SHARMINI PERIES: On Wednesday, January 18th, hundreds of armed police descended on the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, in the south of Israel. They came to demolish the houses in the village, as a part of a government plan to remove the village and displace its population, in order to build a new settlement on that land. A demonstration to resist the demolition was attended by the Bedouins from the region, as well as many from all over Israel, in an attempt to prevent the demolition.
A school vice-principal, on his way to support the demonstration, by the name of Yaqub Abu al-Qi’an, was shot to death by the police, and from what the Bedouins in the village are saying, police shot and killed him in the car, and his car spun out of control, killing a police officer by the name of Erez Levy.
The police initially claimed that Yaqub Abu al-Qi’an was an ISIS terrorist, who intentionally ran over the police officer. However, a video, which the police released to tell us a better story, tells us a different story. The footage they released shows that the police opened fire on the car, then it spun out of control and ran over the police officer.
Furthermore, although the police said that they only shot warning shots in the air, the autopsy showed that the police bullets have shattered the knee of the driver; his leg may have been disabled or stuck on the gas pedal, explaining how the car accelerated out of control.
Joining us now to explain what happened is Kobi Snitz. He is an Israeli mathematician, a political activist that participated in the demonstration in Umm al-Hiran, and can give us an eyewitness report. Thanks for joining us, Kobi.
KOBI SNITZ: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: What is the story of Umm al-Hiran, Kobi? Why does Israeli police wish to just demolish it, and tell us about what you witnessed.
KOBI SNITZ: I wish we had that many people to resist the demolitions. By the time that the police got there, it was down to the people in the village and not… far from enough supporters. We weren’t very many. And the police were just overwhelming numbers. There was almost nothing we could do to resist them. Just to protest, and witness it, and document what was happening there.
This is not the first time that entire villages are demolished in the Negev — longstanding government policy. The fact that the state is demolishing a Bedouin village, to build on top of it, a settlement for Jews, tells us everything we need to know about Israeli policy, the context for this. And very much about Israeli politics in general, and it played out, as you would expect from the sort of security forces that does this.
The units that were there are called the UAV(?) Units. It’s a unit created especially for this task. All they do is demolish Bedouin houses in the Negev. So, this–
SHARMINI PERIES: How many police officers were there, and what were the odds between the police officers and the Bedouins?
KOBI SNITZ: There were more than I could count. I think the police reports said 500. But they were everywhere, more than we could count. And they, as I said, it’s a special unit, and this is all they do. They become extremely dangerous and hostile. They showed up… before anything happened, they already had their guns drawn, pointing them at people.
Before they even reached the house of al-Qi’an, which was at the top of the hill, at the top of the village. I saw them pointing their guns at another driver in a separate car, threatening him, banging the windshields, pointing the guns at him, forcing the door open.
And I could… I told myself, all it takes is that, for that driver’s foot to slip off the brake, or for the car to move just a little bit, for the trigger-happy cops to shoot him, too, and then declare that he was trying to run them over.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. So that, clearly the footage we just showed you, demonstrated that the car at some point goes completely to the opposite direction, indicating that the driver has lost control, or at this point, as far as we know, he was killed, according to the autopsy.
Give us a sense of what the public reaction is to seeing this footage, and why would the Israeli police release this? Did they consider this a defense of their actions?
KOBI SNITZ: Yeah. I think they do. And I think they do because the typical Israeli reaction is that if a cop is hurt, and a Bedouin or any other Arab is involved, he’s automatically guilty. And the burden of proof is on us to prove that he’s not.
So, the cops assume that, and they assume that everybody in the Israeli public will feel the same way, and they’re generally right. The general reaction is that it’s very easy to blame Arabs and Palestinians. And politically speaking, I don’t think that, even with all of the evidence undermining the police’s version of the story, in the collective memory, I think it might very well remain, at least in Israel, as a terrorist attack.
Similarly, not too long ago, there were, thanks to drought, a lot of fires. Government ministers immediately declared that this is arson done by Palestinians. Never mind that no one has been charged with politically based arson. The memory of it still remains that it’s the fault of Palestinians. So, that’s the reason they released the video. They assumed that whatever it shows, many people in Israel are going to see this as evidence of a terror attack.
SHARMINI PERIES: And give us a sense of who was Yaqub Abu al-Qi’an, and did he have any reason to even charge at a police officer? From what I gather and have read, he was on his way to the demonstration.
KOBI SNITZ: His car was full of his belongings. He was trying to leave the house. He told people the night before that there’s no… No one should use violence. And as tragic as it is, they should, when the time came, they should leave and avoid being hurt, let alone hurting others. The entire community there, from the number of times that I’ve visited there, is extremely pragmatic, the opposite of violence, of violent…
Their consistent political line is not even to hold a grudge for the government that displaces them continuously. They don’t even want their, address that — that the point that they keep making is, okay, just give us somewhere else to live — and the government’s not even willing to do that. It’s not that it’s willing… it’s not that the shortage of space there, it’s in the desert, it’s sparsely populated. The government could very easily find them lots of places to live, let alone let them live in their original lands that were taken from them in 1956.
But that’s out of the question. The government has only one option for Bedouins in the Negev, and that is to be concentrated in slums, in underserved cities, which is no option for them. And it’s hardly even a realistic proposal that they’re getting. They’re simply offered nothing.
SHARMINI PERIES: You’re a mathematician. What are you doing there?
KOBI SNITZ: I think the question ought to be, of all people who aren’t there, how can they not be there? When this is such an outright racist policy by the government, to displace one group of people for another? And do this openly, without any excuses or any other way to interpret this, other than just straight out ethnic cleansing?
SHARMINI PERIES: Kobi, now, in terms of the Bedouin community, give us a sense of history. How did they end up in this village, describe the village, and why is the government so adamant to destroy it?
KOBI SNITZ: Well, very briefly, the Bedouins were displaced… many Bedouins were displaced a number of times, over the last, nearly 70 years of Israeli history. They are now concentrated in less than 5% of their historic lands in the Negev. And all they’re asking for, they’re now… the remaining claims that they have, are something like 5% of the land.
And this is a sparsely populated area. There is not a problem of land; it’s just a problem that the government policy is to just not allow Palestinians and Bedouins to live, in any way. Whatever they settle, wherever they want to establish their communities, they’re just being moved and their communities are being destroyed. That’s the story everywhere they are. The only option to them is to live in the most underserved, poorest slums, in something like a giant compound to hold them in.
SHARMINI PERIES: Kobi, this is obviously an ongoing story we would like to follow, in terms of what’s happening to the Bedouins. And if they’re going to actually get relocated in spite of this struggle and protest. We’d like for you to come back and continue to report to us about the developments.
KOBI SNITZ: Sure. I’d be glad to.
SHARMINI PERIES: And I thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.