After Tel Aviv shooter killed, difficult questions for police and Israeli Arabs
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Analysis

After Tel Aviv shooter killed, difficult questions for police and Israeli Arabs

Although Nashat Milhem was eventually ferreted out, his case highlights failures of law enforcement and political discourse

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Israeli security forces blocking a road in the Israeli Arab village of Arara, northern Israel on January 8, 2016, as Nashat Milhem is tracked down. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Israeli security forces blocking a road in the Israeli Arab village of Arara, northern Israel on January 8, 2016, as Nashat Milhem is tracked down. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The killing of Nashat Milhem Friday, a week after he shot dead three people in Tel Aviv, won’t be remembered as much of a success for the security establishment.

On the tactical level, more than a few problems came to light concerning the attack. The first has to do with intelligence. While it’s certainly possible that the killer acted alone, using a submachine gun he stole from his father, it’s hard to comprehend why the father would keep such a weapon in the house even after his son served a five-year sentence for trying to snatch a rifle from a soldier.

Furthermore, despite the fact that security forces knew that Milhem was in the area of his hometown of Arara – there were clear indications that he was there hours after the shooting – it took a long time to get to him. The fact that he was hiding out in a more-or-less obvious place – an unoccupied house belonging to a family member – compounds the sense of failure.

The episode is reminiscent of the 2014 abduction-killing of three Israeli teens. In that case, the victims were buried in a plot belonging to the family of one of the terrorists, who hid in a building belonging to an extended family member. The takeaway – that fugitives often seek shelter in places that they know well – makes the fact it took eight days to get to Milhem even puzzling.

Nashat Milhem, the Arab Israeli man who carried out the shooting attack in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016. (Israel Police)
Nashat Milhem, the Arab Israeli man who carried out the shooting attack in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016. (Israel Police)

Still, on a more strategic level, it is important to note that even if Milhem’s shooting spree really was a “lone wolf” attack (at this point, it is not at all clear that that was the case), the excellent intelligence deployment of the Shin Bet security services in the Palestinian territories and among Israeli Arabs doesn’t make it easy to deal with the problem.

There is a genuine difficulty among the intelligence community in countering the impossible challenge of “lone wolves” with access to weapons, who set out one fine day, without any prior warning, to carry out an attack.

The Shin Bet has had multiple successes in recent weeks thwarting organized terror cells sporting multiple members. The problem is that these days, there is an ever-growing mass of incidents – especially in the West Bank, where they are a daily occurrence – involving attackers who don’t rely on what the security establishment terms “terror infrastructure.”

And then there’s the attitude of the Israel Police, which last week gave many citizens the sense that it was downplaying their genuine fears amid ongoing uncertainty and reports that Milhem could strike again.

But perhaps even more troubling than the security establishment’s dubious ability to cope with the situation was support for the attack among Israel’s Arab population. True, there were many condemnations, even among Milhem’s own neighbors. And yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the killer may have received help not only from his own family, but also from other friends and acquaintances. For one thing, we still don’t know who helped him get to Arara from Tel Aviv after carrying out the attack.

And of course, after he was killed by security forces, there was that – albeit small – demonstration during which young Arabs chanted, “With blood, with fire, we’ll avenge the martyr.” Milhem, we must recall, had murdered not only two Jews, Alon Bakal and Shimon Ruimi, but also an Arab resident of Lod, Ayman Shaaban.

Police officers stand outside a bar on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, on January 2, 2016, a day after two people were killed in a shooting there. Visible in the image is the adjacent Anise health foods store, where the shooter abandoned his backpack as he launched his attack. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Police officers stand outside a bar on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, on January 2, 2016, a day after two people were killed in a shooting there. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hamas, as expected, jumped on the bandwagon and embraced the murderer as a role model, while the Palestinian Authority equivocated, calling him a “martyr” but refusing to award him the status that would entitle his family to financial aid. Meanwhile, the ultra-radical Islamic State group appeared to scramble to declare that Milhem was one of its own, crowning Milhem an IS martyr for Palestine in a statement whose authenticity has yet to be established.

Finally, the big question that everyone here – Jews and Arabs alike – should be losing sleep over is whether Milhem’s action will sweep up and inspire others, sparking a trend among young Israeli Arabs. If, heaven forbid, a similar incident were to occur again, the already delicate relations between Jews and Arabs could sustain a heavy blow, and everyone will pay a price.

Almost as expected in times like these, the voice of the Israeli Arab leadership is not being heard very loudly. Members of Knesset known for their vehement condemnations when Palestinians are accidentally killed by IDF soldiers, go silent when an Arab is murdered by another Arab.

True, some of them condemned the Tel Aviv attacks. But since the slaying of Milhem, not one of them has stood in front of the cameras and called on his or her supporters to denounce the likes of Milhem. For them, to condemn the death of an Arab at the hands of another Arab would simply be bad politics.

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