Immediately following the New Year’s Day shooting spree in which Nashat Milhem killed two people and injured seven others in a central Tel Aviv bar and later killed a cab driver, analysts were at a loss to explain the motivation for the attack.
Hamas showed its usual glee, but did not claim responsibility. And not long after the horror in Paris, some thought Milhelm might be an agent of the Islamic State or, perhaps, a lone wolf inspired by the terror organization. But, in the fearful hours after the attack, that group didn’t claim responsibility either.
A day later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the scene of the shooting.
He placed the blame on Islamist propaganda, on gun proliferation in Arab towns, and on the Arab sector for intentionally not integrating into larger Israeli society.
However, what was absent from the prime minister’s analysis were personal details about the killer himself. Evidence would later reveal that the 29-year-old resident of Arara in northern Israel was certainly influenced by Islamist propaganda. But that same evidence revealed that Milhem was also a serious drug abuser, which experts say may have played an important factor in his actions.
And while much attention has been cast on issues of gun proliferation and Islamist propaganda in Arab towns following Milhem’s attack, the dangerous rise of substance abuse in the Arab sector has been ignored.
A dazed and confused lone wolf
At the time of his speech, Netanyahu may have known that, after fleeing to northern Tel Aviv, Milhem hung two flags from a building: a black cloth with an Arabic term for Islamic State, “Daesh,” scribbled in Arabic and in Hebrew, and the green Islamist flag of the Hamas terror group.
But the flags merely obfuscate the killer’s motivation. The nationalist Hamas and the pseudo-caliphate IS have conflicting ideologies. Presently, IS-inspired groups are challenging Hamas’s hegemony over the Gaza Strip. Flying both flags indicates that Milhem was not acting out of a coherent ideology or motivation. Moreover, the black cloth bore no resemblance to the actual IS flag, nor does IS refer to itself as Daesh but only as the Islamic State.
A few weeks after the attack in Tel Aviv, videos found on Milhem’s phone, which was ditched on a Tel Aviv sidewalk after the attack, provided some hazy insight into the mind of the killer.
Some videos showed that Milhem was clearly inspired by the rhetoric of IS: he called on the “crusader” US President Barack Obama to convert to Islam, and in a separate video he hurled a barrage of curses against “each and every Shiite.”
In a different phone video — one that indicates the influence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Milhem — he proclaims pride in his roots, and, loading a gun cartridge in his living room, says a second attack will happen soon in Tel Aviv so “the Jews will soon understand who they are dealing with.”
The one constant in Milhem’s videos is that he appears under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol while recording them. And in one video, while walking down a street taking and “pounding beer,” he happily professes that he is drunk and high on hashish as well as on “low” drugs and “high” drugs, drugs in liquid and in powder form.
Drugs versus ideology
Dr. Walid Hadad, supervisor of the Arab Sector for the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, told The Times of Israel that he believed “that drugs, more than ideology,” led to Milhem’s attack.
During his work in the field, Hadad said, he has seen many cases of men who have morphed into murderers due to the behavioral effects of drug addiction.
“A person under the influence of drugs — he doesn’t feel guilt and becomes more brutal,” said Hadad. He pointed out that not after Milhem killed two Jews during his attack on the bar on Dizengoff street, he also later killed an Arab taxi driver while fleeing the city.
There is no evidence that during the attack itself Milhem was high or drunk. A spokesperson for the Shin Bet security service told The Times of Israel that no toxicology report on the drugs in Milhem’s system was available.
However, according to the Ynet news site, the investigation into Milhem’s movements following the attack revealed that the first action he took after returning to his hometown was to buy drugs. And, while hiding out, a relative brought him more drugs.
Moreover, the killer’s former lawyer and relative, Sami Milhem, told Channel 2 news that he suffered from mental health issues and he had seen Nashat at a wedding about a month before the attack looking “stoned.”
The rehabilitation that never was
Atta Jabarin, now 57, was born into a poor Muslim family in Nazareth and began drinking alcohol at age 13 at the weddings of his Christian neighbors. By 14, he was involved with gangs, skipping school and smoking hashish. By the time he turned 16, Jabarin said, he was already a full-fledged criminal.
The native Nazarene recently spoke with The Times of Israel. He had been clean for 11 years, five months and six days. But before he sobered up and began work as a mentor for social workers in drug addiction centers in the Arab sector, Jabarin had a violent criminal history and served six years in jail for attempted murder after stabbing two people. At his lowest point, he broke his mother’s leg by pushing her out of his way as she tried to stop him from fighting someone.
Today, the recovering drug addict from Nazareth is father to six and grandfather to three. He said he owes everything he has in his life to the social workers who worked with him while he was in jail and the education he received there. He has only kind words for the police who arrested him and the judge who sent him away.
But the Israeli prison rehabilitation system that took Jabarin off his violent and criminal path never got the opportunity to work with Milhem.
Milhem went to prison for five years in 2007 after attacking an Israeli soldier with a screwdriver, reportedly in retaliation for his cousin’s death at the hands of Israeli police a year earlier. Ynet reported that he sought several times to undergo anger management therapy, but the Prison Service disregarded his requests.
The report further stated that numerous pleas by his lawyer and family that he be treated as mentally unstable were rejected by the courts, despite a judge ruling at the time that Milhem’s “behavior stems from a mental disorder.”
Jabarin, whose years of drug addiction led him to physically abuse family members, said he saw in Milhem “the behavior of an addict.”
“He was not in the place to be a shahid [martyr]. The opposite — it was against the principles of religion and God,” said Jabarin.
