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After Shfaram Attack, Israeli Arabs Work to Keep Situation Under Control

August 10, 2005
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Shortly after the recent attack on Israeli Arabs by a Jewish terrorist in Shfaram, all hell threatened to break loose. But unlike the situation in October 2000, when Israeli Arabs rioted in solidarity with the nascent Palestinian intifada — and paid the price by alienating the country’s Jewish majority and ruining the Arab sector’s economy — in this case the time bomb was put on hold.

Shortly after the Aug. 4 attack, Israel Police switched to its highest state of alert, concerned that heated emotions in Shfaram would spread across Galilee.

The potential for an explosion was there: Radical Islamists declared at Friday prayers that they would avenge the attack through renewed terrorism inside Israel. Sheik Ra’ed Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel — who only recently was released from prison on charges of aiding Hamas — rushed to Shfaram and called for a massive demonstration in Jerusalem.

Salah linked the attack to alleged threats by Jewish zealots against Muslim shrines on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Abed Inbatawi, spokesman for the National Follow-Up Committee, the unofficial leadership of Israel’s Arabs, told reporters that Israeli Arabs might react with “a nonviolent intifada.”

But Arab leaders and the Israeli political establishment have learned a lesson from the October 2000 riots: Don’t play with fire. The police killing of 12 Israeli Arabs in the 2000 riots created a deep rift between the country’s 1 million Arab citizens and the Jewish population, and the Arab economy was decimated by the riots, which scared Jewish customers away from Arab markets.

The government acted quickly after the initial shock of last week’s attack. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent condolences to Shawki Khatib, the chairman of the follow-up committee, and to Ursan Yassin, the mayor of Shfaram. President Moshe Katsav and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid condolence visits to the bereaved Arab families.

Sheik Ibrahim Sarsour, the head of the Islamic Movement’s more moderate southern branch, was one of the first to understand that this time around the leadership should restrain the masses, rather than whipping them up as it did in 2000.

Speaking during the follow-up committee’s emergency meeting, Sarsour warned against the incitement of “various elements” in Gaza that offered to carry out revenge attacks in the Israeli Arabs’ name.

“I suggested that they should mind their own business,” Sarsour told JTA. “They should not do things that we are opposed to, such as bombings and the like within the Green Line.”

Sarsour’s comments, openly coming out against Palestinian radicals — at least those who attack inside Israel proper — could mark a turning point in the role of Arab politicians in Israel. For the first time in years, an influential Arab leader did not look for immediate political gain by heating up the situation but spoke about the shared interests of Arabs and Jews in the face of extremist acts by fanatics from both groups.

Sarsour boasted of the Arab population’s “restrained and mature reaction” that obviated the need for the Israeli Police’s high state of readiness.

“As Israeli Arabs, we will not tolerate vengeance, both because in principle we oppose the murder of civilians and because we are convinced that linking between the Shfaram massacre and events in the territories will only do harm,” Sarsour said.

Sarsour’s comments did not fall on deaf ears: They reflect a growing trend among Israel’s Arab population to focus on a civil rather than a national agenda, putting the cause of full equal rights, rather than the Palestinian issue, at the top of their agenda.

The Arab street in Israel is believed to be disenchanted with Arab Knesset members’ continuous involvement in Palestinian and sometimes pan-Arab affairs.

Also contributing to the changed mood are proposals by politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Our Home to exchange Arab towns along Israel’s border with the West Bank for Jewish settlement blocs, as part of a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. Such proposals would involve merely redrawing the border, not uprooting anyone.

Despite Israeli Arabs’ strong support for the Palestinians — surveys show that many Israeli Arabs increasingly identify as Palestinians rather than as Israelis — the vast majority do not want to give up their Israeli citizenship, a threat that seems more real now than in the past.

Sarsour adjusted to the changing moods. He praised “the support of many Jewish groups that embraced the bereaved,” stressing the need to present a unified front to the “Kahane gangs.”

But Israeli Arab demands in the wake of the attack may yet lead to a confrontation with Israel’s government. They include:

The government should define the Shfaram shooting as a terrorist attack for all intents and purposes, including granting the affected families the same rights given to victims of Palestinian terrorism.

The government already has set this in motion.

Kahane Chai should be declared a terrorist group and should be treated accordingly.

The group is already outlawed in Israel.

So-called time bombs among radical Jewish groups should be put behind bars.

All incitement against the Arab population should be stopped.

The recommendations of the Orr Commission, which was set up after the October 2000 riots, should be implemented immediately.

The commission’s recommendations to ameliorate conditions in the Arab sector have not yet been fully implemented.

A police investigation into the mob that beat the Jewish terrorist to death, after he already had been subdued and handcuffed, should be dropped.

“Had Jews killed an Arab terrorist, they would have received a medal as heroes,” Sarsour claimed.

In fact, Jews that have engaged in lynches or attempted lynches of Arabs have been prosecuted.

In its editorial Tuesday, the liberal daily Ha’aretz wrote that “no country in which the law is properly enforced would permit an incident in which people take the law into their own hands to be ignored without investigating the circumstances and those involved, and agree in advance to withhold charges against suspects in a crime.”

But Sarsour and his supporters warned that police measures against Arabs suspected in the lynching could ignite a confrontation.

The victims in the attack were Christian and Muslim Arabs, but the attack took place in Shfaram’s Druse neighborhood. One outcome of the attack was negative reactions among the Druse population.

Shamel Ibrahim, 38, a Druse resident of Shfaram, announced Tuesday that he would not report for his annual reserve army service.

“I cannot serve in the army wearing the uniform and carrying the same rifle used by the person who committed the massacre in my hometown,” he said.

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