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Israeli police clash with Druze villagers

Times Staff Writer

A normally placid village dominated by Israel’s tiny Arabic-speaking Druze minority exploded in predawn violence Tuesday after 200 Israeli police and border guards entered to arrest young men suspected of vandalizing a controversial cellphone antenna on Jewish property.

The 4 a.m. raid ignited a riot in Pekiin, a hillside community of 4,900 in the Galilee. Scores of villagers poured into the streets, pelting police with rocks, metal bars and at least one stun grenade. Police responded with gunfire, wounding three residents.

By midmorning, when calm had returned, 40 people were listed as injured, including a policeman who had lost a thumb.

Israel’s relations with its 118,000 Druze, whose secretive sect is an offshoot of Islam, have been largely free of such conflict. Unlike Israeli Arabs, who number 1.4 million and make up one-fifth of the country’s population, Druze serve in the military. Some also have achieved high-level positions in Israeli politics and public service.

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But Tuesday’s clash reinforced a feeling among some Druze that members of their distinct ethnic group are often treated by the Jewish state as outsiders or second-class citizens -- a complaint that Israeli Arabs have voiced about treatment of their own people.

Prominent Druze leaders, closing ranks behind the village, asserted that police would not have acted with such force against Jews.

“You cannot enter a village with such a large armed force in order to arrest five or six people,” said Samir Wahabah, a Druze who is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s advisor on Druze affairs.

Majalli Whbee, a Druze who serves in parliament and as deputy foreign minister, called for the dismissal of Maj. Gen. Shimon Koren, police commander in northern Israel, for what he called “use of unrestrained violence toward citizens” of the village.

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Koren defended the use of the significant force as a measure to control young vandals.

“We came to arrest these youths,” he told Israel Radio. “That is the job of the police. That is something we do every day, every place in Israel. We have no considerations of color, race or gender.”

He said police opened fire to defend their lives against masked rioters. Twenty-seven policemen were among the injured.

Israel’s police commissioner met in Jerusalem with angry Druze leaders and promised to assign a special committee to investigate the raid and police use of live ammunition.

Pekiin Mayor Hamed Kheir said the trouble started weeks ago when village leaders demanded that Ronen Asraf, a farmer in the neighboring Jewish community of New Pekiin, remove a cellular antenna from his chicken coop.

The farmer resisted, and protests led to a series of minor clashes with police before a group of villagers set fire to the chicken coop last weekend, disabling the antenna.

The mayor, backed by a doctor in the village, said radiation from the antenna had been causing cancer. They said about 100 people in the village, including some children, had been diagnosed with various forms of the disease.

Radiation from such antennas is a common complaint in Israel, especially in Druze and Arab villages.

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Residents have burned or torn down several antennas in recent years, although the alleged link to cancer has not been scientifically proved.

Tuesday’s raid further infuriated villagers. Witnesses said police at one point stormed into the hilwa, the prayer house, in pursuit of suspected vandals.

“From that moment, residents from all parts of the population united, and this resulted in a great commotion,” Iad Mohana, a resident, told the Ynet online news service.

Later during the fighting a female border guard officer took refuge in the prayer house, which was quickly surrounded by scores of Druze women.

There were conflicting reports whether the officer was held hostage; she left the building after police officials met with village elders and freed the five Druze men arrested during the raid.

Rioters set fire to a Jewish home but directed most of their rage against police rather than the village’s Jewish minority.

Hani Khir, a villager hospitalized with injuries, told Ynet that the incident had caused a breach of trust between the Druze and the state.

“Every Druze person should think twice about whether to send his son to defend the borders of the state, which shamelessly sends police officers and border guards after innocent civilians,” he said.

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boudreaux@latimes.com


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