RAHAT, Israel (Reuters) - Israel’s large Arab minority closed shops and schools from the northern Galilee to the southern Negev desert on Tuesday as part of a day-long strike to protest against the death of two Arab men in incidents involving Israeli police.
Sami al-Jaar, 20, was shot dead by officers during a drugs raid which triggered protests in the southern town of Rahat on Thursday. Police have not said why Jaar, who was unarmed, was shot, other than that he took part in “riots”.
“Police were in danger and they opened fire,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
At Jaar’s funeral on Sunday, 45-year-old Sami Zayadna died as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets towards thousands of angry mourners. Locals said Zayadna died of gas inhalation and hailed him as a “martyr”. Police said he had a heart attack. The results of an autopsy are expected soon.
Tensions between Israel’s police and the Arab community, which at 1.7 million people accounts for 20 percent of the population, have surged since a 22-year-old Arab man was shot dead in the Galilee last November moments after banging on the window of a police vehicle.
Tuesday’s strike is a relatively rare occurrence and represents a show of unity among the Arab population, which frequently complains of discrimination.
Israel’s three main Arab parties, divided in the past, plan to run on a joint list in elections on March 17. Despite that coordination, polls indicate they will still win only around 11 seats in the 120-member Knesset, as in the past.
But politicians are buoyed by the growing unity.
“Every day we’re stronger. A few years ago if a citizen were killed here there wouldn’t be this kind of movement,” Arab Knesset member Jamal Zahalka told Reuters.
“We’re more inspired, the Arabs of the Negev are bound more closely to those of the Galilee and the north. We’re more united and able to defend ourselves,” he said.
Since the deaths, police have pulled out of Rahat. Squad cars and a water cannon truck idled outside its main gate, where red graffiti reading “Our blood isn’t cheap!” is scrawled.
Police deny any excessive use of force in dealing with Arabs and point to the diversity in Israeli society, where Arabic is an official language and an Arab serves on the Supreme Court. Despite that, poverty rates and joblessness among the Arab population are far higher than the Israeli average.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads a right-wing government, has threatened to revoke the citizenship of anyone who calls for Israel’s destruction. Others in his government have called for a “loyalty test” for Arab citizens, hardening the sense of isolation.
“Because the Jewish street has become more racist toward us, the police have too,” said Rahat’s deputy mayor, Alaa Abu Mudghaim. “It’s ultimately a failure of the Israeli leadership.”
Additional reporting By Ali Sawafta and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Dominic Evans