Arara, Israel — I’m driving through the Arab villages of northern Israel, headed to the hometown of the gunman who is terrorizing Tel Aviv. One village away from my destination of Arara, I see a charred billboard. It’s a poster placed by an Arabic website, championing Jewish-Arab coexistence — and attacked by arsonists.
Is this the region of the people who placed the poster, or the people who burned it? Is it defined more by the fact that just before I pass the billboard I see the only Jewish-Arab school in the country that’s based in an Arab village, and that about 30 of the students come from the suspected gunman’s town — or the fact that I also pass a junction where young Arabs rioted a few months ago?
Israelis who listened to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction last Saturday, the day after Nashat Melhem reportedly killed three people — two Jewish Israelis and an Arab Israeli — came away with a very clear idea of what it’s like around here. After learning that the alleged killer hailed from Arara, the prime minister stood at the murder scene along Dizengoff Street and decried the existence of “enclaves in which there is no law enforcement and in which there is Islamist incitement, rampant crime and illegal weapons.”
Netanyahu said some other things, but what got widely reported were these comments — his declaration that he’s “not prepared to accept two States of Israel, a state of law for most of its citizens and a state within a state for some of them,” and that “one cannot say ‘I am an Israeli in rights and a Palestinian in obligations.’”
As the nation was gripped by the story of the attack this week, with Melhem still on the run, Tel Aviv still on alert, and the families of bar manager Alon Bakal, 26, 30-year-old Shimon Ruimi, a civilian employee of the IDF, and 42-year-old cab driver Amin Shaaban mourning their loved ones, Netanyahu stood by his comments.
In Arara, a town of about 25,000, on Monday, Orwa Natour, 26, was incredulous. “I take it personally,” he said. As far as he’s concerned, the stigma brought to his town by the murderer is bad enough, but Netanyahu’s comments portray it as the kind of wild place that it isn’t.
Defying the stereotype of life in a lawless enclave, Natour works as a physical therapist in the nearby Jewish town of Pardes Hanna — but said that he’s afraid he’ll be discriminated against if he decides to change jobs. He fears that the combination of what happened and Netanyahu’s reaction will make Jewish employers suspicious of Arara residents. “It affects me and affects all the people around me,” he said.
Netanyahu didn’t define the scope of his comments, but they have been widely understood as referring to much of Israel’s Arab sector. In this way, they echoed his claim in last year’s election that Arabs were “heading to the polling stations in droves,” a comment aimed at galvanizing his hardline base.
This time around, the leader of the political opposition, Isaac Herzog, went so far as to suggest that he is inciting anger toward all Arabs. “Israel does not have a prime minister,” Herzog said. “If Israel had a prime minister, he would not incite against one-fifth of Israel’s citizens and make them into outlaws.”
But the airtime he received for his comments pleased many on the right, who fear Arab areas and view Israel’s Arab minority as a fifth column.
The veteran rightist journalist Caroline Glick wrote that Netanyahu had given “one of the most significant speeches of his career.” In the speech he announced a plan to strengthen law enforcement in Arab areas — and since then an Israeli TV report has claimed that he wants to hinge a new $4 billion aid package for Arab areas on acceptance of this plan. Netanyahu’s office denied this report.
In Arara this week, people mostly weren’t thinking ahead to long-term aid packages, but rather about how to process the news and maintain their town’s reputation.
“This is very sad for us, because we live here with Jewish people and are friends with them,” Melhem’s middle school teacher, Abed Said, told me, professing shock at his former pupil’s “big mistake.”
He remembers Melhem as a “chaotic” child who didn’t want to learn and who worried his father, but not as a potential terrorist. He was still absorbing what happened.
Ali Halil, a baker in his 30s, talking as he packed pita bread for sale, echoed similar sentiments. “It hurts,” he said. “Murder is murder — it doesn’t matter if it’s a Jew or an Arab.” As he spoke, recounting how he learned about the local connection to the attack while he was watching Hebrew-language television, a driver from one of the big Israeli food conglomerates delivered kosher meat products to a neighboring store.
There is antagonism to the state and the government to be found around here, and the hardline Islamic Movement has a small following. There’s complexity in the politics and the identity of Arab populations everywhere in Israel — this place is no exception — and there are also likely to be residents who feel more ambivalent about the attack than they would like to say. But here suburban middle-class values tend to win out, and Natour, the physical therapist, is far from alone in spending his day-to-day life in cordial contact with Jewish Israelis.
Azab Atef, a 55-year-old lifeguard who works at a nearby kibbutz called the attack “catastrophic” and said that he fears what the neighboring Jewish communities are thinking. As we walked through Arara, he pointed ahead of him toward nearby Jewish towns. “Katzir, Harish,” he said, ticking off the towns. “We’re neighbors; we live together. This is not good for us.”
Then he adds: “Now I say to Jewish people that I’m from Arara and they say: ‘Ooh, that place is crazy.’”
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.