In His Arab Hometown, Neighbors and Relatives Shun Tel Aviv Shooter

Few in Arara believe Nashat Melhem was a terrorist, yet even fewer are mourning the man who killed three in the Tel Aviv terror attack.

The car belonging to relatives of suspected terrorist Nashat Melhem after police searched it, January 10, 2016.
Rami Shllush

There are dozens of plastic white chairs stacked up in the corner of the Melhem family’s porch. Even more chairs are propped up on the concrete pillars underneath the home.

A few men, chain smoking, walk slowly to the edge of the large porch and look down. “There is no news here,” they tell those who inquire. They politely ask strangers to leave.

A little boy, in pajamas, jumps up and down on the hood of a family car down below. He then forms his finger and thumb into a gun and points it: “Boom boom,” he calls out. “Boom boom.”

This is the mourning tent for suspected terrorist Nashat Melhem — only there is no body here to mourn, and almost nobody coming by to pay their respects.

Melhem shot two victims — Alon Bakal and Shimon Ruimi — at a bar in central Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day. Seven others were wounded in the attack. Making his escape, Melhem killed a third victim, Amin Shaaban, a taxi driver and father of 14, who, like Melhem himself, was an Arab citizen of Israel.

A long week went by before Melhem, 29, was himself gunned down. After a nationwide manhunt, he was found right near here, in an abandoned house in the al-Daharat neighborhood of the Arab town of Arara, a mere five-minute drive — across the busy highway — from his home.

Seeing the security forces arriving, Melhem started shooting from a window, and was killed as he tried to flee the building, according to police. His body has yet to be returned to his family for burial.

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

In a controversial speech at the scene of the attack on a Tel Aviv bar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Israeli Arabs to integrate into Israeli society, saying that "whoever wants to be Israeli must be Israeli all the way."

Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, went further: suggesting this week that anyone found to have assisted Melhem should have their citizenship revoked and be banished to the West Bank. Melhem’s body should be given back to the family, he went on to suggest, to see how many people attend the funeral. “That way,” he told reporters, “we can disprove this lone wolf theory.”

But back in Arara there seemed to be little public support for Melhem’s actions, even among his own family.

“We are all in a state of confusion,” says Adel Melhem, a cousin who lives half a block down the pot-holed road from where Melhem was shot and killed in al-Daharat. “And we are angry.” Part of his confusion, it seems, comes from not knowing who he is angrier at: the young relative who started the whole violent story to begin with, or the Israeli security forces that overwhelmed Arara, turned the place upside down and made all the Melhems — no matter who or why or what — feel like they too were enemies.

Adel’s branch of the Melhem family is not even on speaking terms with Nashat Melhem’s branch, both sides say. A land dispute over 35 years ago has kept the elder generations apart, and if the younger cousins are in contact, it is not close. Adel’s branch has little to say about Nashat, and nothing positive. “He was an alcoholic. A drug user,” claims one of Adel’s brothers, who asked not to be named. “He was not one of us,” says another cousin.

Whether Nashat was a terrorist however — of this no one in Adel's household is fully convinced.

They have all heard the talk about the Tel Aviv killing being a criminal affair. They have also heard conspiracy theories about it being some operation gone wrong organized by the Shin Bet internal security service. They believe either of those scenarios are more likely than the young man being a terrorist within a larger organization. But they are quick to add that they know nothing more than anyone else watching the news on TV or idly repeating gossip.

The Defense Ministry, in turn, has officially recognized Bakal, Ruimi and Shabaan as victims of terrorism.

The Melhems say they understand that the army, police and Shin Bet all have to “do their jobs,” and that it is “their right,” to suspect the whole family, and even withhold information about those suspicions. They understand that sometimes the authorities “have to search homes” with no warrant — but still, this part of the Melhem family says it has been humiliated, by the search and the way their property was treated. The way the security forces handled the affair was “not impressive,” Adel’s brother, who points out again and again that he works as a security guard with a Jewish-owned Israeli company, keeps repeating. “Not impressive at all.”

Two residents of Arara watch as police and anti-terror forces look for suspected Tel Aviv shooter in the Arab village, January 8, 2015.
Gil Eliahu

His black t-shirt has his employer's logo printed on it. He wore the same shirt on Sunday when he showed up in court in Haifa for a hearing for his son, who has been arrested in connection with the case.

Did the younger generation of cousins know Nashat was hiding next door? Did one of them bring Nashat a change of clothing? Did someone make him food and send it over? Did they buy him cigarettes? Or, did they perhaps, as is being hinted at by the police, play even more central roles in abetting him?

“Our children are innocent,” is all Adel’s brother will say. “What happened here was pure revenge.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “Our children did nothing wrong — nothing to bring such disrespect on us.”

In the driveway of Adel’s house is what is left of the family car: it was shot to pieces in a raid Sunday by the security services. His wife claims she offered the key to the car to the armed men so they could open it, but they shot it up instead. A police spokesman said that “there were reasons,” the car had to be shot open. He did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, inside Adel’s home, several women — his wife, mother, two daughters and various aunts — are all sitting on the floors, busy refolding clothes and linens that were trampled and strewn everywhere during the raid. A couch is overturned, the stuffing from one of its pillows spilled out. Windows have been broken. 

The family members are most outraged by what they claim was a theft during the raid of gold and silver jewelry — wedding necklaces and bangles the daughters had recently been given as part of their dowries. One of the aunts, who asked not to be named, shows an empty box, the claps on the red fake velvet interior ripped. “Nothing here anymore, see? See?” she says, her voice rising. The police say they have received no requests to investigate a theft from the family. If and when they do, the spokesman said, such a complaint will be “dealt with.”

Nashat’s father Mohammad, an enigmatic figure who was first lauded for publically urging his son to turn himself in after the attack — and then vilified and detained on suspicion of interfering with the investigation, and possibly even being an accomplice to the crime — was released Sunday. So too was Melhem’s brother Ali, who had also been detained. Both are now among the few present at the mourning tent.

But eight other suspects — family members and friends — remain in custody, including Adel’s eldest son and one of his nephews, both in their early twenties. The son is an accounting student. The nephew, as the neighbors confirm, is mentally unstable, and gets by doing odd jobs in a home workshop his father set up for him.

“We don’t want anything to do with the murderer. He has our same last name, but we are not connected,” stresses Adel’s brother. And no, he says, they have no intention of going to the mourning tent across the highway. They are staying put on their own porch.

The elder matriarch of this branch of the family sits on that porch, next to a small buzzing space heater. She has her arms crossed and her head covered. Her eyes are steely, and she says little. Her teenage grandson offers her black coffee. When his mobile rings, the screen lights up with the name of the caller, in Hebrew: “Dearest daddy,” it flashes. The television is switched on — a program, in Hebrew, about the history of China in the 10th century, is showing — but no one is watching.

Over on the side of the porch, near a line of drying laundry, hangs a big cage with half a dozen green and yellow parakeets in it. They seem agitated, emitting endless high pitched squawks, and throwing themselves once in a while against the bars. “Quiet,” says the old lady, under her breath.