Israeli Arab’s bomb deadly to Jewish-Arab relations


JERUSALEM, Sept. 11 (JTA) — Depressed but determined after nearly a year of violent conflict with the Palestinians, Israelis this week suffered a new trauma: A suicide bomber who took three innocent lives at a provincial railway station on Sunday was a fellow citizen.

Mohammed Shaker Habeishi, who was born in Acre and lived for years in the Galilee village of Abu Snan, was no Palestinian refugee from the West Bank or Gaza Strip, seething with resentment against the Jewish state for driving his family out.

Instead, Habeishi was a lifelong citizen of Israel, a well-to-do, middle-aged merchant with three wives and six children, who barely a year ago had run for mayor of his bustling Druse-Muslim village.

On Sunday morning, he blew himself up outside the train station in Nahariya, a small city along Israel’s northern coast. His random victims were three travelers from Jerusalem — an artist, an architect and a soldier who planned to be a musician. At least 80 more people were wounded.

Compounding the shock that swept the country was television footage released by Hamas that showed Habeishi, before the attack, coldly explaining his intention to commit a “religious” self-sacrifice.

The images, filmed against a background of green and white religious slogans and with the hero wearing a green and white headband, were identical to many shown before. Only this time the suicide murderer was not some half-crazed stripling, but a man who grew to maturity within Israeli society.

Habeishi was active in Israel’s Islamic Movement, a religious and political movement that has grown enormously in popularity and political power in the Arab sector in recent years.

The leader of its northern, more radical wing, Sheikh Ra’id Salah, was among the Israeli Arab religious and political figures who immediately condemned the Nahariya bombing. We act within the rules of Israeli law and Israeli democracy, Salah’s spokesman declared.

Arab members of Knesset, often accused of siding with the Palestinians in the current struggle, also spoke out against the wanton killing of innocents.

They insisted that the killer was “a wild weed” in Israel’s Arab community, and warned against attempts by the Jewish majority to tar Israel’s 1 million-plus Arab community with the brush of betrayal.

All these condemnations were duly reported in the media. But so were comments by kids on the streets of Arab towns and villages to the effect that Habeishi was a “shaheed,” a religious martyr who would go to heaven.

On Tuesday, Knesset Member Abdel Malek Dahamshe, the most prominent Islamicist in the House, pointedly refused to deny in a radio interview that the Nahariya bomber was a martyr. That was for the religious authorities to rule upon, Dahamshe insisted, while rehearsing his condemnation of the bombing itself and the taking of innocent lives.

Habeishi’s action inevitably reminded Israeli Jews of the dreadful week that began on Rosh Hashana a year ago, when Arab rioters in the Galilee blocked main highways, attacked Jewish motorists and seemed briefly to augur a full-fledged mass rebellion.

Badly trained and ill-deployed police units sometimes used live ammunition to combat the flying stones and burning fires, and 13 Arab citizens died.

Throughout that week, the nascent Palestinian intifada raged through the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pitting Palestinian rioters against the Israeli army. But it is the explosion of violence inside Israel proper, with its terrifying potential, that Israelis remember to this day.

The government set up a commission of inquiry under Supreme Court Justice Theodor Orr to examine the events of that week. Its hearings still continue in an emotion-filled courtroom in Jerusalem, with witnesses giving their evidence behind thick glass after Arabs in the audience several times attacked testifying policemen.

Many Israeli Jews and Arabs shared the hope that the commission of inquiry would provide a cathartic outlet for the bitterness and anger and help the two communities rebuild their fractured coexistence.

The bombing in Nahariya has dealt a blow to those hopes, reawakening on the Jewish side the fear, trepidation and suspicion unleashed by last year’s violence. Moreover, the long year of Palestinian violence, with its constant escalation and growing casualty toll, has provided fertile ground for such fears and suspicions to take root.

On the one hand, the intifada has galvanized Israeli Jews’ sense of unity and resilience, as war situations often do. This is reflected in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s sky-high approval ratings in opinion polls as he grapples with the military, moral and political exigencies of the intifada.

But the unity and the resilience do not create confidence. On the contrary, a mood of gloom is spreading through the nation.

This, too, can be discerned in the polls, which show that the same respondents who approve of Sharon’s performance do not believe he has a policy to end the strife.

Adding to the pessimism is the fact that those who do not approve of Sharon do not, in the main, believe that their political leaders have better solutions.

The year of intifada has produced several cases of proven or suspected terror collaboration between Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza and Israeli Arabs.

Until this week, however, Israeli Jews largely felt that the distinction between the Arab communities on the two sides of the Green Line, as Israel’s border with the West Bank is known, broadly had held.

After Habeishi’s action, and given Habeishi’s background, that distinction becomes harder to maintain.

On Monday, the Israeli daily Yediot Acharonot published a photograph showing the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, dining with his wife and several senior officers at the home of the army’s newest general, Yussuf Mishlav.

Mishlav is the IDF’s first Druse general. His home is in Abu Snan — not far from the Habeishi family.

Recommended from JTA