After Tel Aviv attack, Israel’s Palestinians tarred as ‘criminals’
Nazareth - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of exploiting a shooting attack in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day to intensify a campaign of incitement against the country’s large minority of Palestinian citizens.
Palestinian leaders in Israel have also harshly criticised the police for making sweeping arrests of Nashat Melhem’s relatives in what they believe is an attempt to pressure him into turning himself in.
Melhem, aged 29, is reported to have been on the run since two Israeli Jews were gunned down in a bar in central Tel Aviv last Friday. He is also suspected of killing a taxi driver – like Melhem, a member of Israel’s Palestinian minority – during his getaway.
The motive for the attacks is not yet known.
Netanyahu made a speech the day after the attack in which he implied that many of Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens, one in five of the population, were either complicit in, or approved of, the killings.
"Whoever wants to be Israeli must be Israeli all the way," he said at a candle-lighting ceremony at the scene of the two deaths. "I will not accept two states within Israel – a state of law for most citizens and a state within a state with Islamist incitement and illegal arms.”
Calling on Muslim citizens to follow a path of peace rather than hatred, he said: "We all know that there is wild incitement of radical Islam against the state of Israel within the Muslim sector."
Arab MPs, he demanded, had to condemn the attack “without hesitation or rhetorical phrasing”.
As part of the manhunt, police raided lodgings in Tel Aviv housing Arab students, apparently without search warrants. In some cases, the doors were broken down, officers entered with weapons drawn, and rooms were ransacked.
Concerns have been raised about whether Tel Aviv university handed over students’ information to enable racial profiling by the police.
Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab-dominated Joint List, the third largest party in the Israeli parliament, told Middle East Eye that Netanyahu had “incited against an entire public, portraying the Arab population as criminals.”
He added that the arrest of Melhem’s father and brother, lengthy interrogations of his mother and sister, and the raids on student homes were all forms of “collective punishment” by the police.
“I cannot remember any case in which a Jew has committed a crime, however severe, and family members were arrested as a means of pressuring the suspect,” he said.
“The price should be paid by the criminal, not his near or distant relations, and certainly not the entire Arab public.”
Melhem is suspected of shooting dead Alon Bakal, manager of the Simta bar in Tel Aviv, and customer Shimon Ruimi, as well as injuring several others, on Friday 1 January. The body of a taxi driver, Amin Shaaban, was found in a suburb of northern Tel Aviv a short time later.
Armed attacks by members of Israel’s Palestinian minority on Israeli Jews are rare, as is the ability of a suspect to stay off the Israeli security services’ radar for so long.
Jafar Farah, who heads the Mossawa advocacy centre for Palestinians in Israel, said Netanyahu had leapt on the incident to vilify the Palestinian minority.
“We see Netanyahu and the Israeli right exploiting every opportunity to incite against Arab citizens,” he told MEE, noting that in widely criticised comments the Israeli prime minister had warned during last year’s general election campaign that Palestinian citizens were coming out to vote “in droves”.
“This is connected to the right’s goal of suggesting that there is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu wants to argue that all Muslims and all Arabs are the enemy, and that there can never be peace.”
Family members arrested
Immediately after the shootings, the High Follow-Up Committee, the main political body for Palestinians in Israel, issued a statement condemning the attack and calling it a "serious deviation from the justified struggle of the Arab population to obtain their rights”.
The committee added that Netanyahu had turned “incitement into an ideology”.
On Tuesday, half a dozen of Melhem’s relatives, including his 63-year-old father, Mohammed, were arrested, accused of being accomplices. The family is from Arara, a Palestinian village in central Israel, south of Umm al-Fahm.
His brother, Juadat, arrested last weekend, was freed by the courts on Wednesday, over police objections, apparently after the police failed to provide credible evidence of his involvement.
Melhem’s sister and mother have also been detained for lengthy questioning. Israeli news website Ynet quoted a relative saying the mother had been interrogated for 10 hours and threatened that her home would be demolished if she did not reveal Melhem’s hiding place.
"The interrogators put a great deal of pressure on her," the relative was reported saying.
Israel has demolished family homes of several so-called “lone-wolf attackers” from the occupied Palestinian territories after a wave of incidents, mainly using knives, began in the late summer. The Israeli courts approved the punishment as a way to deter further attacks.
History of violence
Melhem’s family was quick to condemn the shootings and urged him to hand himself in. Police now appear to believe he may have gone to ground in the West Bank.
Relatives also warned that Melhem was mentally unstable and had a history of violence towards his own family and others, triggered by the killing of a cousin exactly a decade ago. Police shot dead Nadim Melhem during a raid on his home while searching for a gun.
