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Arab Lives Matter: How a Police Killing in Jaffa Could Spark a Movement

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Clashes erupted between Jaffa residents and police on July 29 2017 after police shot and killed one young Arab man and moderately wounded another. Police say the two were fleeing the scene of a previous shooting. Rioters burned tires in Jaffa streets.
Clashes erupted between Jaffa residents and police on July 29 2017 after police shot and killed a young Arab man and moderately wounded another. Police say they were fleeing a shooting scene. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The abyss between the dominant Israeli Jewish narrative and the Arab narrative was revealed once again this week – in a conversation between journalist Yaron London and social activist Abed Abu Shehada on the TV current events program “London and Kirschenbaum.” The conversation took place due to the tension in Jaffa that arose after a young man was shot to death by police during a chase, which led to demonstrations and residents burning tires by in protest.

London’s opening sentence – “A shot discharged from the weapon of a lawman in Jaffa. Police hit killed a young criminal apparently a young criminal,” already says it all. Abu Shehada, for his part, refuses to discusses details of the incident because “the police haven’t opened the file, there’s a gag order.”

The starting point for Abu Shehada is “that there’s a young man who was murdered and a policeman who fired at the upper torsos of two young men,” whereas London asks him “to do justice to the facts,” but adopts the police version, which Abu Shehada rejects.

Dialogue of the deaf

“In your opinion, did the police shoot him because he was an Arab?” asks London, adding with false naivete, “It’s not certain that the police knew that he was even an Arab.” From here the conversation quickly developed into a dialogue of the deaf, at the end of which London preaches to the social activist authoritatively: “How about becoming involved in social activity in order to prevent crime in Jaffa?”

Without a shared starting point there is no communication, understanding or dialogue. The question of what is a fact becomes a political interpretation that cannot be resolved. Like the narrators in the film “Rashomon,” each side adopts a different aspect of the story of the murder. In the Jewish-Arab Rashomon, the testimonies are contradictory and the spectator is unable to discover the truth.

As someone who lives in a mixed city, researches the various aspects of life there, and is familiar with both sides, I watched the conversation and was shocked at the lack of communication. This isn’t an isolated case, but a distillation of points of view that differ so greatly that there is no possibility of any political acknowledgement. What is self-evident for Arab citizens is groundless for Jews, and vice versa. In Umm al-Hiran, Kafr Qasem and Jaffa, the conclusion of the two groups stemmed from this basic interpretative bias – the Arabs assume that the police are hostile to them and the Jews believe that the police are doing the right thing. That’s the root of the problem.

The controversy is also apparent on social media and at the points of encounter and friction in the city. This is what Rima Abu Sif writes in a post that was erased by the managers of the Jaffa Community Facebook group: “Jaffa is burning. The events in Jaffa are events of survival, and if you don’t see that you’re part of the problem. Part of the 70-year-old occupation and oppression. On Shabbat the violent Israel Police murdered a boy of 20 with seven bullets in his upper torso, when he was unarmed. Fortunately for the policemen the boy is an Arab, and therefore the claims that surfaced about his criminal behavior are relevant for you, after all, boys and men in Jaffa are only criminals and policemen. Everyone in Jaffa is a criminal. Correction, all the Arabs in Jaffa are criminals.

“You, ladies and gentlemen, are angels, because you weren’t born in Jaffa to an Arab family, lucky you,” Abu Sif continued. “You’re the problem, and if you don’t support our protest, you’ll only prove that you’re here for hummus, French fries, salad and a Jaffa landscape, without the Jaffa residents. In Jaffa there’s no coexistence, because there’s no existence in the first place. You have a right to close your eyes, but when it harms you personally because you didn’t stand together with your Jaffa neighbors, don’t come to us with complaints.”

Two days after the untimely death of the 20-year-old, Jaffa is full of vans belonging to the traffic police, the Yasam special police patrol unit and the Border Police. Jaffa is once again being singled out as an area of violence, and Jews who aren’t locals are staying away from the city. Tense young Arabs are walking the streets in groups. The tension is hovering in the air, but the balance of terror is being maintained. The shooting and the police’s handling of the ensuing events place a frightening mirror before Israeli society.

Stupidity or conspiracy?

