Arabs react to Orr report

UMM EL-FAHM, Sept. 2 (JTA) — A new report on the shooting deaths of 13 Arabs by Israeli police during October 2000 riots may spark new consideration of the Jewish state´s relationship with its Arab minority. But when the findings of Israel´s special commission investigating the deaths were broadcast on Israeli television Monday afternoon, not many people were watching at the al-Baboor restaurant in Umm el-Fahm. Indeed, throughout this Arab city — which stood at the eye of the storm three years ago — there was barely a stir when the Orr Commission findings were announced. There was no drama, just disenchantment. Three years ago, on Oct. 2, 2000, Arab protestors from Sakhnin and Arabeh in the north all the way to the Negev in the south clashed with Israeli police at demonstrations in support of the new Palestinian intifada. More than anywhere else, Umm el-Fahm was the center of that day´s events. Arab protestors near the city of 38,000 blocked the main traffic artery between the coastal plain and northern Israel, assaulting some Jewish drivers and ransacking buildings. Prime Minister Ehud Barak instructed Israeli police to do their "utmost" to keep the roads open, and at one point police opened fire on the demonstrators, using snipers and rubber bullets to quell the rioters. In all, 12 Israeli Arabs and one Palestinian from Gaza were killed, including three people shot at the entrance to Umm el-Fahm. Things had not turned so deadly for Israeli Arabs since the massacre at Kafr Kasim on October 29, 1956, when 49 villagers were shot to death by Israel´s border patrol as the villagers returned from their fields. They were unaware of a curfew clamped on the village a few hours earlier. The trauma of Kafr Kasim seemed to re-emerge during the Land Day riots of 1976, when six Israeli Arabs were killed along with a Gaza resident. After the October 2000 riots, Barak appointed a state inquiry commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Orr to probe the events. This week, as the Orr Commission´s 860-page report was released, traffic was moving smoothly at the Highway 65 intersection near Umm el-Fahm that had been the focus of the riots three years earlier. Not just Arab blood has been spilled there: On April 28, 2001, an Israeli soldier was killed and a civilian wounded in a terrorist attack on the road. The parking lot adjacent to al-Baboor restaurant is located just above the intersection. Several days before the release of the Orr report, police had notified media outlets that law enforcement authorities were on "high alert" for possible riots in the Arab sector following the report´s publication. Some felt that the implication that an Arab protest means riots symbolized the rift between the Israel Police and the Arab minority in Israel. After the Orr report´s release, the Arabs did not riot or protest — largely because the commission´s findings had placed the blame for the bloodshed on the police, not the Arab civilian population. The commission ruled that many police officers are prejudiced against Israeli Arabs and even regard them as enemies of the state — an attitude that affected their behavior in the October riots, the report said. "Israel Police should teach its officers that the Arab public at large is not the enemy, and one should not treat it as such," the report said. However, the commission also found that Israeli Arab leaders — such as Sheikh Ra´ed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement and mayor of Umm el-Fahm at the time of the riots, and Knesset members Azmi Bishara and Abdul Malek Dahamsheh — had incited their populace against the state with inflammatory speeches that encouraged violence. Locals in Umm el-Fahm did not seem impressed by the report´s findings. "Forget about it," said Mahmoud Aghbariya, an activist from Balad, an Israeli Arab political party, sitting at a local coffee house on the city´s main street. "They will always treat us as enemies. A commission report cannot change the way they think." The report reprimanded Commissioner Alik Ron, who at the time of the riots was the police´s Northern District commander, for the way he handled the riots. Ron had ordered the use of snipers and live fire "without justification," the report found. Ron since has quit the police and been replaced by Moshe Borovsky, who has tried to turn over a new leaf with Israeli Arabs. On Monday, Borovsky invited Arab mayors of villages from along Highway 65 for a reconciliation meeting at the regional police station´s officers´ club, which had a table covered with food, drinks and fruit. "Human life is sacred," Borovsky told the mayors, reiterating new police regulations that, "no matter what," police will not fire live bullets at Arab demonstrators. There have been several notable changes at the Israel Police since the riots. In the past two years, a number of new police stations have opened inside Arab villages that employ Arab volunteers as local officers. Borovsky makes a point of holding occasional meetings with Arab community leaders to maintain a working relationship. Since the riots, there have been no fatal confrontations between policemen and Arab citizens in the northern district. This summer, however, there were violent clashes elsewhere after two Israeli Arabs, including one Bedouin, were killed by police within several days of each other. Both were driving cars and failed to heed patrolmen´s orders to stop at security roadblocks, Israeli officials said. "Our policemen do not regard the Arabs as enemies," said Assaf Hefetz, former inspector general of the Israel Police. But, as the commission noted, police often are regarded as such by Israeli Arabs. "The Arab sector does not perceive the police as a civil service, but rather as a hostile element, serving a hostile government," the commission´s report said. That´s something that neither the commission´s report nor the goodwill of one senior police officer can change. "Believe me, everyone treats us suspiciously," said Taha Aghbariya, director of al-Haram shopping center in Umm el-Fahm. "Even Jewish suppliers do not enter the city. When we need supplies from large companies, we need to do the shipments ourselves." Since the intifada began and the Israeli Arabs rioted in solidarity, few Jews have gone shopping in Arab shopping centers, Aghbariya said. Many were terrified by images of Israeli Arabs advancing on neighboring communities during the riots, shouting "Slaughter the Jews!" Business has been slow ever since. "Until October 2000 they used to come here by their thousands," said Nashat Abbas, owner of the al-Baboor restaurant. "Recently, they started coming back." On Monday afternoon, about half of the tables at his restaurant were occupied by Jews. "It was important for me to come here on the day of the commission report as an act of solidarity with the Arab population," one Jewish customer said. But al-Baboor is located on the main road. By and large, Jewish customers still refrain from shopping inside Umm el-Fahm.

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