Demolitions spark deadly violence in Arab Israeli village

Umm Al-Heiran (Israel) (AFP) - Demolitions in an Arab Israeli village that activists say has been targeted by racist policies sparked violence Wednesday in which a policeman and his alleged attacker were killed.

A prominent Arab Israeli lawmaker was also wounded in Umm al-Heiran in southern Israel, where activists have long sought to draw attention to what they call the unjust practice of demolishing Arab homes deemed illegally built.

Police said a local resident rammed officers with his vehicle, killing one of them. He was shot dead.

They alleged he was active in the Israeli Islamic Movement and may have been influenced by the Islamic State organisation -- a claim residents strongly denied, calling him a respected teacher.

Residents said the man was heading to the scene to talk with authorities in an attempt to halt the demolitions in the Bedouin village.

His home was among five buildings being demolished and he had packed all his belongings in his car, they said.

Police released aerial video footage of the pre-dawn incident, but no clear conclusions could be drawn.

It appears in the video that officers open fire on the villager's car before it speeds up downhill toward police.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said officers fired in the air as a warning, and a police spokesman said the man drove without lights.

The officer killed was identified as 34-year-old Erez Levi, while the villager was named as Yacoub Abu al-Qiyan, 47 and the father of around a dozen children.

"The Israeli narrative is a lie," village activist Raed Abu al-Qiyan told AFP.

- 'Enemy number one' -

The injured lawmaker, Ayman Odeh, heads the Joint List, a coalition of mainly Arab parties and the third-largest bloc in parliament.

His spokeswoman said he was hit by two rubber-tipped bullets fired by police, and photographs spread online showing him with a bloodied head.

Odeh said in a video posted to Facebook that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had "diagnosed Arab citizens as enemy number one."

Netanyahu, under pressure from Israel's far-right to carry out such demolitions, said "Israel is above all a law-abiding state, and will enforce the law in an egalitarian manner."

Many were quick to point out an apparent difference in treatment of Jewish residents of illegal West Bank outposts not forced to leave and Arab residents of Umm Al-Heiran and other such villages.

Arab Israelis, descendants of Palestinians who remained after the creation of Israel in 1948 and who now make up some 17.5 percent of the population, called for a general strike Thursday in response.

- Pre-dawn confrontation -

Wednesday's confrontation began around 5:00 am (0300 GMT).

One activist said residents had moved their cars to the entrance of the village to block the demolitions.

Police then moved in and fired flares, lighting the pre-dawn sky, according to the activist, Isaac Kates Rose, who was there at the time.

Shooting could later be heard and the sound of a car crashing, he said.

Demolitions began around 11:15 am (0915 GMT), with security forces taking up positions on rooftops and guarding the surrounding area.

Residents gathered around the village's mosque, with women wailing as demolitions started. The five structures were razed by early afternoon.

"Of course they will return," the brother of the man who allegedly rammed the officers told AFP.

"They want to destroy everything here," he added, declining to give his name.

- 'Racist' judgement? -

Israeli authorities regularly carry out demolitions of Arab homes they deem built illegally.

However, building permits are extremely difficult to obtain, according to residents and activists, who say Jewish Israelis are given preferential treatment.

Umm al-Heiran residents have waged a years-long legal fight against demolition orders.

Located in the Negev desert, the village is home to around 1,000 inhabitants who mainly live in small, concrete buildings, relying on solar panels for electricity and raising livestock.

In 2013, Israel approved the establishment of two new Jewish communities, called Kesif and Hiran.

To make way for the new towns, Umm al-Heiran, which is unrecognised by the authorities, is to be removed.

Israel's supreme court approved the removal, saying since residents could theoretically live in the new towns, it did not constitute discrimination.

The government says Umm al-Heiran's residents are to be moved to the nearby Bedouin village of Hura, home to around 300 families, with compensation offered.

It is unclear when the other residents would be moved.

Rights group Adalah, which has represented the villagers in court, on Wednesday called the court decision on demolition "one of the most racist judgements that the court has ever issued."