Israeli police have raided the homes of Palestinian citizens of Israel, including university students, as Israeli officials and lawmakers have called for a crackdown on Arab communities following a deadly attack in Tel Aviv.
After 31-year-old Nashaat Milhem shot and killed three people in Tel Aviv on January 1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasted little time in urging a crackdown on Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“We will dramatically increase law enforcement services in the Arab sector,” Netanyahu said. “We will open new police stations, recruit more police officers, go into all the towns and demand of everyone loyalty to the laws of the state.”
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His comments prompted sharp criticism from Palestinian members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and rights groups.
Milhem, who was on the run for more than a week, was killed by police on Friday night during a shootout in his hometown of Arara, located in the Triangle region of central Israel.
Muhammad Abu Toameh, 23, is one of dozens of Palestinian students at Tel Aviv University whose apartment was raided by police under the pretext that they were searching for Milhem.
Abu Toameh, who is involved in left-wing student activism, recalled that he “knew it was going on because we heard about a dozen apartments [each housing several Palestinian students] searched before us”.
The officers knocked on Abu Toameh’s door, informing him and his roommates that they were searching the building. “But they didn’t search any other apartments in our building, and we are the only Arab tenants here,” he told Al Jazeera.
Before leaving, the officers ran background checks on him and his roommates, also Palestinian citizens of Israel, and searched through their personal belongings.
“Obviously the person they’re looking for is not in my sock drawer or on my shelf,” Abu Toameh said. “The searches are just to show their authoritarian [character] and brutality.”
Comprised of Muslims, Christians and Druze, an estimated 1.7 million Palestinians carry Israeli citizenship and are subject to more than 50 discriminatory laws that muzzle their political expression and stifle their access to state resources, according to Adalah, a Haifa-based legal centre.
If you're an Arab, especially an activist, you're seen as the opponent. The police's behaviour is like always: violence and humiliation.
Amjad Iraqi, Adalah’s international advocacy coordinator, said the wave of raids targeting Palestinian students “in Tel Aviv – known as a sort of liberal bubble – shows that it happens to Arabs everywhere”.
“If a crime is allegedly committed by an Arab, then every Arab is automatically a suspect,” he told Al Jazeera.
In the months before Milhem’s attack in Tel Aviv, protests escalated in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem; the Gaza Strip; and Palestinian parts of Israel.
Between October 1 and December 28, at least 250 Palestinian citizens of Israel were detained by Israeli police for protests and other activism.
Mohamad Osama Eghbariya, a Tel Aviv University student and activist with Abna al-Balada, a left-wing Palestinian movement that boycotts the Israeli Knesset, has been arrested several times for his activism in the past. He does not expect the searches to stop now that Milhem has been killed.
“They claim these raids are random, but they are specially targeting Arab students,” Eghbariya told Al Jazeera.
“It’s about two goals: firstly, scaring the Arab students; and, secondly, sending a message that Palestinians aren’t welcome in their own country.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli police could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
As tensions soared in the West Bank and Gaza, Eghbariya said that the Israeli government tried to “send a message” to Palestinians in Israel: “If you’re an Arab, especially an activist, you’re seen as the opponent.
“The police’s behaviour is like always: violence and humiliation,” he added. “It’s impossible that this situation [Palestinians in Israel] are living continues as it is now.”
In recent months, Netanyahu’s government outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, while ultra-nationalist legislator Avigdor Lieberman launched a campaign to ban Balad, a Palestinian political party in the Knesset.
Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University, said that increasingly harsh policies targeting Palestinians in Israel are designed “to de-legitimise the Palestinian political struggle in Israel”.
But Netanyahu and his political allies are not merely seizing the moment to push for new security measures, Ghanem told Al Jazeera.
“In my view, people underestimate Netanyahu by thinking that he’s solely opportunistic. He’s also deeply ideological in his anti-Arab and nationalist worldview,” Ghanem said. “The policies of the right-wing government lead to more and more extremism on both sides.”
Back in Tel Aviv, student Abu Toameh accused the Israeli police of stockpiling the addresses of Palestinian students.
“It shows that they are just categorising citizens according to ethnicity,” he said. “Israel treats us as if we are all guilty until proven innocent.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_