April 19, 2019

Rahat’s week from Hell

Mayor Talal Al Krenawi was tired. He’d been in and out of media interviews, meetings, mourning circles and angry phone calls for days. His limbs hurt; his lungs hurt. “I’m still feeling the effects of the gas,” he said, speaking from behind his desk in a worn municipal building at the heart of Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin city.

Four days earlier, on the evening of Jan. 18, the mayor said, he was placing a municipal flower wreath on the grave of Bedouin 20-year-old Sami Al Ja’ar — shot dead Jan. 14 outside his home in a drug bust gone awry — when police lights flashed near the cemetery gates and the pop-pop of weapons interrupted burial prayers.

The mayor himself was knocked halfway unconscious by a tear gas canister, then set on fire and nearly trampled by funeral attendees.

 “The amount of tear gas shot in two minutes on the people, I’ve never seen it before,” said Rahat resident and Bedouin activist Fadi Masamra, another witness. “It was a massacre. There was no more surrealistic picture than hiding behind graves to keep from being shot.”

The majority of the 10,000 to 20,000 people estimated to have turned out for Al Ja’ar’s funeral had no idea what had triggered the rain of crowd-control weapons. They would later learn that an armored police truck had unexpectedly entered the outskirts of the procession — and that when it did, hundreds of Rahat residents and out-of-towners, angry about Al-Ja’ar’s officer-involved shooting, had surrounded the vehicle and pelted it with stones. Some of the stones were more like “boulders,”  police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, and included an 8-by-12-inch cement block.  

“People were so stressed and so angry in this time,” Masamra said. “In a moment, everything became chaos.”

The five officers inside the police truck told their commanders later they thought they would die that night. “Every Jewish person, if he’s religious or not, when he feels this will be the end of his life, the last words he will say is ‘Shema Yisrael.’ All five officers said these two words,” said Yoram Halevi, commander of the Israel Police’s southern district.

Added his Arab affairs adviser, Shalom Ben Salmon: “When a Jew says ‘Shema Yisrael,’ he understands it’s the last second of his life.”

Backup arrived minutes later, and for the next half-hour, Rahat’s cemetery turned into a battleground. Flying stones, stun grenades, tear gas and live bullets were lit from behind by stadium and helicopter lights, tinting the scene a hazy, apocalyptic blue. Ben Salmon described it as “World War III.” Rahat resident Khaled Al Ja’ar, who had come to the cemetery that night to bury his son, said that when “the gas grenades came right up to the grave,” he and others “crawled” blindly between the tombstones, trying to find a way out. “Everybody was confused — police were confused, people were confused,” Masamra said. “No one knew what happened.”

By the time the gas cloud had dissipated, one more villager was dead.

According to Israeli officials, Sami Ziyadne, 43, died from a heart attack amid the chaos — making it the most deadly week of police-civilian clashes in the history of Rahat.

Such clashes have never been a hallmark of Rahat, the only Bedouin city to be officially recognized by Israel. Rahat was founded in 1972 and recognized as a township in 1994 — a sort of pilot for resettling the nomadic Bedouins in Western-style townships. It has since become one of the poorest municipalities in the nation, an underserviced ghetto of 70,000 whose average monthly income is below $300. Still, its leaders have never given up on the dream of integrating into Israeli society.

The lobby of Rahat City Hall is lined with framed photos of a younger Al Krenawi shaking hands with Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. An Israeli flag hangs from a pole near his desk. 

“When Rabin was prime minister, that’s when the industrial zone was created,” Al Krenawi said, pointing to a dirt plot at the southeast corner of Rahat on a jumbo map behind his desk. But construction in the zone has been snail-paced — often standstill. In the meantime, Rahat’s unemployment rate is surging at nearly 40 percent. Eighty percent of residents live below the poverty line, and less than half graduate high school.

Talal Al Krenawi has been mayor of Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin city, on and off for two decades. “We demand investigations,” he said of two recent killings in Rahat, “and the people demand that the people responsible for this be held accountable.” Photo by Simone Wilson

For opponents of Israel’s plan to consolidate spread-out Bedouin tribes into structured villages — the Prawer Plan — Rahat has become a case study for what not to do. In a 2013 op-ed for Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the head of a local coexistence nongovernmental organization called towns like Rahat “magnets for crime and poverty because the Bedouins living in them have been torn from their agricultural sources of income and their culture.” 

Al Krenawi said that although he has tried for decades to collaborate with Israeli officials, his town has never enjoyed equal treatment from the federal government.

“We’re discriminated against. We have no funding, no recognition,” Al Krenawi said. And now, after this week, he said, “We have no trust in the police.”

Ben Salmon, who advises the Israel Police’s southern district commander on Arab affairs, agreed that socioeconomic inequality partly is  fueling tensions between police and residents. “The Bedouin section needs investment from the government,” he said. “When you have a special situation that channels your anger, you will channel your anger to whoever is in front of you. And the police are always in front.”

On his office map of Rahat, the mayor retraced the Al Ja’ar funeral procession route that he had meticulously planned with local law enforcement. “Police were supposed to block this road,” he said, pointing to Highway 264, which cuts across the desert plains on Rahat’s western edge, dividing the town from its cemetery.

“In order to keep the peace, because we were expecting a lot of people, we made an agreement with the police not to come in,” he said. “We made an agreement — I was there in their offices!”

Halevi confirmed: “We talked with the mayor. There was some kind of agreement. We said police would not go inside, would not be involved, would not be there.”

