyalty of the country’s Arab citizens, recently spearheading a bill that would have targeted Arabs by requiring non-Jewish immigrants to take a special loyalty oath to the "Jewish" state.
Following an internal uproar and international criticism, the oath requirement will also be extended to include prospective Jewish citizens. A second proposal in parliament seeks to strip the citizenship of people convicted of certain security-related crimes.
The Cabinet rejected an earlier Yisrael Beitenu proposal that would have required all current citizens to take the loyalty oath and stripped citizenship from those who refused.
Traditionally cool relations have periodically spilled over into violence. Thirteen Arabs were killed by Israeli police during rioting at the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
Meanwhile, an Israeli tank shell killed an Islamic Jihad insurgent in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, Palestinian medical sources and the insurgent group said.
Health ministry spokesman Adham Abu Selmiya identified the victim as Jihad Afana, 20, and said he had been killed by a tank shell in an area just east of the town of Jabaliya.
Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigade, also confirmed in a statement that Afana had been killed by a tank shell "as he was on a mission in the northern Gaza Strip".
Elsewhere, a Palestinian man who was scavenging for building materials near the northern Erez border crossing into Israel, was shot and wounded by Israeli gunfire, Abu Selmiya said.
The Israeli army said it was looking into both incidents.