Why Israel’s Arab citizens are the biggest proponents of gun control

In places like Umm al-Fahm, Taibe and Tira, residents say the shooting never stops and police ignored pleas to collect illegal weapons. Then came the Dizengoff Street shooting

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Joint (Arab) List MK Ahmad Tibi, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset session, February 13, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Joint (Arab) List MK Ahmad Tibi, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset session, February 13, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Mahamed Jomana, a young mother of two from the Israeli-Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, remembers the day her best friend was murdered.

“It was 2005. Amal and I were both university students. She was studying social work at the Hebrew University and I was studying physiotherapy in Tel Aviv. She was gifted and adorable.”

Jomana relates that Amal was standing on the street in Umm al-Fahm when a car drove by slowly. “I think they were trying to shoot a girl standing behind her, but they missed, and the bullet went straight into her heart. She died an hour later.”

Jomana adds, “I was devastated. Her family was devastated. We never found out who did it.”

Residents say this was among the first shooting incidents they recall in Umm al-Fahm, a town of about 50,000 residents in Israel’s north. But since then, there have been at least 10 murders involving guns — most of them never solved. In fact, firearms have become so widespread in the past decade that Jomana hears gunshots and bursts of automatic gunfire periodically throughout the day. Her parents and neighbors have found bullets in their homes, in their backyards, and on their rooftops. A month ago, someone shot at a car parked next to an elementary school while classes were in session.

“Just now I was outside hanging laundry, when I heard about 15 minutes of gunfire, so I went inside until it stopped.”

Umm El-Fahm, December 31, 2011. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Umm al-Fahm, December 31, 2011 (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

For Israel’s Arab citizens, those who don’t live in predominantly Jewish or mixed Jewish-Arab cities, this kind of shooting is a daily reality. Most of the time it is shooting in the air at a wedding, or young men showing off, or even shooting at an adversary’s house or business to intimidate them. But with so many weapons around, the bullets often claim human victims.

“Since 2000, 1,100 Arab citizens have been killed in internal violence,” Joint (Arab) List Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi tells The Times of Israel.

To put this in perspective, Israel’s intentional homicide rate is on the low side, at about 135 murders per year — or 1.8 murders per 100,000 people. Arab citizens constitute 20 percent of the population.

“This is a terrible price in blood,” Tibi says.

Netanyahu speaks about illegal weapons

Oמ Wednesday, January 6, the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee held an emergency session on the problem of illegal weapons in general and specifically in the Arab sector. On Saturday, the day after the January 1 fatal shooting attack on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street and subsequent murder of a cab driver — allegedly by Nashat Milhem, an Arab citizen of Israel who used his father’s gun — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the site of the attack and delivered a strongly worded message to Israel’s Arab minority.

“I will not accept two nations within Israel: a lawful nation for all its citizens and a [second] nation-within-a-nation for some of its citizens, in pockets of lawlessness. You can’t say, ‘I am Israeli in my rights and Palestinian in my obligations.’ If you want to be Israeli, be completely Israeli and your foremost obligation is to follow the laws of the state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to press after lighting a candle outside a pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, January 02, 2016, a day after two people were killed in a shooting at the bar. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press after lighting a candle outside a pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, January 2, 2016, a day after two people were killed in a shooting at the bar. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

MK Ahmad Tibi says he was flabbergasted by Netanyahu’s speech, in part because Arab leaders have been pleading with the government, for at least a decade, to increase policing and to confiscate illegal weapons.

“After all the Arab leaders, the family and the local council condemned the attack on Dizengoff Street in a sweeping, unequivocal way, Benjamin Netanyahu comes along and speaks as if he were [Jewish Home Knesset Member] Bezalel Smotrich. It’s incitement.”

Tibi adds, “The weapon used by the attacker was legal, it was licensed. So why did the prime minister start attacking us over illegal weapons? He went off the rails.”

“From my point of view,” says Tibi, “take the legal weapons too. We don’t want them in our communities. I held a hearing in the Knesset in 2012 in the presence of the prime minister, the interior security minister, bereaved families and 40 Knesset members. It was a historic event. We demanded that they collect the weapons.”

Tibi asks why Jews had to be killed to draw attention to the issue.

“The government and law enforcement don’t care, because it’s Arabs shooting other Arabs. When did they wake up? When this terrible attack took place on Dizengoff Street.”

Calling the police and getting no response

According to a July 2014 report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, Israeli Arabs constitute about 20 percent of the population, but 49% of prison inmates. And 54.3% of Israeli Arabs live under the poverty line, whereas 65.8% of Israeli Arab children are poor.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Arab citizens are more afraid to leave their homes than are their Jewish counterparts: 51.9% of Israeli Arabs say they fear being the target of violent crime, whereas only 30% of the Jewish population says this. Murders in Israeli Arab communities are less likely to be prosecuted. Between 2006–2013, 58% of murder cases in which the suspect was a Jew resulted in an indictment, whereas only 46% of the cases in which the suspect was Arab, ended in an indictment, according to the Knesset report.

It is statistics like these that jibe with the subjective feeling of many Israeli Arabs that when it comes to violence within their communities, the police don’t try very hard.

Muhammad Haj Daod, a theater actor from Umm al-Fahm who is married to Mahamed Jomana, said that he and his wife call the police about shooting on a regular basis. He sent The Times of Israel 10 recorded conversations with police dispatchers in which he complains about gunfire, which can sometimes be heard loudly in the recording. In each case, the dispatcher politely tells him that the complaint is being processed. But Daod says he has never once seen a patrol car in response to any of his complaints.

“Almost every day I hear shooting and the police never come. I don’t think it would be that hard for the police to come in and clean the city of illegal weapons and drugs. Maybe it’s in their interest for this to spread and grow.”