“This was something that was planned from the start. He thought about it and carried it out,” Jabarin said, acknowledging that the attack was not done in a moment of temporary drug-induced insanity.
“But,” he continued, “there is the fact that drugs can lead you to obsession — they can take away your humanity and you can kill without really feeling much.”
For Jabarin, like for many Arab-Israeli youths today, the downward spiral into a life of crime began with his first drink of alcohol. Despite increased efforts to stem drug use across Israel, it is increasing among Arab youth — though decreasing among Jewish youth — and clearly leading to disastrous results.
22% of Arab youths drink; half will move on to hard drugs
“When a young Jew drinks alcohol, it’s not outside of his society. But when a young Arab drinks alcohol, it’s the beginning of a criminal career,” said Hadad of the Arab Sector for the Israel Anti-Drug Authority.
A recent study by the Israel anti-Drug authority, in which over 3,000 Arab students were interviewed, reveals a disturbing trend for young Arabs to transition quickly from alcohol to harder drugs.
Despite alcohol use being religiously forbidden in 90% of the Arab sector, 22% of Arabs 12-18 years old reported having at least one alcoholic beverage over the past year. The same was true of 60% of their Jewish counterparts. But when it comes to recreational and hard drugs, Arab usage was higher.
Twelve percent of young Arabs who drink said they also had smoked hashish, while that number was only 10% in the Jewish sector. And most importantly, 9% of Arab youth who drink said they used chemically made drugs like ecstasy, while only 4.5% in the Jewish sector admitted the same. it follows that nearly half of all Arab youths who drink alcohol will end up using harder drugs.
Poverty is considered an important component of drug and alcohol abuse. But Hadad believes there are other cultural factors at play. Because there is no culture of casual drinking in the Muslim community, those who do drink are likely to binge. And, “because alcohol is taboo, it is consumed surreptitiously, out of public view in orchards or olive tree groves, often along with drugs. Once the alcohol taboo is broken, youth can easily move onto drugs.”
After crossing into the forbidden zone of drugs and alcohol prohibited by religion, family and society, according to Hadad, “you’re more likely to develop a criminal career.”
There are no specific statistics about the relation between substance abuse and crime in the Arab sector or countrywide; Hadad’s contention stems from his many years in the field.
However, a 1995 study conducted in Israel by the Efshar Association, which works to advance educational-social work, showed high correlation between alcohol abuse and violent crime. Out of the 255 people in the association’s rehabilitation centers who took part in the study, nearly half (48%) said they had been arrested for violent crimes in the past.
The current statistics in the United States are similar. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), “60% of individuals arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illegal drugs at arrest,” and “alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes in the US.”
Part of what is facilitating drug use among Arab youth, Hadad said, is the lax regulation in Arab municipalities. Unlike in Jewish municipalities where the sale of alcohol is forbidden after 11 p.m., stores in the Arab sector continue to sell through the night. Rather than having a few expensive drinks in a bar, youths may consume whole bottles in their hideouts.
Drugs like Mr. Nice Guy, a synthetic psychoactive cannabinoid that once dominated Tel Aviv’s streets, were officially banned by legislation in 2013. But according to Hadad, that drug and those like it are still available in corner shops in the Arab sector.
There has, however, been progress in combating drug abuse in the Arab sector. Five years ago, according to Hadad, there were only four coordinators for drug prevention in the Arab sector. Today that number has reached 45. He attributes this large increase to new leadership in the Arab municipalities who “understand that the struggle on the individual sphere is more important than the political sphere.”
In a statement to The Times of Israel, an Israel Police spokesperson said that special emphasis is now being given to the corner shops where illegal drugs are sold.
The IS drug
The drug Captagon, which has recently been making headlines as the “IS drug” after it was discovered that the terror group’s soldiers have been using the amphetamine to reduce hunger while increasing energy and brutality, is migrating from Syria into Jordan through the West Bank and into Israel.
There is no estimate as to the quantity of Captagon in Israel. But Hadad said he has personally witnessed its spread. In a recent report on the drug in Israel from the Mako news site, the Israel Police said that last year, five or six couriers were stopped with 1,000-1,200 pills apiece.
Despite the flashy headlines about Captagon as the IS drug, Matthew Levitt, an expert on narco-terrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes the drug’s appearance in Israel is unlikely to be the outcome of any greater IS strategy.
“I think the rise cannot be arbitrarily attributed to terrorist groups. Wars create illicit markets, and this one includes Captagon (both real and fake). It’s not clear this is a strategy by a Syria-based terror group; it could just as easily be criminal networks flourishing in the illicit space created by war,” he said.
There is no evidence that Milhem or that any other terrorists who have carried out attacks against Israelis recently used Captagon. The drug was, however, found in the body of the Islamist Tunisian shooter, Seifedinne Rezgui, who gunned down 38 people in a resort in Tunisia last year. And the killer who carried out the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014, Mohamed Merah, had also taken Captagon.
The Israel Police say that combating drug trafficking is one of their primary activities. But according to their spokesperson, the rapid production of new substances that are not punishable by law is impeding their work.
Dealers and users of Captagon will not face any punishment within Israel: it is not considered a drug but only a “dangerous material” under Israeli law, which means it can only be confiscated.
The law that categorizes which substances as “drugs” whose sale or usage is punishable dates back to the British Mandate. And therefore, according to Hadad, there will have to be a lot of bureaucratic hurdles cleared before the IS drug becomes an illegal “drug” in Israel.
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