Middle East

Clashes as nationalists march in Israeli Arab town

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Media captionRupert Wingfield Hayes describes the scene in Umm al-Fahm

Israeli police have clashed with Arab demonstrators in the northern town of Umm al-Fahm, where Israeli right-wing activists staged a protest march.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to try to disperse the protesters.

The Jewish activists are followers of a far-right movement, Kach, which believes Arabs should be expelled from Israel and the West Bank.

Dozens of people were wounded when clashes erupted during a similar march last year.

Tensions were running high in Umm al-Fahm after the Supreme Court authorised the march by the right-wing Israeli group through the mainly Israeli Arab town.

The activists say they want Israeli authorities to outlaw the Islamic Movement, whose jailed leader Sheikh Raed Salah comes from the town. Sheikh Salah has been jailed for raising funds for Hamas, and is serving time for spitting at a policeman during a protest in East Jerusalem.

The movement, whose stated aim is to advocate Islam among Arab Israelis, offers education and social services and promotes a Palestinian nationalistic stance. Its northern supporters are generally more hardline than those in the south.

Some 20 to 30 Jewish demonstrators travelled from Jerusalem to Umm al-Fahm under heavy police protection.

They arrived in armoured buses, but were only allowed off briefly by police, and the march was largely symbolic, says the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes from the site of the clashes.

Riot police, some on horseback, charged about 200 Arab demonstrators who threw stones at them before retreating.

The running street battles went on for nearly two hours, but the situation has since quietened down, our correspondent says.

Several people were arrested, though no serious injuries have been reported.

The activists want to protest against the fact that the second largest Arab town in Israel is home to the leader of the fairly hardline Islamic Movement, but the local population considers the protest by the anti-Palestinian group extremely provocative, adds our correspondent.

The town is considered a stronghold of Israeli-Arab sentiment, and is also where 13 Israeli-Arab protesters were killed during riots as the last Palestinian uprising, or intifada, broke out in 2000.

The anger on the streets of Umm al-Fahm is symptomatic of a growing sense of alienation among Israeli Arabs, observers say.

Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lent his support for a bill that would require all new citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state".

Israeli Arabs, who make up 20% of the population, have called the bill racist and said it aims to delegitimise their presence.

Israel's 1.3 million Arabs are descended from families who remained in Israel after the war that followed the state's creation in 1948.

They are full Israeli citizens, but face widely documented discrimination.

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