Nashat Milhem: An aberration or the first of a new and terrible trend?

Analysis: For a wary Israel, with its fraught internal Jewish-Arab ties, establishing the precise motivation of the Tel Aviv gunman is vital

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Nashat Milhem (courtesy)
Nashat Milhem (courtesy)

Nashat Milhem is dead. But the case of the Arab Israeli gunman who murderously introduced 2016 by shooting dead three Israelis on a sunny January 1 afternoon in Tel Aviv is anything but closed.

Many aspects of the crime and the manhunt are still subject to reporting restrictions, some of which will doubtless soon be lifted. Then we may be able to learn, for instance, the precise nature of the very “personal item” recovered by police in his home village of Arara, and tested for DNA, that conclusively proved Milhem was in the area. Then we may be able to establish whether Milhem had any prior contact with Amin Shaaban, the Bedouin cab driver in whose taxi he fled central Tel Aviv and who he murdered soon after. (Unthinkable, this, hinted at in a Channel 2 TV report on Friday night, and subsequently discounted: Security sources believe Milhem murdered Shaaban because he feared he would turn him in.)

It may take longer, but we’ll need to know, too, how it was that Mohammed Milhem, Nashat’s father, was allowed to keep a sophisticated submachine gun in the family home. Nashat had served jail time for attacking a soldier with a screwdriver and trying to steal his weapon. He was described by a policeman who guarded him at the time as “filled with hatred.” A psychological report concluded that he had superpower delusions. The gun itself had previously been confiscated by police because somebody in the family had used it to threaten a local man. What, then, was that weapon doing in Mohammed Milhem’s safe at home, there to be stolen by Nashat for a murderous shooting spree?

The body of Nashat Milhem, January 8, 2015 (Courtesy)
The body of Nashat Milhem, January 8, 2015 (Courtesy)

Eventually, presumably, we’ll also have a clearer picture of the various members of the Milhem family we’ve come to know a little in recent days; angels, devils, or somewhere in between? The earnest lawyer-relative Sami; the mother wailing that the Shin Bet was threatening to demolish their homes; the sister and brothers arrested and freed, including older brother Juadat, fierce one day in court, tearful days later on his release; and of course father Mohammed, who rushed to the local police station to identify his son as the killer, publicly pleaded with him to give himself up, and was then arrested and detained as an alleged accomplice.

In an Israel whose Jewish majority is endlessly anguished by its Arab minority, and vice versa, the question of Milhem’s precise motivation looms large

But from Nashat himself, of course, there will be nothing more. Gunned down when he confronted the elite forces who had come to get him, and who had been instructed to do their utmost to take him alive, he takes his secrets to the grave.

And that’s no small problem.

For Nashat Milhem did what the would-be Israel-destroyers of Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic State et al so fervently strive to do: He brought death to the vibrant heart of modern Israel, to downtown Tel Aviv.

And what Israel needs to know — and what a living, captured Nashat Milhem, could have helped the security agencies determine more accurately — is how dramatic a milestone his January 1 shooting spree represents in our enemies’ terror war against us.

Was Nashat Milhem a mentally disturbed man, quick to anger, who should never have been free to roam the streets, as some of his relatives have suggested?

Was he a killer bent on revenge — stirred to murderous anger by a police raid on his cousin’s home almost a decade ago, in which the cousin, who was storing weaponry, was shot dead in controversial circumstances?

Was he “inspired” to murderous action by spiritual leaders or social media, peddling incitement against Israel?

Was he more formally recruited to the ranks of Islamic State or another terrorist organization? Some Hebrew media reports Friday night speculated with some specificity that he was a member of an Islamic State sleeper cell — a claim Islamic State will likely be tempted to endorse.

Or was Nashat Milhem motivated by a whole mix of these and other factors?

In an Israel whose Jewish majority is endlessly anguished by its Arab minority, and vice versa, the question of Milhem’s precise motivation looms large.

File: Memorial candles spell out the names of victims Alon Bakal and Shimon Ruimi, outside the Simta pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, on January 02. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
File: Memorial candles spell out the names of victims Alon Bakal and Shimon Ruimi, outside the Simta pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, on January 02. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Last Saturday night, at the scene of the shooting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took rhetorical aim at what he called the lawlessness and wild anti-Israel incitement in parts of the Arab community, appearing to blame that sector of the populace for the gunman’s emergence. The verbal onslaught was widely applauded on the right and denounced on the left. Days earlier, Netanyahu had announced a major program of investment to draw the Arab community closer to equality in housing, education and employment. In the wake of the shootings, it became unclear whether conditions attached to this strategic revitalization package render it irrelevant.

That lack of clarity mirrors the uncertain position and perception of the Arab Israeli community at this resonant, fragile moment. Milhem’s shooting spree has had many Israeli Jews asking themselves big questions about internal co-existence: Has Jewish Israel missed its moment to ensure the Arabs feel a sufficient sense of shared purpose? Were we too short-sighted and suspicious? Was it unrealistic to think a lasting internal peace could be maintained with a non-Zionist minority separated from Palestinian cousins by quirks of conflict and armistice mapping? Or are we reading far, far too much into one deadly incident?

Very few Arab Israelis have crossed the border to fight with Islamic State. Very few Arab Israelis have carried out or helped acts of terrorism inside Israel. Some Knesset members may spout a relentless stream of anti-Israeli rhetoric, but Arab local council leaders are largely practical people, plainly committed to making co-existence work, on behalf of a populace that is generally demonstrably appreciative of the benefits of living in a humane democracy.

A live Nashat Milhem would not have held all the answers to the questions his act of terror has prompted over the past week or so. But his death will make it that much harder to determine whether he was an aberration in the Arab-Israeli community or the start of a new trend — a one-off, or the first of many.

We know he killed three people on January 1, in a task made relatively easy by the fact that he was a full Israeli citizen with easy access to a potent weapon. What we don’t know is whether Milhem represented the start of something new and terrible, or represented nothing but his evil self?

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