This time, it seemed, criminals in Jaffa had crossed a line. The images of Mohammed Abu Najm soaked in blood, moments after being shot near his home on Sunday afternoon, were passed around among city residents and stirred deep shock. Hundreds gathered on Monday night at a local cemetery to bid him a final farewell, and to protest a surge in gun violence in Israel’s Arab community in general and in Jaffa in particular.
National media have picked up on the funeral procession over violations of coronavirus restrictions, but Jaffa residents object to this sort of framing.
“Israeli society has lost its humanity with its disinterest in murder cases in the Arab community,” said Tel Aviv-Jaffa Councilman Abed Abou Shhadeh. “People are being murdered like dogs. It’s not people disrespecting the rules – but people in pain, who showed up to convey a message, that we want to live and not die.”
Abou Shhadeh added that for him, those who didn’t attend Jaffa’s most recent funeral, on Monday, “failed morally.”
Abu Najm, an accountant, was a senior member of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch and member of the local sulha, or mediation, committee. He is the 12th Arab murder victim in Israel in a month. The suspects fled and a gag order prevents the publication of any information on the investigation.
This isn’t unusual for Jaffa: Ten people have been murdered in the city since the start of 2019, but police have failed to solve any of these cases. Every time, the suspects fled, a gag order was issued, and no one was charged or put behind bars. This is far from an insignificant number of murder victims, especially looking at the relatively small number of Arab residents in Jaffa. Of about 52,000 who live there, some 17,000 are Arabs, including about 14,000 Muslims and 3,000 Christians.
Over the years, fighting between criminal gangs in Jaffa has known some intense periods. The majority of murders are investigated by the Tel Aviv District’s Central Unit, rather than by the local police station. This is due to the Central Unit’s increased capabilities and the various technological resources it employs.
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But even that doesn’t bring these cases to any conclusion. The police argue that they sadly often encounter limited cooperation and recurring attempts to interrupt the investigation.
“Abu Najm was a kind and honest person,” said a relative, Khalil Khalili. “He was working on supporting the holy sites in Jaffa and beyond, helping the needy, with home renovations, giving scholarships to families in need and for orphans and widows. Whenever there were conflicts in the city they called on him to mediate.”
“We’re shocked and we don’t understand how it happened,” he added. “There’s wasn’t any sense that anyone was even threatening him.”
Five Jaffa residents were murdered in 2019. One of them was Sabria Abu Saif, who died in August from a “warning shot,” apparently meant for another member of her family. Her daughter-in-law, Manal, was wounded. Police arrested a suspect, also a member of the family, but he was later released and the case has remained open.
“The police aren’t helping at all,” said Mohammed Khader Abu Saif, Sabria’s son and Manal’s husband. He added that ever since that incident, his wife is in panic every time she hears gunshots or fireworks. “The day my mom was murdered she was sitting on a chair and praying,” he said. “An hour before the murder she rang up each of the kids and asked that we look after each other and help others. She was the sort of woman who if she was washing the floor and saw an ant, she would take it outside. My heart is aching and crying since then, and the murderer is roaming free.”
Abu Najm’s death has intensified a sense of insecurity in the city. “I don’t know where the next bullet is going to come from,” said Jaffa resident Safa Younes. “Also as a woman, I’m scared that an argument on the street will escalate and they decide to kill someone. Whenever I hear gunshots and my oldest son is outside I’m afraid.”
If Abu Najm was murdered, she said, then it could happen to anyone. “He was a respected man, a public figure, and no one in Israel cares. Just another murder, so what?” she said. “It makes us feel even more invisible. I love this city, and I want to feel safe in my own home.”
Tarek Ashkar, the chairman of the Jaffa’s Islamic Council, told Haaretz: “We have an opportunity here for the beginning of the end. We will see it to personally, not wait for the establishment. There are educated and smart people here, who care about this city, and in the coming days we’ll take up the challenge and take the fight against violence in our own hands. We have no authority to detain people or conduct searches, but we have an entire wonderful community, and it will be a shame if an unrestrained minority that has no respect for human lives wreaks chaos.”
Ashkar criticized the police: “The police say there’s no cooperation with the residents? In Jaffa, they get cooperation across the board… This whole mishandling of violence in the Arab community as a whole and in Jaffa in particular is a political and racist decision.”
The Abraham Initiatives, a non-profit group that promotes Arab-Jewish equality in Israel, said slayings in Jaffa had dropped since 2018, when 10 were murdered. Five victims were women. Six of these murders were solved.
Ola Najami, co-director of the group’s Safe Communities program, said: “The trust Jaffa residents have in police is very low. The increased police presence over the past year to enforce coronavirus regulations hasn’t had an effect on protecting residents’ lives.”
Police said in response that “there has been a decrease in the number of murder incidents in the Arab community in the city,” that investigations were underway and that “great effort and resources” are put into their work “regardless of the identity of the victim. Alongside this, unfortunately, police forces are often met with limited cooperation and many inappropriate attempts to make the investigation more difficult and to prevent the apprehension of those involved. We will continue to operate and bring to justice all criminals involved in acts of murder and violence in the city and in general, and thoroughly investigate all cases.”