Manhunt In Israel Bares Tensions Between Jewish And Arab Citizens

Israeli authorities shot and killed a wanted gunman but opened a gulf of distrust in the process.

Israeli security forces on Friday killed Nashat Melhem, the suspect in the Tel Aviv New Year’s Day shooting that killed three, in a shootout near his hometown of Arara in Northern Israel. But while Melhem's death marked the end of a weeklong manhunt that had gripped Israel with anxiety, some say the events leading up to it aggravated a growing rift between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens. The authorities' handling of the incidents may also serve to widen the gap between the conservative Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Obama administration, which has already been critical of Netanyahu's remarks about Israel's Palestinian citizens.

Although Israel is widely criticized for its occupation of Palestinian territories conquered in 1967, it often points to the citizenship of Palestinians inside Israel as evidence of its commitment to democracy, particularly relative to neighboring Arab states. But events in the past week could threaten that image.

Nashat Melhem, the suspect in the Tel Aviv shooting, was a Palestinian citizen of Israel, unlike most other Palestinian assailants implicated in a wave of attacks against Israelis since October. These Palestinian citizens make up about 20 percent of the country’s population. But while they enjoy the right to vote in parliamentary elections and hold public office, they have long complained that they are second-class citizens and suffer from discriminatory policies.

The Israeli government’s response to the deadly shooting in Tel Aviv, as well as the ejection of Palestinian citizens of Israel from an airplane at the behest of Jewish Israelis, reinforced the perception of systemic discrimination against Arabs inside the state.

Muhammad Melhem, the suspect’s father, works in security and had tipped authorities off after realizing that one of his guns was missing and recognizing his son’s face in video footage of the shooter. 

As one analyst pointed out, Melhem's father was more apologetic about his son's alleged crime than the parents of one of the unnamed Jewish Israeli suspects arrested in connection with the July arson murder of the Palestinian West Bank family, the Dawabshehs.

That did not stop Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from insinuating that the shooting was reflective of a culture of lawlessness among Israel’s Palestinian communities.

"I will not accept two states within Israel," Netanyahu said at the scene of the shooting last Saturday. In Palestinian communities, he said, "there are enclaves without law enforcement, with Islamist propaganda, with plenty of weapons often fired during wedding celebrations, with constant crime." 

Members of the Joint List, a coalition of Palestinian-dominated political parties in the Israeli Knesset, condemned the Tel Aviv attack without reservation. But Ayman Odeh, the coalition's chairman, also argued that Netanyahu's remarks instigated resentment against Palestinian citizens. 

“I listened to the comments of Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] and I saw a human being that just incites,” Odeh said.

Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List coalition of Palestinian parties in the Israeli Knesset, condemned Israeli Prime
Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List coalition of Palestinian parties in the Israeli Knesset, condemned Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's reaction to a shooting in Tel Aviv.

The following day, Palestinian citizens, including students at Tel Aviv University, reported instances of Israeli police raiding their homes without search warrants or identification -- and often quite aggressively. None of them had any direct connection to the suspect, but they, like Melhem, were Palestinian.

Then, Monday evening, Netanyahu appeared to reverse course on a government aid package for Palestinians in Israel. The heart of the plan, passed just two days before the Tel Aviv shooting, is the allocation of $2.5 billion in economic aid. Netanyahu announced that two of his cabinet ministers would be overseeing the five-year plan to ensure that recipients complied with conditions for receiving the aid. 

One of those ministers told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the aid had been conditional on beefing up police presence and enforcing housing laws from the get-go and that Netanyahu’s gesture was aimed only at furthering that goal.

But Palestinian parliamentarians and human rights advocates cried foul, accusing Netanyahu of stealthily attempting to walk back the aid in retaliation for the shooting.

Tom Mehager, a spokesman for Adalah, the Haifa-based legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, noted that the aid package was billed as an initiative to restore equality, something to which all citizens are entitled. He also said the police raids during the manhunt reflected widespread racial profiling of Palestinian citizens.

“Netanyahu thinks of equality as conditional, not as an intrinsic right of citizens, and that Arabs are always suspect,” Mehager said. “They always look at them as suspects.”

Netanyahu thinks of equality as conditional, not as an intrinsic right of citizens, and that Arabs are always suspect. Tom Mehager, Adalah

Netanyahu’s record does not inspire confidence in activists. The day of the Israeli elections, he tried to drive turnout among his conservative base by warning that Arabs were coming to the polls in “droves.” The White House was so angry at Netanyahu's remarks that it refused to back away from its criticism even after Netanyahu publicly apologized to Palestinian Israeli leaders.

On Dec. 31, Netanyahu's education ministry also refused to include a book about an Israeli-Palestinian love affair in school curricula, apparently out of fear that it would encourage intermarriage.

Mehager, of Adalah, said anti-Palestinian incidents have become more common in recent years with the rise of reactionary politicians like former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who publicly questioned Palestinian citizens' loyalty to Israel and argued that they should be required to sign a loyalty oath.

“The situation has deteriorated,” Mehager said. “The whole idea of citizenship is that it is not something you can take from someone. In Israel, the legitimate discourse, particularly after Lieberman, is that the citizenship of Palestinians living in Israel is at the discretion or whim of the Israeli government.”

Reports of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel in the past week have not been limited to the government. Two Palestinian Israelis were removed from an Aegean Airlines flight to Greece on Monday night -- having already passed through Israel’s airport security -- when Jewish passengers insisted they were a security threat and needed to be expelled. The complaining passengers stood up in the aisles, creating enough of a fuss to prevent the airplane from taking off.

“Imagine what it’s like to be an Arab citizen in Israel today -- only dread and despair,” Gideon Levy, a famously provocative progressive columnist for Haaretz, wrote in response to the week’s events. “You live in your country on probation. No authority will help you.”

“Perhaps soon we’ll have flights for Jews only,” Levy mused darkly.

Ayelet Shaked, Israel's Justice Minister, seen here speaking on the Knesset floor, has introduced a controversial bill that w
Ayelet Shaked, Israel's Justice Minister, seen here speaking on the Knesset floor, has introduced a controversial bill that would require greater regulation of foreign-funded NGOs.

Meanwhile, the ability of Adalah and other groups to monitor discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is about to be challenged. 

Israel’s Knesset will soon vote on a bill requiring NGOs, like Adalah, that receive more than half of their funding from foreign entities to disclose their funding details in all their material. Their representatives would also be required to wear special tags when appearing in the Knesset. While the new regulations would not explicitly restrict their activities, the groups, and even many Israeli lawmakers who disagree with their work, believe it would expose them to unnecessary scrutiny and discrimination.

The bill’s opponents argue that it unfairly targets progressive nonprofits advocating for Palestinian human rights inside Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories. The U.S. State Department has said that it has expressed its concerns about the bill to the Israeli government.

European officials have also openly condemned the bill, with a pro-Israel German lawmaker comparing it to similar legislation in Russia that has had a chilling effect on human rights advocacy.

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