Exclusive'Don't let this extremist, this murderer, win'

‘We want to live together’: Arab minister calls for unity in face of terror attacks

Meretz’s Esawi Frej, minister for regional cooperation, tells New York Jewish community members after deadly Bnei Brak attack that extremists want to derail progress in Israel

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej speaks to Jewish community representatives in New York, March 29, 2022. (Gili Getz)
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej speaks to Jewish community representatives in New York, March 29, 2022. (Gili Getz)

NEW YORK — Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej called for Jewish-Arab unity in Israel in the face of terror attacks during a meeting in New York with Jewish community representatives.

Frej, Israel’s second Arab minister and a member of the left-wing Meretz party, said he was “worried” by the recent attacks shortly after a gunman killed five Israelis in Bnei Brak, but that the “silent majority” of Jews and Arabs in Israel could counter extremism.

“The majority, we want to live together. We love life. Don’t let this extremist, this murderer, win,” he told The Times of Israel. “Arabs and Jews, we have the same interests. In order to keep Israel strong, we should go hand in hand together.”

Frej spoke at the event organized by the advocacy group New York Jewish Agenda to Jewish community representatives. He was in the US at the behest of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to meet with the Jewish community and Congress, he said.

He said extremists, such as the terrorists who killed 11 people in three attacks in Israel in the past week, were trying to derail social progress, including in Israel’s government. The governing coalition includes the Islamist Ra’am party, the first independent Arab party in an Israeli government.

“Something changed in the atmosphere of the country. This tries to stop the change,” he said of the attacks. “It’s the first time in Israel that we have a coalition with an Arab party after 73 years.

“We need time. I know that. It’s a big challenge. For us, for the majority. That’s why we should be strong, Arabs and Jews,” he said.

Shortly after the attack, Frej mourned an Arab Israeli police officer who, with his partner, caught up with the terrorist and killed him, but was shot in the exchange and later died at the hospital.

“Amir Khoury, a brave officer and Arab citizen, was killed while bravely fighting a terrorist,” Frej wrote on Twitter. “We cannot forget that all of us, Arabs and Jews, live here together, partners in our lives and our destiny. Today we are also fearful and sad together.”

An overturned vehicle lies on the road at the scene of a terror attack on March 29, 2022 in Bnei Brak, in which five people were killed. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

In Israel, Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas also condemned the attack, calling it “a despicable, vile terror crime against innocent civilians.”

“We will not stop at merely condemning, because the terror is not stopping and does not bow its head. We are determined to walk a peaceful path, despite all the extremists,” Abbas said.

They were joined by  Ayman Odeh, who heads the opposition Joint List. Odeh also condemned the attacks, while comparing the Israelis killed in Bnei Brak to Palestinians killed during clashes with Israeli forces.

“Five civilians were killed today — each a world in their own right. They join the 51 Palestinians killed since the beginning of the year — each one a world in its own right,” Odeh said.

“It is time to end the source of hatred that is the damned occupation, and to establish peace that will bring security and normal life to both peoples,” he added.

The past week’s spate of attacks has sparked fears of further violence. Police have bolstered forces in areas where there was a perceived threat and the Israel Defense Forces moved troops to the West Bank.

Israeli officials had previously expressed fears that violence could ratchet up alongside Ramadan, which begins in early April.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday that “Israel is facing a wave of murderous Arab terrorism.”

Israeli police and rescue personnel at the scene of a deadly terrorist attack in Bnei Brak, on March 29, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Bennett said strife between Israeli Arabs and Jews during last year’s war between Israel and the Hamas terror group “was a harbinger of things to come.”

“The secret of our existence is our kindness to one another and our determination to defend the home we built at all costs,” he said.

During the last so-called “terror wave,” in 2015 and 2016, Palestinians attacked Israelis almost daily, and often multiple times per day. Most of the attacks were stabbings carried out by individuals, mainly in and around Jerusalem.

The spate of terror attacks this week marked the most terror fatalities in Israel since 2006, when a suicide bus bombing killed 11 in Tel Aviv.

Dozens of locals protested at the scene of the attack in Bnei Brak chanted “Death to Arabs,” and “Revenge,” while Arabs demonstrated at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and celebrated the attack in Gaza and the West Bank. City governments announced they would shut down construction sites in order to keep Palestinian laborers away.

Palestinians celebrate in the West Bank city of Jenin after a shooting attack in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak killed five people, on March 29, 2022. (AFP)

The first two attacks over the past week, in Beersheba and Hadera, were carried out by Israeli Arabs, while Tuesday’s shooting was by a Palestinian who was in Israel illegally.

Tensions have risen between Israel and the Palestinians in recent weeks across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Ten Palestinians were killed in violent confrontations with Israeli troops: some in gun battles with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, and others during attempted attacks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a rare condemnation of Tuesday’s attack.

Frej said at the Tuesday event that his participation in the governing coalition could help integrate Israeli Arabs into mainstream society, even though it was trying for him to serve under Bennett, the head of the right-wing Yamina party, which also includes hardline Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Meretz was a moderating force in the government and prevented right-wing extremists like far-right Religious Zionism’s Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich from taking power, he said.

“It’s difficult to be under a Bennett government. It’s not easy for me to be with Ayelet Shaked,” he said.  “It’s not easy for me — imagine it. But what’s the alternative? To see Ben Gvir and Smotrich there?”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett give a press statement at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, March 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Our goal is to protect democracy,” he said, noting that Meretz had been outside the government, and the halls of power, for 20 years. “Democracy is the window, the door that I can come in. Democracy protects minorities.”

He said he was inspired to enter politics due to his grandfather’s killing in the Kfar Qasem massacre by Israeli troops in 1956, “So it won’t happen again,” he said, calling his participation in the government a “miracle.”

“It changes the mindset of the majority to see an Arab minister in the cabinet,” he said. “This change is very important for the future.”

“I’m waiting for the day my state absorbs Arab citizens. That is my dream,” he said.

Frej said he hoped Israel’s successful, diverse coalition could serve as a model for other countries as a “political startup nation.”

Frej is a firm supporter of the Abraham Accords, the series of normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries, and called on the Palestinians to get on board.

“The Palestinians should deal with this new reality and be part of this agreement. There is a wave. Be part of the wave,” he said, adding that Israel should support the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian economy.

He said a Palestinian state was necessary for long-lasting peace, and any solution needed to be a “regional solution” with the participation of Arab states, mainly to solve the problems of Palestinian refugees and the status of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Frej said Israeli Arabs were “an asset” to the state and should be “put in the front” when dealing with Arab countries, both because they shared a cultural background with those countries, and because they would become more enthusiastic about normalization agreements if they participated.

He called on US Jews to support coexistence efforts in Israel, and said he is planning a return trip to the US in the summer or fall.

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