'Everyone's a Target': Israeli Arab City Mourns a Shooting Victim and a Lost Sense of Security

Years of neglect have created an unlivable situation, Tamra residents say, as the death of an innocent bystander in a police shootout attracts thousands of saddened and angry mourners

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The mourning tent for Ahmad Hijazi, on Tuesday.
The mourning tent for Ahmad Hijazi, on Tuesday.Credit: Rami Shllush

In the Arab city of Tamra, in the Galilee, the only concrete evidence remaining from the events earlier in the day are burned tires and the black marks they left on the road. The tires were set on fire to protest the death of Ahmad Hijazi, a 22-year-old nursing student who was shot dead after midnight Tuesday, caught in crossfire between police and suspected criminals.

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The demonstration that erupted a few hours after the incident gave way Tuesday morning to absolute quiet. Tamra’s streets were empty and most stores remained shut, but not due to the nationwide pandemic lockdown. “No one feels like buying anything,” said one woman outside a grocery store.

The silence extends to the mourning tent. It seems that no one is up to talking. Mohammed Sabah, a local social activist, is exhausted after a long night. “Everyone’s talking about Tamra now because of the tragic event but we’ve been living a routine of violence and gunfire for a few years already,” he says. “A big police station was established [nearby], but has that improved the residents’ sense of personal security? Not at all. And last night, a guy who was a paradigm of all that is ‘normative’ was killed in such a cruel manner.”

The scene where Ahmad Hijazi was shot, this morning. Credit: Rami Shllush

Hijazi was one of two people killed and two wounded on Tuesday in an exchange of fire between police officers, waiting in ambush outside a house, and three men armed with automatic weapons. One suspect was killed, one seriously injured and another fled. Nursing student Hijazi was hit by stray bullets when he stepped out of the home of Dr. Muhammad Armoush, where he had been studying, to see the reason for the noise. Armoush, who went out after him, was injured. The Justice Ministry unit that probes police misconduct opened an investigation and is probing whether the passersby were shot by police or the suspects, two of whom were known to police. Police said they uncovered two M-16 rifles at the scene.

A strike and three days of mourning were declared in Tamra. On Tuesday, the atmosphere was heavy with grief – as well as anger and frustration – even without the official pronouncement. Later, thousands attended the funeral, and hundreds took again to the street, some with placards other with fire and anger.

Dozens had congregated at the Hijazi family home in the morning. Some stared at the floor of the tent, others at the sky. From a nearby shack came a heartrending cry. “My mother,” says Ahmad’s brother Jabar Hijazi, a journalist who reports on violent crime in the city. “My brother was murdered, just like that, and that means that everyone is a target for the criminals.”

The body of Ahmad, who was shot in the chest, was taken to the National Center of Forensic Medicine (Abu Kabir), in south Tel Aviv. Some of his family members don’t really care whether the bullet was fired by a criminal or by a police officer. “Ahmad is no longer alive. Maybe it will help the investigation, but it doesn’t change anything,” says Ibrahim Hijazi, an engineer and a member of the victim’s extended family. “What happened last night is the result of years of neglect; shootings, robberies and extortion have become routine. The question is how to deal with it before such events happen. What good does it do his mother and siblings if they say they’ve solved the murder– how does that contribute to my and my children’s personal security?

Most of the complaints regarding the Israel Police’s handling of violent crime in the country’s Arab communities focus on the absence of the force’s presence on the ground. In this instance it was not justified. 

Ibrahim says the problem is the ongoing failure of the police to deal with the criminals. “Why aren’t those armed men deterred by the police, why do they fire at the officers...in a residential neighborhood, in a city with an active police station?” Standing next to Ibrahim is Ahmad’s cousin Anwar. “Now everyone’s talking about Tamra. They remember us because blood has been spilled, but we live this atmosphere of fear every day,” Anwar says angrily. His eyes are red-rimmed. “Unfortunately, if there were no casualties it would have been just one more shooting in an Arab city. I don’t let my children go outside. Who’s responsible for that, Ahmad and I? That’s the police’s job. That weapon, an M16 [assault rifle], it’s not a gun you buy in the grocery store. They know exactly where it comes from, and if there’s a police force and there are defense agencies, then they should take care of it,” Ahmad says.

The funeral of Ahmad Hijazi in Tamra, on Tuesday.

According to police figures, in January there were 29 gunfire incidents, 18 arson incidents and two robberies in Tamra, and five guns were seized.

The Israel Police Northern District Commander, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Lavi, told Kan Bet public radio Tuesday that “We send our condolences to the family, but the bottom line is that we must understand that our active operations are intended to improve the personal safety of Tamra residents, who are suffering because of the same few criminals who are effecting the sense of security.”

But Tamra Mayor Suhail Diab contends that the police aren’t doing enough. “We remember well that when the government wanted to, it fought crime in cities like Netanya and other places. It’s time to do the same in the Arab communities.”

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