Protests in Haifa: Excessive force?

Haifa has always been the blue chip example of how Israel’s Jewish and Arab population can live and work together in coexistence.

That’s what made this weekend’s “day of rage against the occupation” demonstration, attended by hundreds of people along Jaffa Street in downtown Haifa, so surprising and troubling.

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They were protesting against the army’s actions on May 14, when some 60 Gazans were killed as they neared the border, during the “Great March of Return” protests that have been ongoing for five weeks.

Israel Police Northern District head Asst.-Ch. Benny Avalia told Reshet Bet radio on Monday that 90% of the demonstrators in Haifa were not from the city, but bused in from other areas.

According to Israel Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheikh, the demonstration turned violent and turned the area into a “battlefield,” with rocks being thrown at officers. Such demonstrations are neither legitimate nor democratic, he said.

Twenty-one demonstrators were arrested, including Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa – The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel.

Farah is not just the head of an NGO, he is a public figure and a leading organizer in the Israeli-Arab community. According to Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Farah was hospitalized following his arrest as a result of broken kneecap. Pictures and video taken at the protest on Friday show him being escorted into a police car, standing on two legs.

“While in custody at the Haifa police station, police beat Farah, breaking his knee. Farah was among the 12 who were released [on Monday] morning, without conditions,” Adalah said.

The Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department has opened a probe into alleged police brutality, and according to Avalia, if found guilty, the officers in question will be punished for their “aberration.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called for a quick and transparent investigation. “The facts as presented by the police raise serious questions, since Farah’s leg was broken. If there was a police officer or commander who acted violently or who is lying – he certainly has no place in the police,” Erdan said.

Both Avalia and former commander of the Northern District police Alec Ron denied in radio interviews on Monday that the police behave differently when dealing with demonstrations by minorities than they do with the general Jewish public. In the past, there have been claims of “kid glove” treatment at protests by the settlement movement and by haredim, and of excessive force being used at demonstrations held by the Ethiopian community and by Israeli Arabs.

The police must be the protectors of the law for all citizens and treat all suspected lawbreakers the same way. Several questions need to be answered about the Haifa protest. How was Farah’s knee broken? Was Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh prevented from visiting Farah in the station despite his parliamentary immunity?

Israel touts its “only democracy in the Middle East” moniker, and does much to live up to it. That includes the right to gather and the right to free speech – allowing those within our midst to criticize the actions of their government and their army, without fear of retribution as long as they remain nonviolent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman labeled Odeh and Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi, who accused the police of brutality, as “terrorists who belong not in the Knesset but in prison,” while Construction Minister Yoav Gallant called to “remove the inciters from the Knesset” and accused them of taking advantage “of Israeli democracy to harm the state and its institutions.”

Their fury is understandable but wrong. As long as they don’t break the law, citizens should be able to state their views, even if it’s an unpopular position that strengthens Israel’s enemies. That’s the sign of a strong democracy, to defend someone’s right to say something you find abhorrent.

Another sign of a strong democracy is the ability and the desire to probe the country’s most revered institutions – such as the police – when there are claims of wrongdoing. Israel has passed the test in both cases, and we’re confident it will continue to do so with a speedy and thorough investigation.