TEL AVIV (JTA) – This week’s severe clashes between police and rioters in the normally sleepy Druse hilltop town of Pekiin are reopening old questions about delicate Arab-Jewish relations in Israel.
Druse leaders were quick to condemn the police decision to open fire on rioters to quell violence, saying that if Jews had been rioting the police would have handled things differently.
“This is a day for soul-searching,” Sheik Ali Sleiman, a community leader in Pekiin, told Israel’s daily Ma’ariv. “Pekiin has a tradition of coexistence. Everything that happened was a result of police negligence.”
More than 20 people were injured in the violence that began before dawn Tuesday when hundreds of residents began lobbing rocks and stun grenades at police who had entered the town to arrest several men in connection with a dispute over a cellular phone antenna.
The police, saying they believed their lives were endangered, opened fire with live ammunition. One resident and one policeman were seriously injured in the fighting.
During the melee, several demonstrators also seized a female police officer and set the home of a Jewish family on fire.
Pekiin is a predominately Druse town that has a minority Christian population and a few Jewish homes. One of the Jewish families there claims continuous residency in the town since the days of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in the year 135.
With its rich Jewish heritage and colorful Druse cultural sites, Pekiin has become a popular stop for Israeli and overseas tourists visiting the Galilee.
Israeli Jews seemed as surprised by the riots as were Israel’s Druse by the police reaction.
The Druse, a secretive sect within Islam with a community of about 118,000 Druse in Israel and nearly 1 million members elsewhere in the Middle East, are known for their strong loyalties to their home states.
Most Druse men serve in the Israeli army; many become career military or police officers.
“The violence in Pekiin is the beginning of the process of Druse extremists imitating the Arab separatists,” columnist Israel Harel wrote in Thursday’s Ha’aretz daily.
Harel counted the incident as more proof that Israeli Arabs are distancing themselves from the state.
Though many Druse in Israel do not consider themselves ethnically Arab, Israelis commonly lump them with the state’s Arab population.
“We wanted to believe it would be different with the Druse,” Harel wrote. “But they proved in Pekiin that, regrettably, even this community’s loyalty is conditional.”
This week’s incident immediately drew comparisons with the infamous October 2000 riots, when Israeli police used live ammunition to confront Israeli Arab demonstrators rallying in support of the second Palestinian intifada that had begun just days before.
Thirteen demonstrators were killed in violence that spread across northern Israel.
After the riots, Israel launched a commission of inquiry that resulted in new guidelines requiring police to confer with local leaders before any type of serious operation.
After this week’s violence, which unfolded after about 100 police officers entered Pekiin to arrest five men suspected of tampering with a cell phone antenna, many observers said the Or Commission’s guidelines were ignored.
Muwafaq Tarif, a Druse leader, called the police raid a “mistake.”
“If the police had informed us – if they had told the religious leadership inside the village and in the community – we would have avoided this whole mess,” Tarif told Israel Radio. “We would have intervened and wouldn’t have let this get out of control.”
Local leaders said the cell phone antenna recently installed just outside town was a significant source of tension, as many residents feared the health dangers the antenna might pose.
Israel’s internal security minister, Avi Dichter, promised to launch an investigation into Tuesday’s incident but said anyone who tried to harm police officers would be dealt with severely.
“The Israel Police, like any other body, is not immune from mistakes, and if we erred we will investigate and put things right,” Dichter said.
Hebrew University social psychologist Yisrael Katz said the quick escalation of events in Pekiin is indicative of a sentiment among the Druse that despite their service to the state, they still are not treated equally by Israel.
“They see they are treated differently,” Katz said. That has led “to a major division within the Druse community between those who want to be a part of Israeli society and those who identity first and foremost as Arabs and feel themselves to be part of a discriminated-against minority.”