A year later, in 2007, Nashat Melhem was convicted of trying to grab a soldier’s gun and sentenced to five years in prison. He told interrogators at the time that he had intended to avenge his cousin’s death.
Nadim Melhem is one of 56 Palestinian citizens who have been killed in unexplained, and largely uninvestigated, circumstances by the Israeli security forces in the past 15 years, said Farah of Mossawa.
A judicial-led state inquiry found in 2004 that the Israeli police’s institutional view of the Palestinian minority was as “an enemy”.
“Officials have repeatedly shown they do not want to investigate the killings of Arab citizens or give their families justice,” said Farah. “In the context of rampant police violence, it is likely that a few individuals at the margins of Arab society will seek their own form of vengeance.”
Melhem’s father is a security guard who has also served for many years as a police volunteer – an unusual position to hold within the Palestinian minority.
He first alerted the authorities to the possibility his son was responsible for the killings after a relative identified Nashat in a security video of the shootings.
Melhem is reported to have taken the semi-automatic from his father’s safe.
Nachmi Feinblatt, the family’s lawyer, called the accusations against the father “crazy”. “This has nothing to do with evidence of wrongdoing,” he told MEE. “It is simply about using the family to put pressure on their son.”
He added that the refusal of the courts to grant a 12-day detention of Melhem’s father demanded by the police – they were given two days instead – indicated the “bogus nature of the allegations”.
Student digs searched
According to Israeli media, dozens of Arab students, most of them registered at Tel Aviv university, have had their lodgings searched and been interrogated since the shootings.
Odeh said he was trying to find out whether Tel Aviv university had passed on the students’ information.
Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, rejected criticisms that the students’ rights had been violated or that the arrests of Melhem’s family members were designed to pressure him.
“The bigger picture is that three Israelis were murdered and the priority in our ongoing investigations is to find him,” he told MEE.
On Sunday Netanyahu said he was “not impressed” by accusations that he had incited hatred with his speech. He was "making a very large effort to ensure Israel is a state under unified law,” he said.
In the wake of Netanyahu’s comments, an Israeli Facebook post of a bogus video, supposedly showing the village of Arara celebrating the Tel Aviv killings, went viral. It was later shown to be footage of celebrations in Lebanon at Ariel Sharon’s death two years ago.
Netanyahu was also among those calling for a crackdown on illegal weapons in Palestinian communities after the shootings, although Mohammed Melhem held his gun legally.
David Ansalem, head of the Israeli parliament’s interior committee, concurred: “Illegal use is made of [weapons in Palestinian communities] every day to hurt citizens of this country.” He added that police were “afraid to operate in these areas”.
His comments came as another MP, Amir Ohana, said that in response to the attack he would promote legislation to allow most Jewish civilians to arm themselves with guns.
That follows a government decision in October to ease permit rules. A report last month by the Israeli legal rights groups ACRI revealed a “meteoric rise” in gun license applications, from 200 a day to 3,000, as panic has swept Israeli Jews over the knife attacks.
Gun crime plague
Odeh, head of the Joint List, said he and other Arab leaders had been demanding proper law enforcement in Palestinian communities in Israel, including the collection of illegal guns, for years, but had been ignored.
In the Haaretz daily, commentator Jackie Khoury noted that organised crime had been allowed to grow unchecked in Palestinian communities. More than 1,100 Palestinian citizens had died at the hands of criminals in the past 15 years.
“The primary victims of these weapons are us, the Arab citizens,” Odeh said. “The prime minister has refused until now to allocate funds [for the policing of Palestinian communities]. But now, when a weapon is turned against Jews, he suddenly decides to confront the issue.”
Odeh’s comments were confirmed by Tzipi Livni, the justice minister in Netanyahu’s previous government. She said officials had ignored requests from Arab mayors for action against the growth in illegal weapons in Palestinian communities.
Farah was among those raising concerns about the connection between the criminal trade in weapons and the security services.
He said thousands of guns had been distributed by the state to Palestinian citizens serving in the Israeli military, especially in Druze and Bedouin communities, as well as those like Mohammed Melhem who volunteer with the police.
Farah said Palestinian citizens who were allowed a gun often regarded it as a reward or privilege for “collaborating” with the authorities. Some of them then helped acquire weapons for criminals.
“In the great majority of cases, the state knows who [in the Palestinian minority] has weapons and where they are to be found. For the security services, this is part of their power: if he has our gun, he is our guy.”
Farah said he was astounded that Mohammed Melham had been allowed to keep a gun at home after his son was found nearly a decade ago to have tried to steal a soldier’s weapon to avenge his cousin’s death.