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After student killed, Arabs say community caught between police and criminals

Arab Israelis have been urging increased law enforcement to fight organized crime, but an innocent bystander’s slaying in an ambush gone awry underscores why many are mistrustful

Thousands attend the funeral of 22-year-old nursing student Ahmad Hijazi near the Arab city of Tamra, northern Israel, February 2, 2021 (Sraya Diamant/Flash90
Thousands attend the funeral of 22-year-old nursing student Ahmad Hijazi near the Arab city of Tamra, northern Israel, February 2, 2021 (Sraya Diamant/Flash90

The first part of Ahmad Hejazy’s funeral procession on Tuesday night was conducted in nearly total silence, with the only sounds the call of a prayer leader and the buzzing of a police drone overhead. Around ten thousand Arab Israelis had gathered for the funeral along Route 70, in violation of coronavirus restrictions against crowds.

As the last prayers in the funeral service rang out, mourners began overturning trash cans and setting them ablaze. Others launched scattered fireworks over the crowded highway.

“There is no God but God! Martyrs are beloved of God!” protesters chanted. A smaller group of young men called out: “The police are the source of terrorism.”

The outpouring of grief underlined a seeming paradox many Arab communities are grappling with: As they are wracked by organized crime and unrelenting bloodshed, the outcry for effective policing has reached a fever pitch in recent years. But many are also wary of an increased police presence, pointing to incidents like the killing of Hejazi on Tuesday morning in his hometown of Tamra.

Nursing student Ahmad Hijazi, who was shot and killed in the crossfire between police and criminal gunmen on February 2, 2021 (Courtesy Hijazi family)

Hejazi, a 22-year-old nursing student, was shot during a gun battle between police and suspected criminals. According to police, two gunmen armed with automatic M-16 rifles were firing on a house when officers who had been lying in wait for the pair, apparently in a preplanned ambush, opened fire.

Hejazi, who had left his house when he heard shots fired, was shot and killed. A doctor — a passerby, police said — was wounded as well.

Hejazi’s death immediately ignited protests in Arab towns across the country: Arab Israelis demonstrated in Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm and Tira, in addition to Tamra, a city of some 35,000 northeast of Haifa. A mass rally has been planned for Tamra on Saturday.

Thousands attend the funeral of twenty-year-old nursing student Ahmad Hijazi near the Arab city of Tamra, northern Israel, February 2, 2021, Ahmad Hijazi killed in a shootout between Israeli police officers and criminals in Tamra. Photo by Sraya Diamant/Flash90

At the funeral, one of Hejazi’s cousins collapsed in tears by the side of the road. Two of his relatives lifted him bodily and carried him, one on each side of him, in the wake of Ahmad’s casket.

“I still don’t really believe it,” said Tamra resident Ayman Dhiab. Dhiab, a 34-year-old nurse, was a close family friend of Hijazi.

“Ahmad would come to me for advice about nursing school. I encouraged him to pursue it, telling him he could use it to build a future. He was so well-known in town, so well-loved,” Dhiab said.

Including Hejazi, 11 Arab Israelis have died under violent circumstances so far in 2021, including three killed by police gunfire. An additional six Palestinians have been killed violently inside Israel. Last year saw a record number of homicides among Arab Israelis, with 96 violent deaths, the majority of them young men killed by gunfire.

Organized crime is largely seen as the engine of the spread of violence in Arab cities and towns. Arab Israelis blame the police, who they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations.

The death of Hijazi — caught in the crossfire between police and well-armed members of the criminal underworld — reflects the tough dilemma of Arab Israelis when it comes to the spread of violence in their cities and towns.

Demonstrators protest the spread of violence and crime in Arab Israeli communities, in addition to alleged police neglect, in Umm al-Fahm on Friday, January 15, 2021 (courtesy: Yousef Jabareen)

It is not yet clear if Hejazi was killed by fire from the police or the suspects. The Justice Ministry’s internal affairs unit has opened an investigation, but details of it remain gagged by a court order. A spokesperson refused to say whether an autopsy had been performed.

While their political leadership has long demanded police intervention to crack down on the spread of weapons and organized crime, Arab Israelis are deeply mistrustful of police.

“Our streets and cities are full of police — handing out speeding tickets and fines for coronavirus violations…But it’s also clear that the police have failed in protecting Arab citizens,” said Abraham Initiatives co-executive director Thabet Abu Rass. The Abraham Initiatives, a shared society nonprofit, works extensively on police-community relations in Arab cities and towns

A generation of Arab Israelis still recalls the October 2000 events, during which police in several northern Arab cities responded with deadly force to violent protests against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians at the start of the Second Intifada.

Police shot and killed 13 people — 12 Arab Israelis and one Palestinian. The Or Commission, formed to investigate the events, found that the police had used excessive force against demonstrators. No officers were ever prosecuted, however.

“The public demands a fight against crime. But the police shooting… that led to the death of Ahmad Hijazi is unacceptable. Some of us are losing our lives because of criminals, and some because of police,” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said in a statement following the shooting.