Daod says it’s gotten so bad that even high school students walk around with weapons.

 Illegal firearms seized by Israeli police in an operation entitled "‘Operation Law and Order", seen on display at the Police Southern District. April 10, 2014. Photo by FLASH90
Illegal firearms seized by the Israeli Police in an operation entitled ‘Operation Law and Order,’ seen on display at the Police Southern District, April 10, 2014. (Flash90)

“It’s very strange because the source of the weapons can only be the state. The state is the only player that can import weapons into Israel. So how do the weapons get to people? I think people in the government, police and army must be corrupt and involved in selling illegal weapons.”

“That’s nonsense,” a former Shin Bet officer says, noting that most illegal weapons are former legal weapons that were sold or stolen.

“There are crime organizations that sell weapons, there are thefts from houses and from people with gun licenses. There are soldiers whose guns are stolen, as well as army bases that have been robbed.”

In Wednesday’s Knesset Committee meeting, Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan did say that 90% of illegal weapons in Israel originate in the Israel Defense Forces. But there is no systemic corruption, says the ex-Shin Bet officer. He says the real reason that the police have not cracked down on illegal weapons among Israeli Arabs is that it’s not easy to do.

“You need intelligence to know who has weapons in their home. You need to know it’s there and then someone has to look for it, because the person who has it doesn’t keep it in their living room.”

He adds, “What happens is that the police, when they go into an Arab village or town, need a much bigger force than when they go into a Jewish town. It’s very easy to blame the police and say that the illegal weapons in the Arab sector are because of them. But the problem has existed since the establishment of the state. A lot of Israeli Arabs want to have weapons for self-defense. Others want them for celebrations and weddings. Others want them for status, or for criminal activity. Each person has their own reason. But because the level of crime and violence is so high, as a result, even more people arm themselves.”

Why now?

Asked what has changed in the last decade to make the problem worse, Jomana speculates, “Either it’s a policy or it’s what’s happening in the whole world, with technology and kids growing up with violent video games and things. When we were growing up, the world was simpler.”

“In the past,” says Daod, “people would get into disputes and it would end with a sulha. People met and made peace. It never got to the point of weapons except for one incident of shooting that everyone remembers from the 1980s. Since we got the police station in Umm al-Fahm, we see the weapons and drugs spreading throughout the city.

“How do I explain it?” he asks. “In the past, families were organized in hamulas. Each hamula [clan] has its leader and he is the one who decides. It was easier to resolve disputes because there weren’t a lot of different people involved in the decision. The decision was up to the head of the entire family. Today, these leaders don’t exist anymore. Today, everyone does whatever they feel like.”

Waseem Hosary (Courtesy)
Waseem Hosary (Courtesy)

Waseem Hosary, a lawyer in Umm al-Fahm and parliamentary aide to Joint (Arab) List Member of Knesset Youssef Jabareen, agrees that the breakdown of traditional communal structures could be a factor, but he thinks the main issue is lack of police enforcement.

“These changes are happening in all of society, but the difference is that among the Jewish majority there’s enforcement and police presence. Crime is also on the rise in Israeli society. But our community has seen a huge spike. The thin presence of law enforcement and the light punishments against people who carry illegal weapons are an opportunity for people to run riot in the streets.”

But there’s something else that happened 15 years ago that Hosary believes affects the relationship between Arab citizens and the police.

A problem of trust

In October 2000, Israeli police killed 12 Israeli Arab citizens in riots at the beginning of the Second Intifada. Soon afterward, the president of Israel’s Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, established the Orr Commission to investigate what went wrong. The commission recommended that the police improve its relationship with the Arab public so that it can be perceived as providing essential security instead of being seen as a hostile force.

“It’s true, the way you [a Jewish person] view the police and the way we perceive the police is different,” says Hosary.

Hosary goes on that when people in Umm al-Fahm call the police, the police don’t come most of the time. But sometimes they do.

“If I hear shooting in my neighborhood and they come, they don’t know where it’s coming from. What can they do? They wander around the neighborhood and go back. There have been incidents where someone called the police and said there is shooting on the street and he gives them the license-plate number and tells them where the people are, but nothing happens.

“When you ask the police chief what happened, he says there was a patrol car and they looked and didn’t find anything,” Hosary adds. He says there is a single patrol car in Umm al-Fahm that patrols at night, and a second car at the station. He adds that the local police commanders are so understaffed that they have been known to quietly ask Arab Knesset members to pressure the government for more manpower.

The relationship of Arab citizens with the police, says Hosary, is a catch-22.

“The whole concept that the police are Jewish or that they serve the Jewish Zionist government that wants a Jewish state, which we reject, that’s problematic for us. But people don’t want to take the law into their own hands, and we do want the police to come in and confiscate all the weapons.”

Ideally, he’d like to see a patrol car in every neighborhood of Umm al-Fahm.

“Two years ago, we had a problem of shooting at weddings — there’s a custom of people expressing joy with shooting. What did the police start to do? They would call in the groom and his father and warn them the day before the event. They said, ‘If there is shooting at your wedding, we will arrest you.’ It was welcome and a good idea and it worked, because the groom and his family made sure there was no shooting.

“But as a matter of fact, from a legal point of view,” explains Hosary, “if there is shooting, there is no justification for arresting the groom. And people continue to shoot at weddings.”

Asked if he would like to see a police car outside every wedding in Umm al-Fahm, Hosary replies, “Here’s what I’d like: I’d like the police to treat us just like Jews.”

He chuckles at his own statement. “At least in this matter,” he adds. “The weapons in Umm al-Fahm should be treated exactly the same way they would treat weapons in Tel Aviv.”

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