Talking to: Samah Salaime, 40, social worker, founder of Na’am/Arab Women in the Center, and director of a project to combat violence and crime in Arab society for Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality; lives with her family in the Jewish-Arab community of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. When: Wednesday, 1 P.M. Where: A Tel Aviv café
You are the director of a project to combat violence in Arab society. What do you encounter in your work?
I’ve been a social worker for 20 years. I took on this project because I want to fight crime in my society, and I am investigating and studying the violence in Arab society.
What are your interim conclusions?
That we have a serious problem. In the past decade, 1,170 people have been murdered in Arab communities, 90 percent of them with firearms. That includes violence against women, among criminals who are settling accounts with each other and also innocent victims. In April, six people were murdered, in some cases within hours of one another. People call it a “phenomenon,” but it’s not a phenomenon: It’s our reality, and we have been living in it for a very long time.
Can you describe that reality?
In four words: shooting in the streets. Arab villages used to be very safe places. No longer. People don’t walk on the street and they don’t go out after dark. Mothers wait next to the schools to pick up their children.
Only in the villages, or in the cities, too?
It’s been like that in the cities for a long time, but now the gangs that extort protection money, which had operated in Nazareth, Haifa and Acre, are entering smaller locales like Maghar and Tarshiha, too. A veteran paramedic from Kabul, an Arab town near Acre, said on the radio that in the past he and his colleagues never encountered gunshot wounds. There were accidents, fistfights, sometimes stabbings – but today it’s all shooting incidents. And it’s not just criminals who are involved, either. The principal of a school in Taibeh was shot and killed in a dispute over who would get the franchise to operate the school kiosk.
Do you feel that the state has abandoned the Arab public?
Yes. This situation is not what my contract with the state – as a citizen – says. This is not justice. In Umm al-Fahm, someone entered the home of a woman named Siham and murdered her husband and some of her children before her eyes. She recounted her story in the Knesset in 2012. She said, crying, that she and the surviving children fled Umm al-Fahm and are now living in fear that the murderer will get them, too. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu promised her [on that occasion] that “the murderers of your family will be in jail within a year.”
If Netanyahu promised, she can relax.
Sure. How is she supposed to believe the police and the state if the prime minister lies to her? How does he expect us to flock to the police stations when we don’t trust the police?
In some cases, people prefer to take the law into their hands.
I am against acts of vengeance. I don’t think the Arabs take the law into their hands. Otherwise, we would be in a war of chaos that’s frightening even to think about. Things are changing in Israeli Arab society. People are ready to break the silence, to risk their lives and testify – provided the police do their job.
Recently, a police officer told me he saw the young sisters of a murder victim at a crime scene, with blood on their clothes. He asked them, “Did your brother murder your sister?” They said no. He told me, “What do you want me to do? They said he didn’t commit the murder. Someone also cleaned up the whole site with bleach.” I said to him, “I watch television, just like you. I know there is technology – I know that if the police want to link someone with a murder, they can find the way to do it.”
But if the victim is an Arab woman, they just don’t make the effort. If I were a 7-year-old girl and a policeman asked me in front of the murderer whether he committed the act, would I say yes? No way. Is there no way to protect that child? Can’t the police come back in plainclothes to collect testimony, and without a pool of blood in the background? The murderer of that woman I mentioned hasn’t been found. The case was closed – and that was after three or four murders in that family.
Was it an “honor killing”?
No. The murdered sister apparently told her brother she would testify against him about drug dealing.
Are there similarities between Arab and Jewish societies with regard to the murder of women?
I have followed every case of the murder of an Arab woman in Israel for the past 15 years, and for the past seven years also the murder of Jewish women. The similarities are frightening. A man wants control over a woman and allows himself to attack her when she challenges his control. What’s different is that the Jewish man wants control over his partner, whereas the Arab man extends that [desire for] control to his sister, his niece, even his mother. It’s gender murder. And let’s be clear: Arab women are murdered with firearms, not by strangulation or by stabbing.
What do you base your findings on?
Last year, 15 Arab women were murdered, 12 of them with guns. Arab women who suffer from violence at the hands of their partners are dependent on the backing of their nuclear families, and if they don’t have that,, they simply have nowhere to go. Studies show that in the past decade the number of Arab women who are turning for help to women’s organizations, and not the police, has doubled.
Given how ineffective the police are in dealing with cases involving the murder of Jewish women, Arab women will have even less motivation to turn to them.
Exactly. Some women dared [to run away], and were successful: They got into a taxi and escaped, against all odds. Regrettably, I also saw a woman from Ramle who fled in the middle of the night, battered and bleeding, with three small children, but a police officer made her go back home. He believed in all sincerity that he was doing the right thing, because he knew the family. I said to him, “Did you ask her what she wanted? She took a taxi at 2 A.M. and came to you. She escaped from a violent man not in uniform, only to encounter a violent man in uniform. You both decided for her what she should do. Maybe she prefers to live on the street, to avoid being beaten? Would you dare act like that with a Jewish woman? In my opinion, no.”
If the police are not an option, what mechanisms exist within the community?
