Jewish peace groups have accused the Israeli police of fueling racism by canceling a "Jewish Pride" march by a far-right group that was to have taken place through one of the largest Arab towns in Israel.
The police postponed the march, due last Monday, claiming they had evidence extremist residents of Umm al Fahm in northern Israel would open fire on the marchers and police.
"There was a real danger that lives could be lost," said a police spokesman, adding that the decision to ban the march would be reassessed in two weeks.
But local Arab leaders and Jewish peace activists claimed the police concocted the story to justify the cancellation of the march. Thousands of Jews had planned to form a human chain with the residents of Umm al Fahm at the entrance to the town to block the way of the Jewish National Front.
Adam Keller, of the peace group Gush Shalom, said the planned show of solidarity would have been nonviolent. He denounced the police for exploiting the stereotype of violent Arab citizens promoted by the marchers, many of whom are hardline settlers in the West Bank.
"It is a supreme irony that we had organized for thousands of Arabs and Jews to prove we can live here as citizens in harmony," he said. "Then the police cancel the march but use the false pretext that the marchers are in danger rather than that they seek to inflame violence."
Claims by the police that Arab residents would shoot at the marchers were derided by Jewish and Arab organizations.
Jafar Farah, of the Mossawa parliamentary lobbying group, pointed out that the northern police force had used a similar excuse that Arab demonstrators were armed in Oct 2000, at the start of the intifada, to justify its use of live ammunition against protests in Arab communities.
A later state inquiry examining the deaths of 13 Arab demonstrators at the hands of the police found that they were unarmed. The inquiry concluded that the institutional view of the police was that Israel’s 1.2 million-strong Arab population should be treated as "an enemy" rather than as citizens.
"The lessons from that inquiry have still not been learnt," Mr Farah said. "There is still a culture of hatred in the police force as well as a culture of incitement. In their different way, the police want to delegitimize the country’s Arab minority just as much as the marchers."
The Jewish National Front is widely seen as a reinvention of the Kach movement, a Jewish terror organization demanding the expulsion of Palestinians from both Israel and the West Bank. The movement was outlawed in the 1990s.
Kach tried to stage a march to Umm al Fahm in 1984 but was repulsed when Jews and Arabs turned out on a large scale.
The police opposed the new march from the outset, saying it believed that confrontations between the marchers and local residents might provoke riots across the north, especially in the wake of violence between Jews and Arabs in Acre in October.
The Supreme Court overruled the police, agreeing with the Front that their right to free expression was being curtailed.
Mr Keller said he believed the police had opposed the march because of the exorbitant cost of bringing thousands of police officers to the town.
"They needed an excuse to prevent the march but one that would be acceptable to the Jewish public and which would not look like they were ignoring the court’s ruling. They resorted to the easiest and most dangerous pretext available: that Umm al Fahm is a hotbed of terror."
Itamar Ben Gvir, a Front leader and settler involved in the recent clashes with the Israeli army over the evacuation of a settler-occupied Palestinian house in Hebron, called the police decision "a disgrace to the rule of law." He added: "Today the police have proved once and for all that they do not control Umm al Fahm."
Shuli Dichter, the head of the Sikkuy coexistence group and a resident of a kibbutz near Umm al Fahm, called that suggestion "nonsense."
"At the weekend we organized tours for hundreds of Jews to Umm al Fahm. They shopped and visited attractions without any trouble whatsoever. We proved that Jews are welcome in Umm al Fahm and that the violence comes only from the far-right."
Raja Aghbariyya, the head of Islamic Youth Movement in Umm al Fahm, expressed a view widely shared in the town: "We welcome anyone who comes to visit the city, but not according to the relationship of slave and master."
Mr Dichter said the police decision had disappointed him. "I would have preferred to see this march stopped by the opposition of an aware public rather than by the police."
He said the large turnout of Jewish groups had been possible because of a framework of cooperation between Jews and Arabs created in the wake of the 13 deaths in Oct 2000.
That included a forum jointly headed by the Arab mayor of Umm al Fahm, Sheikh Hashem Abd al Rahman, and the Jewish mayor of the Menashe Regional Council, Ilan Sadeh. Mr Sadeh, who had assisted in plans to oppose the Front, described the march as an attempt "to sow chaos in the area."
This article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.
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