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Umm El-Fahm, Arab Israeli Town, Hit By Violent Clashes

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UMM EL-FAHM, Israel — Dozens of Jewish extremists hoisting Israeli flags defiantly marched through this Arab-Israeli town Wednesday, chanting "death to terrorists" and touching off clashes between rock-hurling residents and police who quelled them with tear gas.

As the unrest unfolded, an Israeli court convicted a prominent Arab-Israeli activist of spying for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in a plea bargain that will send him to prison for up to 10 years. The activist, Amir Makhoul, greeted supporters in court with a smile and a victory sign.

The court case and the violence in Umm el-Fahm added to mounting tensions between Israel's Jewish majority and its Arab minority.

Israel Arabs – one-fifth of the country's citizens – have grown jittery as nationalist elements in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government have questioned their loyalty to the state.

They are ethnically Palestinian, but enjoy equal rights under Israeli law, unlike their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. Still, they often suffer discrimination and are statistically poorer and less educated than Israeli Jews. Tensions between the two communities run deep.

The Jewish extremists converged on Umm el-Fahm, one of Israel's largest Arab towns, because it is a stronghold of the country's radical Islamic Movement. Jewish ultranationalists held a similar march in the town last year.

Town Mayor Khaled Hamdan faulted police for protecting the protesters and their leader, calling them "a madman and a bunch of racists."

"The purpose of this (march) clearly is to provoke and to cause chaos," he said.

The scenes of Israeli Arabs – their faces masked by checkered headscarves, burning tires, hurling rocks at riot police and scrambling to dodge tear gas and police fire – recalled violence between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Police said 10 people were arrested, but reported no serious injuries.

Israel's Supreme Court authorized the march, and hundreds of police deployed in town. The march was on its outskirts.

Some 350 Arab residents gathered to await the rally, and youths threw rocks at police, who dispersed the crowd with tear gas and stun grenades.

Police kept journalists away from the march's 50-meter (yard) path. But nearby resident Amneh Jabari, 38, said marchers chanted "death to the Arabs" and "Umm el-Fahm will be Jewish" while waving white-and-blue Israeli flags and reciting prayers.

The Jewish militants are admirers of Meir Kahane, a U.S.-born rabbi who preached that Palestinians should be expelled from Israel and the West Bank. An Arab gunman assassinated Kahane at a New York hotel 20 years ago.

March organizer Baruch Marzel said the activists wanted Israel to outlaw the Islamic Movement, just as it did Kahane's Kach Party.

The movement's leader, Raed Salah, has called for a new Palestinian uprising against Israeli policies and led violent protests against building projects in Jerusalem's Old City.

"If the Kach Party was outlawed, then the Islamic Movement deserves to be outlawed 1,000 times over," Marzel said.

Many Israeli Jews doubt the loyalty of Israel's Arabs, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party has made much of the idea, spearheading what is seen as anti-Arab legislation in parliament.

On Wednesday, a parliamentary committee gave preliminary approval to legislation that would allow small towns to determine who moves into their communities and reject those deemed unfit. Arab lawmakers say the measure targets Arabs.

Further adding to tensions was Wednesday's conviction of Makhoul, the Arab activist who admitted to spying for Hezbollah as part of a plea bargain.

Makhoul claimed he had fended off more serious charges.

"Many of the more severe allegations against me evaporated and are not listed on the indictment," he said. "That is what I managed to get in a plea bargain deal."

Makhoul's lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, said his client admitted to passing information about the location of a military weapons factory to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah during Israel's war against the group in 2006. Makhoul also disclosed where he believed captive Lebanese fighters were held.

Abu Hussein said Makhoul sent the information through a coded e-mail program to a community activist in Jordan who Israeli intelligence believes belongs to Hezbollah.

He said the information is common knowledge and available on the Internet, but that Makhoul agreed to a plea bargain because of the difficulty of proving his innocence. The court is expected to sentence Makhoul in November. Without a deal, he could have faced life in prison.

At the time of his arrest last spring, Israeli authorities claimed Makhoul met with a Hezbollah agent overseas and agreed to collect information for the group.

Makhoul is a vocal critic of Israel, and the government barred the media from reporting his arrest for weeks.

His case is similar to that of another prominent Arab-Israeli leader, Azmi Bishara, a lawmaker who fled the country in 2007 to avoid facing espionage allegations.

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Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid and Daniel Estrin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.