Police footage taken from a helicopter hovering over riots that were underway in Rahat on Sunday documented violent rioters cornering an Israeli police vehicle. The five policemen inside the patrol car found themselves trapped and in need of an extraction team. In Israel, the incident was being referred to as an “almost lynch.”
The past week has been a chaotic and violent one for the southern Israeli city of Rahat, a predominantly Arab town. After resident Sami al-Ajar died during a police drug bust last week, violent riots ensued and led to the death of another Rahat resident – Sami al-Ziadana.
Police published the video footage on Tuesday of protestors cornering and attacking the police officers at the Sunday funeral of al-Ajar in Rahat. During the clashes, al-Ziadana died from an apparent heart attack.
The video shows a police cruiser driving on Route 264 along the funeral procession and then blocked by vehicles on all sides. Hundreds of people surrounded the cruiser, hurling rocks and stones at its direction. Although the vehicle was armored, the heavy blows caused severe damage to the car.
Reinforcements were called in to extract the officers, but their vehicle also sustained serious blows, with the car’s chassis collapsing.
Police commander of the southern district, Deputy Commissioner Yoram Halevy, warned that such attacks may occur again. "They will try today what they tried yesterday – to hurt cops. Attacking police officers, in their eyes, is a response to the incident that occurred last Wednesday."
He explained: "There was an operation against a drug station and drug dealers. We have more than a few of those. The drug operation was being run from inside a school. A detective squad which did the ground work and documented large-scale drug trafficking decided to make the arrest and caught the suspect as well as a number of other figures. During the mass arrest he identified the cops and called on the residents to come disrupt the arrest."
According to Halevy, Sami al-Ajar was in the vehicle with the drug dealers and was arrested during the incident. His father then came to his rescue. "The father arrived with iron bars and hit the officers," noted Deputy Commissioner Halevy, "the father said he saw his son being arrested and decided to free him by hitting the officers."
"The mob was demanding we free the arrestees, the drug dealers. The officers felt threatened, hearing gunfire in the area, and began an extraction procedure. They fired in the air to try and rescue themselves while the extraction team was delayed," he added.
Halevy said that attacks against Israeli police began following the incident. "Starting from that moment, the city of Rahat and its residents have been blaming Israel Police and the district officers. We got out of that incident with a few injured officers in the hospital. The arrestees were freed by the mob. From here starts the web of incidents and blame against the police. It looks like these incidents will not stop."
The deputy commissioner also spoke of the second incident where rioters surrounded a police vehicle, documented by police, which occurred during the funeral of al-Ziadana on Sunday. "We prepared for (the funeral) in coordination with the family. A police cruiser from the district – which was not involved in the incident – was caught at the scene by the mob. Our understanding of that incident is that we miraculously escaped from a situation where five officers could have been murdered."
He continued: "The incident we saw involved a furious mob which presented a serious threat to the life of the officers. A crowd of 3,000 rock-hurlers was hitting the vehicle. The officers felt threatened and called for help, calling for reinforcements."
Halevy insisted that Israel Police would not abandon its officers. "There is no place in this country, no corner, in which security forces will find themselves in their dying moments screaming 'Shema Israel' and we could not rescue them. The mob was dispersed within minutes and the officers were rescued at the last second; they were just as likely to have been killed, and there could have been more fatalities."
He emphasized: "It is unacceptable that the security forces are unable to patrol every alley and city (because) they feels threatened by the very people they need to protect."
Halevy added that it was decided not to arrest anyone during the extraction so as not to inflame the situation. “We know who harmed police officers and who stirred up the crowd to hurt them,” he said.
“We will settle the score with everyone who took part in (the incident) and wanted to harm police officers. There is an intention to instigate these events. We saw the leaders who call (on residents) to clearly harm police officers. This cannot go unnoticed by the police and the state.”
Commander Ilan Peretz, Deputy Chief of the Negev Unit who commands over the area where the incident took place, arrived at the scene with the police forces and helped extract the police cornered by the Rahat residents.
“We identified the severe distress of the police officers that were trapped in the area. We saw that they were trying to escape with all their might. We felt that they were in a life threatening situation - we saw the images from the (helicopter). It is a sense of hopelessness. You want to come and save them from the scene.”
Peretz added that the police did not arrive at the scene with a large presence because they did not want more police officers to be attacked.
Peretz said that the officers who arrived at the scene found the police vehicle severely damaged with the windowpane “almost turning into powder.”
The officers who arrived to extract the other men were challenged by low visibility to the dimly lit street. Peretz said they used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the demonstrators who were cornering the vehicle.
After the officers were released, riots raged in Rahat overnight. Demonstrators hurled stone and burning tires at police officers. In one incident, a pipe bomb was hurled at police.
After assessing the situation in Rahat Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said that quiet must be restored in Rahat and in the south. "I understand the pain of the families of the deceased and send my condolences, but in the same breath I say that law and order must be kept.