Friday’s murderous shooting attack in Tel Aviv once again left Israeli-Arab citizens being confronted with a test of loyalty to the state. Once again, Arab Knesset members were asked to denounce the attack, while journalists who flocked to the suspect’s home in Arara repeatedly asked family members what they thought of the attack.
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The father, Mohammed Melhem, volunteers with the police – which isn’t usual for residents of the Wadi Ara region. He told reporters he was the one who identified his son and called the police, and expressed his willingness to cooperate in catching him. The regional council also published a statement denouncing the attack, saying it was the act of a lone individual who didn’t represent Arara or Arab society.
It should be stated clearly that there’s no possible justification for this loathsome attack, and that the perpetrator must be brought to justice.
Nonetheless, the incident must not be exploited to place the entire Arab community and its representatives in the dock, or to turn the community into a political punching bag for lawmakers seeking to ingratiate themselves with the right, or to take any steps that serve no purpose but to punish every Arab citizen.
Speaking Saturday at the scene of the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he wouldn’t tolerate a state within a state, and that the government will enforce the law. Anyone who heard him understood that he was mainly serving his own political interests by making statements that would appeal to his rightist base.
Arab citizens of Israel have never made any public demands that could be interpreted as calling for separatism. On the contrary, Arab mayors and other public figures have, at every opportunity, called for law enforcement to stem the rising tide of crime and violence within the Arab community, including organized crime and the rampant possession of illegal weapons. Violent crime within the Arab community has claimed the lives of more than 1,100 Israeli Arabs over the last 15 years.
At every opportunity, Arab leaders have also called for greater enforcement of the traffic laws to end the wave of deadly traffic accidents in Arab towns. They have urged the state to approve more land and more master plans for construction to reduce the amount of illegal building. They have called for ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state, in order to create a healthier, more egalitarian society in Israel and reduce the factors that could push young people into separatism and violence. And they have demanded that the national leadership take steps to encourage hope rather than despair, equality rather than polarization.
So, if anyone wants to talk about a state within a state, it’s actually successive Israeli governments that ought to be asking themselves who has prevented Arabs from feeling that they belong instead of feeling excluded, and who has always viewed them as a security problem rather than as citizens who need state services.
Last week, the government approved a large-scale plan to reduce Jewish-Arab gaps by investing up to 15 billion shekels ($3.85 billion) in Arab towns. Israeli-Arab leaders welcomed this as a step in the right direction, while insisting that more must be done. Not a single one objected on nationalist or separatist grounds. On the contrary, they stressed the need for a civic, democratic struggle to further reduce these gaps.
Friday’s attack is the latest of many incidents in recent years that have polarized society, widened the Jewish-Arab rift and pushed leaders on both sides into confrontational stances. But it must be remembered that, ultimately, the people who set the policies and make the decisions that affect every Israeli citizen are the ones who sit in the government, not the leadership of the Arab community.
The time has come for Israel’s government and the man who heads it to view Arabs as equal citizens – not merely when it comes to law enforcement, but also when it comes to rights.