JERUSALEM — Clashes broke out in the southern Bedouin city of Rahat early on Sunday as Israeli police demolished an illegally-built mosque in a pre-dawn raid, police and witnesses said.
Local residents said thousands of police and border police drove into the southern desert city overnight and set up roadblocks to prevent people from reaching the condemned mosque.
Clashes broke out as those living near the mosque poured out of their houses to prevent the demolition, and police fired tear-gas and rubber bullets, a spokesman for the local branch of the Islamic Movement told AFP.
“They went into the mosque and arrested those who were praying inside, including me, and drove us outside the city until the operation was over,” said Yusuf Abu Jamer.
Police confirmed the demolition, saying a local court had ordered the structure be raised as it was built without a permit.
“A large number of police demolished an illegally-built structure this morning which was being used as a mosque in Rahat,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP, saying demonstrators had thrown stones to try to stop the operation, leading to two arrests.
After the raid, Rahat city council declared a general strike, with a protest planned for later on Sunday, residents said.
Abu Jamer said the mosque, one of the biggest in Rahat that had been built to try to combat drug dealing in the area, was one of 17 local mosques built without a permit.
“Obviously, this shows Israel would rather we engage in drug dealing and crime than prayer,” he said.
Rahat is the Negev’s only Bedouin city and has more than 45,000 residents.
Around 160,000 Bedouin live in Israel, more than half of them in unrecognized Negev villages without municipal services like water and electricity. Many live in extreme poverty.