Last January 1, on a Friday afternoon when Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel were transitioning into the restful Sabbath mode, a gunman on Dizengoff Street—Tel Aviv’s main thoroughfare—fired from a sidewalk into a bar and killed two young men, wounding seven other people.
The shooter, Nashat Milhem, was a 29-year-old Israeli Arab from the village of Arara in northern Israel. Just before the shooting he left his backpack in a grocery store; the backpack had a Koran in it. Just after the shooting he hailed a taxi and—under circumstances that remain unclear—killed the taxi driver, also an Israeli Arab, then abandoned the taxi, and managed to escape back to Arara on that same day.
It took Israeli security forces a week to locate and close in on Milhem in Arara on Friday, January 8. Although the hope was to take him alive and get information from him, in trying to escape from the house where he was hiding he opened fire on the security men and was shot dead.
The January 1 shooting came just two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a major, unprecedented plan to channel up to 15 billion shekels ($3.8 billion) into improving the living conditions of the Israeli Arab sector, which makes up about one-fifth of the Israeli population. The sequence of events has sparked an intense national debate in Israel about the Israeli Arabs and their future.
A survey of this sector taken in 2013 came up with some encouraging results. It found that 53 percent of the Israeli Arabs “accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish-majority state,” compared to 47 percent a year earlier, and that 63.5 percent—up from 58.5 percent—considered Israel “a good place to live.”
It also found 42.5 identifying as Israeli Arabs rather than as Palestinians—up from 32.5 percent two years earlier.
A survey reported in November 2015, however, had less cheerful tidings. It found 17 percent of the Israeli Arabs saying they support ISIS, and 57 percent saying the Israeli Islamic Movement—whose extreme northern branch was outlawed that same month—represents them.
Unlike the Palestinians in the territories, whose political status is not yet decided, the Israeli Arabs are citizens with full rights. They are not required to serve in the Israeli army, and most—apart from the small Druze Arab sector and small numbers of Christian and Bedouin Arabs—do not.
Although Israeli Arabs serve in the parliament, cabinet, and Supreme Court, and many have found professional success, their sector overall is poorer and considerably more crime-ridden than the Jewish sector.
The government’s new plan is aimed at improving their lot. It is not conditioned on matching rights with obligations—that is, on Israeli Arabs agreeing to serve in the military or even in a nonmilitary framework (known as “national service”).
But as Netanyahu put it when visiting the scene of the shooting in Tel Aviv: “Israel will enforce its laws and its sovereignty over all parts of the state [including Arab-populated ones]. We will build new police stations, recruit more police officers; we will enter every community and demand adherence to the laws of the state.”
He added that he could no longer accept a situation of “two states within Israel, a state of law for most of its citizens and a state within a state for some of its citizens in enclaves where lawlessness abounds, where there is Islamist incitement and an abundance of illegal weapons that are sometimes used to fire celebratory gunshots at events, weddings, as well as in unrelenting crime. That era is over.”
Naturally, Israelis on the left denounced Netanyahu’s words as too harsh. The Nashat Milhem affair, however, suggests that—though the prime minister was indeed painting with too broad a brush—the words had a lot of truth to them.
Nashat Milhem had already served jail time for attacking an Israeli soldier. The current assessment is that he was not part of a terror organization, but had increasingly been influenced by Islamist—possibly ISIS—ideology.
Milhem was an individual. But difficult questions arise, such as—how was he able to hide in Arara, a small, tightly-knit Arab village, for over a week? Who helped him? How many knew?
At the time of writing, seven Israeli Arabs from Arara—most or all of them relatives of Milhem—are in custody on suspicion of helping him escape, hide, or possibly plan the crime; two more—his father and a brother—have been released to house arrest.
As Alex Fishman, an Israeli commentator on security affairs, put it: “Even if he did act as a ‘lone wolf terrorist’…it’s clear that he had partners. The supply prepared for him at the safe house he hid in, only 400 meters from where he was killed, allowed him to feel secure and wrapped by a supporting environment….”
In other words, even though Milhem murdered two Israeli Jewish civilians and an Israeli Arab civilian, for some as yet undetermined number of residents of his village, loyalty to him trumped loyalty to state security.
Also at the time of writing, Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan said he was refusing to release Milhem’s body for burial until the family could ensure that “the terrorist’s funeral does not turn into a rally in support of terror and incitement to further attacks….” (Update: The family finally agreed to a small, modest funeral at which cries of “Nashat the martyr!” were heard.)
To sum up, the Israeli government is right both to crack down on the sector and to try and improve the Israeli Arabs’ lot. They are, after all, citizens, and some are loyal, others at worst passively antagonistic. Even, though, at a time when other Western countries are having trouble with Arab and Muslim populations, one can’t be optimistic that Israel will get much understanding for the difficult dilemmas it faces in dealing with this community.