However, one police vehicle did breach the no-go zone: a truck full of officers from a special branch of the Israel Police with separate headquarters. It’s known as the Yoav Unit, and it was set up in 2012 as the enforcement arm of the Prawer Plan to demolish Bedouin homes and resettle residents in planned towns.

According to Masamra, who serves as general director of the Bedouin Council of Unrecognized Villages, the Yoav Unit is perceived by locals to be more of a “militia” than a civil police force. “When we see such a car, we know there’s a demolition,” he said. “So, them being there that night doesn’t mean anything except provoking the people — they are saying, ‘We are the bosses of the place.’ ”

Police from the Yoav Unit claimed in an interview with Israeli news site Ynet that they were unaware of Rahat’s arrangement that night with local police.

According to Halevi, when the Yoav driver “arrived to the police checkpoint” blocking off Highway 264, the two officers from different departments made eye contact — but the Yoav driver didn’t stop. “He was not part of the operation,” Halevi said, “and he thought he could cross the highway. He didn’t know that there was something on the road.”

Halevi declined to give further details of the encounter, as it is now undergoing an internal investigation.

However, the commander stressed, “It doesn’t matter whether he stopped or not. It was a human mistake. The car should not have been there. But in the moment that the commander saw or understood the mistake, it was too late.”

Video footage taken from a police helicopter — dispatched by Israel Police southern district officials before the funeral began — shows the Yoav truck ramming into cars parked at the funeral as it apparently tries to flee the area. Young men can be seen hurling stones in the truck’s direction.

“They were lucky to get out of there alive,” police spokesman Rosenfeld said.

Rahat’s mayor said that once he had personally escaped the besieged cemetery, he called the police, screaming. “I said, ‘You abused us — and you almost killed thousands of civilians!’ ” he said. “They told me, ‘We apologize. A police car just ran through the checkpoint.’ ”

The mayor rested his forehead in his hands, the picture of a man torn between his obligations to his government and to his people.

“We could have buried tens of bodies,” he said. “What would I tell the widows?”

Across town, in a mourner’s tent pitched adjacent to the Al Ja’ar family home, Khaled, 44, lay despondent on a floor mat. His left arm was wrapped in a cast, a wound he said he sustained in police custody, and his head was crowned in a loose red keffiyeh. As he spoke of his son, tears welled silently under his eyes.

“His employers loved him,” Khaled said. “I loved him. He was like a friend to me, not a son. We’d laugh together. He wanted a field bike, but I didn’t want to give it to him, and I’m sorry about it today. I thought it would end his life. If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have taken that from him.”

He added: “It’s true that people always talk well of the dead … but Sami was a great person.”

Sami Al Ja’ar, a handsome young man whose smile now lights up banners and protest leaflets across Rahat, came home early Jan. 14 from his job at a factory near Beer Sheva. His mother, Hadassa, remembered serving him his last meal: “Kebap,” she said. “Meat is always the favorite here.”

Police allege that later in the evening, when they showed up to the high school across from Al Ja’ar’s house, they found him taking part in a marijuana deal inside a car parked in the school lot.

What happened next is murky. Neighbors told the Journal that police got aggressive with the drug suspects, at which point Khaled ran over to intervene. Police claim that Khaled attacked the officers with a metal rod, and that dozens of locals began throwing stones at them. Police also say they heard gunshots nearby — prompting them to spray their own live fire into the sky as a warning.

What’s clear is that 20-year-old Sami Al Ja’ar was killed amid the chaos. Multiple witnesses said he was standing in his own driveway, located directly across the street from the police operation, when he took a fatal bullet to his abdomen.

His father remembered: “He came back to me, and he said, ‘Dad, they shot me.’ And I saw the gunshot wound.”

Khaled served for years as an Israeli border police officer, as well as a tour guide for Birthright students at the Bedouin tents in Kfar Hanokdim, located between the Dead Sea and Masada. “No one should ever have to experience something like this, no matter what his religion is, no matter what his origins are,” he said from his mourning tent. “I hope the last one to be killed will be the last one to be killed — that people will know no sorrow and that they won’t feel the pain I’m feeling now.”

Al Krenawi, Rahat’s mayor, said there can be no trust between the Bedouin community and police until the state completes a thorough and transparent investigation into both deaths.

After the funeral, President Reuven Rivlin called Rahat City Hall to promise as much. “I know that the police commissioner will do everything in his power to restore peace and security in the region,” Rivlin said, according to a transcript provided by his office. “We all have an obligation to treat the wounds of the Bedouin community, and it is important that we do it together.”

Al Krenawi said he told Rivlin: “You’re treating us worse than you treat Jabalia and Gaza. Even in the West Bank, they don’t shoot that amount of ammunition.”

Nightly riots since the funeral have died down, in part thanks to efforts by the southern district police to respond with minimal force. Local Bedouin leaders are back in delicate talks with police officials on how to regain trust in the community. The Ministry of Justice has launched an investigation into Sami Al Ja’ar’s killing. 

But Al Ja’ar family members and neighbors told the Journal they won’t soon forget this week of pain — and that they won’t believe Israel values its citizens equally until Sami’s killers are brought to justice.

“The Bedouin community in the south is a very patient people, but for a long time now we’re suffering this unfair, systematic policy against the community,” Masamra said. “There is a new generation of highly educated people who are taking charge and … not accepting these policies. It’s a turning point in Rahat between the Arab community and the state.”