Enraged and saddened by images from Gaza last week, when the Israeli military killed at least 62 people in a single day, Palestinian citizens of Israel protested on Friday in the coastal city of Haifa to demand an end to Israeli violence and the more than decade-long siege that has strangled Gaza into a humanitarian crisis.
Unlike similar peaceful marches held in Tel Aviv by predominately Jewish-Israeli protesters in days prior, in Haifa the estimated 500 demonstrators were met with riot police, widespread arrests and one human rights worker sustained a broken knee.
“The first reaction of the police to stop the demonstration was to use violence,” Bashar Ali, 22, a student studying social and political science at Tel Aviv University, told Mondoweiss.
“We wanted to protest against the massacre in Gaza committed by the Israeli army against their harmless demonstrations,” Ali explained, adding that the protesters also called for an end to Israel’s blockade of the small Palestinian territory.
“We want them to be able to live like humans,” he said.
Today, 70 percent of Gaza’s population are refugees who originate from lands inside of Israel. Since March 30 Palestinians in Gaza have marched near the fence that divides the occupied territory from Israel, seeking their right to return to their lands they were forcibly evicted from during and after Israel’s creation in 1948.
In the course of six weeks of demonstrations, Israeli soldiers killed at least 113 unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza and injured more than 12,000.
One of the most popular chants at the protest in Haifa, according to attendees, was “with our souls and with our blood, we support you Gaza.”
“People recognize that we are all Palestinian and it’s just a circumstance of geography that we are in Haifa and they are in Gaza,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and former legal advisor for the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Palestinian negotiators.
While the protest in Haifa, held in the Wadi Salib neighborhood, received little attention in international media, the police’s use of force has been condemned by rights groups as excessive and an act of “extreme violence.”
“We can’t be surprised by this when at the same time Israeli soldiers are using deadly weapons on nonviolent demonstrations near Israel’s separation fence in Gaza,” Ali said.
‘It’s not unusual’
Diana Buttu, who attended the protest, described the police reaction on Friday as “brutal.”
She said there was a heavy police scene that included Israeli riot and border police officials, some of whom brandished automatic rifles.
“Israeli police officials would deliberately push into people,” Buttu told Mondoweiss. “If the protesters tried to protect themselves in anyway — not by violence but literally just telling the police to stop — they were thrown to the ground and kicked.”
“The police locked arms and they started walking towards people, knocking people down. We were like bowling pins. I saw at least two people trampled on because no one had anywhere to go,” she continued.
By the end of the protest, 21 Palestinian citizens of Israel were arrested, two of them minors whom the police released the following morning.
In a high profile case, Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Center — a group advocating for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, was arrested after arriving at the protest to check on his two young sons who had attended.
According to Sara Gunning, the director of Mossawa’s international office and close friend of Farah, when he arrived at the protest he was quickly penned in by police officials, who were refusing to allow anyone to leave the area.
After his 18-year-old son was arrested, Farah attempted to get information on his whereabouts from the police officials, but found himself in handcuffs instead.
The police vehicle transporting Farah’s son to the station got into an accident on the way, injuring the teenager, according to Gunning.
Ali, who was violently shoved and arrested by Israeli police officials during the protest, told Mondoweiss that all the protesters were placed in a room without cameras. “One of the police officers began shouting and beating on some of the detainees who were on the ground handcuffed,” he recounted.
According to Ali, the officials refused to help Farah’s injured son, who was also handcuffed on the ground.
When Farah arrived at the police station, he saw his son injured and bloodied. After Farah demanded to know what happened, the police began severely beating and kicking him in front of his teenage son, according to Gunning.
Owing to the severity of his injuries, Farah was taken to a hospital where it was discovered that the police had broken his knee. The police did not allow anyone to visit him, including his family.
Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, allegedly verbally confronted Israeli police officials at the hospital after being barred from visiting Farah. In response, Israel’s ultra-right Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated on social media that “such terrorists belong not in the Knesset but in prison” in response to the incident.
Despite Farah’s injuries, he was taken back into police custody the following day.
The European Union (EU) has since requested that Israel open a probe on the incident with Farah, to which Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Wednesday responded: The EU can “go to a thousand, thousand hells.”
However, the Israeli police violence in Haifa was “not unusual,” Gunning told Mondoweiss. “It’s becoming increasingly common that at any protest which questions the decisions of the government, especially when it comes to policies in Gaza or the West Bank, police are using excessive force to crackdown on demonstrations.”
According to Gunning, since 2000, 46 Palestinian citizens of Israel have been killed by the police, security forces, or army personnel. Only two Israeli officers have ever faced any legal consequences for their actions.
“What we see is a pattern that the police think they can use excessive force, even kill people, and face no real consequences,” she said.
‘They are not forgetting’
For Buttu, one of the most significant aspects of the protests in Haifa was the large turnout of young Palestinians.
“Israel has tried its best for 70 years to make us forget. This is 70 years of attempting to brainwash Palestinians or repressing any campaign that highlights the Nakba,” she told Mondoweiss.
“These young Palestinians were not afraid, and they are not forgetting. Clearly Israel’s policies are not working,” she added.
For decades, Israel has attempted to erode the identity of Palestinians who have citizenship in Israel, Buttu told Mondoweiss, referring to them only as “Israeli Arabs.”
“Even the media doesn’t often cover us,” Buttu said. “If they do, it’s only in the context of our ‘privileges’ living inside the Israeli state. They don’t cover our strength, which is derived from being children and grandchildren of Nakba survivors. No one talks about how we live in a racist, colonial system, and yet still maintain a Palestinian identity.”
According to the rights group Adalah, about 65 Israeli laws discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up some 20 percent of Israel’s population.
About 335,000 Palestinians in Israel are internally displaced, after Israel’s mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1948, according to Palestinian NGO Badil.
Badil has noted that more than 600 Jewish communities have been established by Israel since 1948, as opposed to zero Palestinian communities. And some existing Palestinian communities continue to be unrecognized.
“We’re all Palestinians, and as much as the Israeli government has created a distinction between the different levels of Palestinians inside Israel, in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and in Gaza – in order to divide and conquer — what these protests are showing is that we’re actually all one,” Buttu said.
Ali agreed, saying that the struggle of Palestinians in Israel, often referred to as “1948” by Palestinians, is deeply connected to the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. “We are all fighting for one just cause,” he said.
“In 1948, we are not just a minority without an identity,” Ali continued. “We are not just supporting Gaza, we are a part of them and we share the same destiny.”
‘We will continue’
On Sunday evening, more protests were held in Haifa, with at least 1,000 demonstrating in the German Colony – a popular neighborhood in the city lined with restaurants — and several hundred more protesting outside the police station holding the 19 activists who were still detained.
The second wave of protests was meant to send “the same message, which is that nothing can distract us from our main cause, supporting Gaza,” Ali told Mondoweiss.
A counter protest was also held, with some 20 Israelis waving Israeli flags and chanting “Mohammad is dead” and other anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim slogans.
Early on Monday, all of the protesters arrested on Friday were released without charges filed against them.
Despite the police brutality at the Haifa protests, according to Buttu, the organizers of the demonstrations have plans to continue, most likely holding protests once a week. “As long as Gaza is protesting, we will continue the demonstrations,” she said.
However, Ali noted that regardless of whether the protests in Haifa continue, “it’s important to make clear that these protests are not a passing wave, but part of the continuing Palestinian struggle.”