Analysis

Arabs Made to Play Monkeys in an Israeli Circus

During the manhunt for the gunman behind the Tel Aviv shooting, Israel's Arab citizens were shown their place.

A policeman in Arara during the manhunt for Nashet Melhem, January 8, 2016.
Gil Eliyahu

“Nashat Melhem liquidated in Arara,” screamed the headlines on Friday afternoon. That marked the transition to the second act of a circus in which Israel’s Arab citizens once again seemed like caged animals. Not lions or tigers – they aren’t that dangerous, and there’s no need to insult the royalty of the jungle. Not dogs, either; dogs are more faithful, and one even participated in the raid on Melhem’s hideout (don’t worry, the dog is fine). In this circus, Arabs are the monkeys: They caper about madly, sometimes biting and making noise, but in the end, they know their place.

An errant monkey who makes the wrong noises will be silenced by his trainer. And there’s no lack of people willing to play that role. It could be a former security official who knows “how to talk to Arabs,” or a TV pundit roaming the Wadi Ara region as if he’d been thrown onto a battlefield in Afghanistan, or even a fellow Arab who warns against raising an outcry against the master and repeatedly voices condemnations and heartfelt apologies.

Nashat Melhem isn’t Osama bin Laden, or even a Hamas member. He had no organization, no infrastructure. He wasn’t a hero or a freedom fighter, and certainly not a martyr. He was a loathsome murderer who killed civilians, two Jews and an Arab, the latter a father of 14. We’ll apparently never know why.

In Arara, where people know Melhem’s history, they don’t buy the idea that he sought to commit a terror attack. Israeli Arabs have many other questions as well. Was it really necessary to kill him? Wasn’t it possible to arrest him instead? After all, he was a lone man confronting Israel’s most elite units. Perhaps interrogating him would have revealed information about what happened in the week between his commission of the murders and his discovery? Moreover, if he was so dangerous, influenced by the Islamic State or Hamas, why wasn’t he arrested before? After all, Arabs are arrested every week on suspicion of plotting terror attacks, both in Israel and in the West Bank.

These questions are being asked by Arab society, but not by the rest of Israel. Other Israelis don’t want to face them, even hypothetically.

Arab Israelis don’t make prime-time television over civilian issues; they get a platform only when some security incident once again results in a yardstick being pulled out to measure their loyalty to Israel, their alienation from their own people, the harshness of their denunciations and whether they are sincere. In the process, some Arab official will talk about the discrimination, the lack of investment in education, the lack of law enforcement against violence in Arab towns and the proliferation of illegal arms. These are the only times most Israelis hear about such problems.

Some Israeli Arabs believe the gloomy political and diplomatic situation, the spreading despair, the unbridled incitement against their community and the growing racism can produce people like Melhem. But those who say so are few, and they do so mainly on social media. Not one demonstration was held in support of Melhem. And those who rushed to call him a “martyr” after he was killed were promptly silenced – not out of fear or a desire to ingratiate themselves with the majority, but because every sentient person in the Arab community understands that such acts won’t help either Israeli Arabs or Palestinians; they will merely lead to more anti-Arab incitement and greater exclusion.

This was proven almost immediately. Just two days before Melhem committed his attack, the government was boasting of its unprecedented decision to spend billions of shekels to close gaps between Arab and Jewish towns. Then along came the murders, which gave a green light for a smear campaign against the entire Israeli Arab community – some 20 percent of Israel’s citizens. The talk turned to enforcing the law with an iron fist and establishing a committee to set conditions for allocating the promised funds. Every Arab child understands where that is heading.

The government’s decision, even if it wouldn’t really have led to equality, at least provided some grounds for optimism. But the optimism lasted only two days. Then we returned to the normal state of relations between the state and its Arab citizens.