Speaking to Channel 12 on Tuesday night, the police force’s Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi said he would visit the family, calling Hejazi “an ordinary citizen caught in the crossfire.”

But Lavi also defended the officers’ actions that night, however, saying that they had acted appropriately when faced with automatic weapons fire.

Police at the scene of a deadly shooting in the central city of Lod on December 28, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“I praise the police’s actions that night. Crossfire in an urban area is not simple… It is an extremely difficult incident. It demands courage and professionalism. There was no mistake,” Lavi said.

Former senior police chief Alik Ron, who served as commander of the Israel Police’s Northern District from 1997 to 2001, called Hijazi’s death “a horrible, tragic, terrible event.” He said it appeared that the ambush operation had been poorly planned.

“It’s a question of priorities, of where you put your resources. For an event like this, you need specially trained police. When it comes to police, there are levels, from desk jockeys to highly trained officers like Yamam,” Ron said, referring to an elite anti-terror unit. “You can’t have Yamam everywhere all the time, but it is clear that these police were not highly trained.”

Situation deteriorating quickly

In early January, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana announced that the state was committing itself to ridding Arab communities of organized crime, and vowed to fight the phenomenon with “iron fists.”

“Most Arab Israelis are law-abiding and desperate for the police’s help. There is a fierce struggle being fought against crime and organized crime,” Ohana said during a visit to Nazareth in January, alongside newly appointed police commissioner Kobi Shabtai.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana at the Coronavirus National Enforcement Administration in Tel Aviv, December 1, 2020 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Recent weeks have indeed seen numerous reports of arrests in Arab towns in an attempt to stem the tide of violence. In late January, hundreds of police officers converged on the northern Israeli city of Tur’an, arresting 145 people in a single night.

But the homicides have continued apace, with this year set to be even more deadly than last.

“The situation is deteriorating quickly, and we’re seeing a serious escalation in the sophistication of organized crime,” said Abu Rass.

“It’s clear that the police are spread thin and struggling to deal with all the problems it faces today. I don’t envy them,” Ron agreed.

On the night of Hijazi’s shooting, Tamra resident Duaa Dhiab woke in terror to the sound of gunfire. It sounded like a war zone, she said.

“In Jewish communities, we see that the police act in a far more studied and thought-out manner. They deal with matters far more conscientiously rather than allowing things to escalate. But in our poorer, Arab towns, which suffer from neglect and injustice from the state institutions, they act with recklessness,” Dhiab charged.

Police in Tamra during clashes with pro-Palestinian protesters on July 6, 2014. Gil Eliyahu/Flash90)

Many Arab Israelis saw a recent homicide in Umm al-Fahm as emblematic of the problem: Even as large numbers of police forcefully dispersed a protest against violence in one part of the city, a demonstrator returning home was shot and killed by an unknown gunman.

Abu Rass said it was likely that Hijazi’s shooting would engender still more skepticism and mistrust of the police in Arab communities.

“There have always been voices calling for the police to be expelled from our cities and towns. We hear those voices rising, demanding that there be no cooperation with the police at all,” said Abu Rass.

“But at the same time, we know deep down that the police are the only ones who can successfully defeat organized crime and crime families. There’s enormous rage and frustration,” Abu Rass said.

Arab Israelis protest rising violence, organized crime and recent killings in their communities, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northern Israel, October 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

With the situation increasingly hopeless, some have begun to hesitantly suggest what many Arab Israelis had previously seen as beyond the pale: the involvement of the Shin Bet security service.

The intelligence agency mostly operates against Palestinian terror activity over the Green Line. Its methods are invasive, ruthless, but seemingly effective in cracking down against violent terror attacks against Israeli civilians.

“Let the Shin Bet get involved. Let Satan himself get involved. I will accept any means as long as it leads to Arab citizens being able to live in safety and security,” Rahat Mayor Fayez Abu Suheiban told The Times of Israel in a phone call last week.

Former Hadash MK Mohammad Barakeh, who directs the National Arab Higher Follow-Up Committee, called the notion “infuriating.”

“What the Shin Bet does as part of the occupation, do you think Arab citizens want that done [to us]?” he said.

In recent meetings with Arab municipal heads, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to conduct a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the issue: a new economic plan, extending credit to Arab Israelis who have long suffered institutional discrimination from banks, and presenting a general plan to combat violence.

Thousands attend the funeral of Ahmad Hijazi near the city of Tamra on February 2, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Netanyahu was scheduled to present the plan to combat violence and organized in a televised event with Ohana on Wednesday night. But even before the plan was shown to the public, critics in Arab media dismissed it as a campaign stunt.

At the funeral-turned-protest in Tamra, a young boy rolled a tire into the middle of the road, with an oil-soaked rag poking out of the top. Two older men yelled over at him: “Cut it out, put that back!” Chastened, he scrambled back to the side of the highway.

“There’s a sense that we’re between a rock and a hard place,” said Duaa Dhiab. “It’s not a simple feeling. It’s a complex place to be in, and it leaves us hesitant and constantly anxious.”

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