There are two possible interpretations regarding police involvement: The first is a combination of faulty judgment and systemic stupidity, and the second hints at a Machievellian-like conspiracy. It’s hard to assess whether the police simply acted with a lack of understanding stemming from human error, or with over-sophistication whose objective was to heat things up in order to demonstrate their power and show who’s boss in the neighborhood. For the purpose of the discussion, let’s start with the basic assumption that the system is rational, we’ll let the police off easy and assume that this is a matter of stupidity and a reaction triggered by fear.

There are several conclusions to be reached from the events. In light of the other incidents on the Temple Mount last week, the police should have behaved with added caution and restraint. The atmosphere in Jaffa is tense in any case, and the alienation between the Arab – and especially the Muslim – population and the state and its representatives who walk around in the city like sheriffs, is at a dangerous height.

According to police procedure, a police chase will take place only when there is no real chance of harming innocent people, when it doesn’t constitute a greater danger to the police, the suspect and passersby than the crime committed by the suspect; and when it is a reasonable alternative, and there is no other way of arresting the suspect.

In principle, an escaped criminal is preferable to a dead one. In a properly administered country, property damage is preferable to bodily harm. In the riots throughout France in 2005, rioters set fire to about 10,000 vehicles and about 126 policemen were wounded, but the police didn’t harm civilians. Whereas in the riots in Israel in October 2000 – the start of the second intifada – Arab demonstrators blocked roads in the Triangle and Galilee, threw rocks and in some cases set businesses on fire, and in response policemen shot and killed 13 demonstrators.

In Jaffa too, according to testimony from the field, after the shooting incident the Abu Kabir national forensic institute delayed the release of the body to the family and aroused the anger of the crowds. The riots began in a random, disorganized manner, but intensified due to the harassment of one of the young men by the Yasam.

The immediate association is police treatment of black individuals in the United States, who are at times shot while innocent of any crime, due to the “mistaken judgment” of the frightened policeman, which Americans call “subjective danger.” There as here, in most cases the policeman who fired is acquitted. In the United States it’s a matter of cognitive racism, which subconsciously identifies a black man as a potential violent attacker.

In many ways, the demonstrations on the streets of Jaffa are similar in spirit to the Black Lives Matter movement. On Monday night a young man stood alone in Hashnayim Garden on Yefet Street holding a sign: “51 Arab citizens have been murdered by the police since October 2000. Who’s next?”

The second comparison arises when we compare the military treatment of Arab citizens by the police (in Umm al-Hiran, Kafr Qasem and Jaffa) to the gentle handling of violent Haredim and settlers by the same police force. We remind you that the police arrive unarmed to handle the evacuation of illegal outposts, and amazingly the incident usually ends without civilian casualties. (During the evacuation of Amona, about 60 unarmed policemen were hurt, some from acid, with no casualties among the settlers.)

The careful thought invested in dialogue with the settlers’ leadership and the kid gloves with which senior police officers handle the most extremist settlers are in evidence only after the fact in Arab communities, when officers arrive only afterwards to arrange a sulha (peace-making) with the bereaved families. The difference cries out to the heavens and every intelligent young Arab understands, in the words of Israeli film hero Kazablan, “They spit at you and say it’s rain.”

Leader was born, too

Another conclusion points to the unplanned results of the ferment on the Arab street. In Jaffa children walk around with phosphorescent shirts bearing the dead youth’s name in large letters. A shahid was born in Jaffa, and he symbolizes the regime of force that discriminates between Arab and Jewish blood. The violent and widely covered arrest (accompanied by the curses of the commander of the police station) of Abed Abu Shehada, a representative in the elected Islamic Council and a Balad party activist, led to another unplanned result: A leader was born. Like the famous arrest of social activist Daphni Leef, the act of police violence is consolidating the status of Abu Shehada as an authentic local leader who doesn’t hesitate to lead the community at a most difficult hour.

Abu Shehada is a community and political activist who is well known and admired in the community as a balanced and pragmatic person, since the days of the social protest in 2011. He is a critical academic who writes razor-sharp articles in Hebrew, Arabic and English (mainly on the Haokets website). But like former MK Azmi Bishara before him and Marwan Barghouti in the West Bank, he constitutes a threat, and some claim that that’s why he was arrested. When it comes to the policy of the defense establishment and the Jaffa police, it seems that the more things change, they more they stay the same. The Arabs are the same Arabs, the sea is the same sea. It won’t end well.

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