Last Saturday, Khair Hamdan, a 22-year-old Israeli-Arab construction worker, was shot by Israeli police in a town in Galilee. Officers said initially that Hamdan had attacked them, wielding a knife, and that they only killed him after firing a warning shot into the air. A video of the event showed a different sequence of events: Hamdan bangs on the window of a police van; police officers leave the vehicle; police officers shoot him dead while he is running away. No warning shot is audible.
The incident has triggered a wave of unrest amongst Israeli-Arabs, who staged a general strike on Sunday, closing businesses and clashing with police. In Nazareth, youths burned tyres on the street, while in other villages rocks were thrown. These demonstrations came amid widespread unrest in parts of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories following the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli police last week. The continuing unrest has been triggered by Palestinian fears of Jewish encroachment on Al-Aqsa. It is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif – Noble Sanctuary – and to Jews as the Temple Mount, and is currently entrusted to Jordanian oversight as an Islamic endowment property. The dispute is over Jewish prayer rights at the site; they are currently banned, but a group of extremist Jewish activists have been defying the authorities and visiting Al-Aqsa with police protection. This has stirred tension, as some Arabs fear that Israel plans to exert sovereignty over the site, which the Netanyahu government denies. This tension over the holy site comes after a bloody war in Gaza over the summer that claimed 2,000 Palestinian lives, and the breakdown of peace talks earlier in the year.
For months, Jerusalem – the city at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians – has been the site of daily clashes. It started when an Arab teenager was kidnapped, tortured and killed by Israelis near the start of the Gaza war in the summer. The persistent riots and attacks that have plagued Jerusalem and other areas have included police violence, as well as individual instances of Arabs murdering Israelis: an Israeli soldier and a civilian were killed on Monday in two separate stabbing incidents in the occupied West Bank and Tel Aviv.
The violence has largely been centred in Jerusalem and, until the weekend, Arab citizens of Israel – who make up about a fifth of the country's population – have remained on the fringes. Since they joined the fray, the response from the Israeli authorities has been harsh. Following the stabbing of the soldier in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised severe punishment, even threatening to revoke the citizenship of those who "acted against the state".
"To all those who are demonstrating and shouting their denunciation of Israel and support of a Palestinian state, I can say one simple thing: you are invited to move there – to the Palestinian Authority or to Gaza," he told a meeting of his Likud Party. "I can promise you the state of Israel will not stand in your way." Critics accuse Netanyahu of pandering to the far-right elements of his coalition government. Certainly, this is the furthest that any prime minister in Israel has ever gone in speaking publically to the country's Arab minority, and his comments are hardly likely to counter the feeling amongst Israel-Arabs that they are second-class citizens.
One of the main grievances amongst the Israeli-Arabs rioting after Saturday's police shooting is that Arab citizens are always viewed by police as enemies of Israel, and that this results in broad discrimination. Ultra-nationalist politician Naftali Bennett described Hamdan as a "crazed Arab terrorist", for example, and commended police for killing him, despite the fact that there is no evidence that he was a terrorist and that the video does not show an imminent threat to the police officers' lives. Of course, the labelling of all Palestinians or Arab citizens of Israel as potential terror threats is nothing new; the Israeli authorities often justify high civilian death tolls – including in the recent war on Gaza – by claiming that many of these civilians are actually "militants".
Within Israel, scores of Arab citizens have been killed by police over the last two decades, generally with very few repercussions for the killers. A recent report by Adalah, a legal organisation for the Arab minority, found that in the period 2011-2013, the justice ministry's police investigation unit closed 93 per cent of complaints against police by Palestinians. This is a segment of the population described by mainstream Israeli politicians from right and left as a "fifth column", a "Trojan Horse" and a "demographic time bomb". A campaign for equal treatment is officially classified as subversion. And Netanyahu's comments, yet again, blur the line between a criminal act – the stabbing in Tel Aviv – and the legitimate grievances of a long-repressed minority. As long as this grossly unequal treatment continues, there is little hope of the unrest subsiding for long.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.