Some locales have set up reconciliation committees [to deal with a variety of conflicts], but they have limited influence. That’s more widespread among the Bedouin, for whom the family ethos is still dominant. What I see in my fieldwork – and this is also supported by research – is that the tribal hamula [clan] structure is crumbling. In the past, if a dominant figure in the family said, “This is not going to happen,” his word was law. But we’re no longer in that “Godfather” situation.
Is there an alternative mechanism?
That’s the problem – there isn’t. Disputes used to be settled by the sheikh or a mediator, but no longer. Arab society is in a transition stage, influenced by modernization processes but not yet modern. All the studies cite that situation as a major factor in the rise of crime and violence. There is a vacuum. The old way has disappeared, but the rule of law hasn’t taken its place. So people install security cameras for protection.
Yesterday a woman told me about a murder in Taibeh. It happened in the middle of the street, in front of the cameras. She said she stood there on the street, with the body, and just waited and waited for the police. If the police had arrived within five minutes, as would be the case if the murder had occurred in Tzur Yigal [a nearby Jewish community], and had taken the footage and imposed a closure and looked for the car – they would have caught the murderer, right? We know that the police can shut down the whole country in case of danger. We don’t doubt the ability of the police, that’s what’s so frustrating.
Poverty breeds crime
So policing is not egalitarian, you mean.
In Arab communities there is either over-policing or under-policing. Either they seal off the neighborhood and use force so that the residents themselves put pressure on the criminals, or they don’t do anything – “Let them kill each other,” they say. Do you think the police even dare enter certain neighborhoods in Lod, Taibeh or Tamra?
There is fear in the streets. It’s hardest with the youngsters. The street is their community center. And the street is dangerous. I have a son of 19 who, fortunately for me, is in Berlin. But until he left, I suffered. I was deathly afraid whenever he went out. All the mothers are deathly afraid. What if a brawl starts and someone has a pistol? If your child goes with friends to some narghile hangout in Tira or Taibeh, in the length of a second, someone who’s armed can get uptight over something and chaos will erupt. Some weeks ago, a boy of 9 was murdered in Lod when he went to buy falafel. The youth really have a serious problem.
Just asking for trouble...
Yes. I see them sitting on guardrails in the street. It’s easy to hook up with the wrong group – “Take 50 shekels [$12] and deliver this package.” I know a 7-year-old boy who was given a chocolate Kinder egg, with drugs inside, to deliver. This week I got a video of a group of Arab kids of 14-15 who threw an incendiary device into a Kfar Sava store one night. Someone paid them to do it, maybe as revenge, maybe it had to do with the protection racket. I don’t know. I always tell the police that we want exactly the same thing that you want: quiet, and a good education for our children. Anyone who thinks that Arabs are hooligans strutting around and just looking for reasons to be violent is wrong. It’s nonsense. We are afraid.
Are you yourself afraid?
Of course. Once, after I intervened as a social worker in a case in Lod, someone called my son’s school and asked to speak to him. He was paged on the loudspeaker system. The caller said, “Are you Samah’s son? Tell your mother that we can get to you.”
Yes. I too feel vulnerable. By talking about things and heading a women’s organization, I am perceived to be airing dirty laundry in public, and that embarrasses the men. Don’t think I haven’t been threatened.
Why do you think that, even though cases of robbery and murder are decreasing in Jewish society, they are increasing in Arab society?
Poverty. Unequivocally. Every second poor child in Israel is an Arab. The social and economic gaps are intimately connected with the level of crime and with the feeling of personal security. Where there’s poverty, there’s crime.
How do you envision the future?
Israeli society has to understand that it cannot seal itself off in a bubble. One-fifth of the population is suffering badly, and in the end the violence in the Arab society will also hurt the Tel Avivians. At some point the crime in Taibeh will spill over and reach Netanya and Kfar Sava. Do you know where Jewish-Arab coexistence is flourishing? In the underworld.
In the past seven years the police have reported nearly 10,000 cases related to firearms in Arab communities. And those are only the known cases. Where do all the weapons come from?
You’re asking a “good” Arab: I don’t know.
What do you think?
First of all, Jews in Israel possess legal firearms and have no problem selling them to Arabs. The Arabs don’t manufacture weapons, right? We have no military industry. I think there’s cooperation in this matter between the Arab underworld and the Jewish underworld. Israel, and above all the army, is saturated with arms, and I believe it’s mainly the Jews who supply them to the Arabs.
Maybe the arms are “leaked” from the Palestinian Authority?
That’s what was said about Nashat Milhem [an Israeli Arab who killed two Jews in Tel Aviv on Jan. 1], but no, he had a legal weapon. When Netanyahu visited Lod in 2010, after a wave of seven murders in a row, the police raided all the local drug and crime sites, and collected 6,000 guns in three hours.
You must hear horrific stories.
One of the most horrific concerns the murder of Yasmin Abu Zaluk, who was married to a well-known drug and arms dealer from Lod. She wanted a divorce, because she suffered from brutal violence. She fled and took his sister with her so people wouldn’t say she had gone off with a man. The two hid in the home of a sheikh in Kafr Qasem. When she returned, the husband tried to kill her – she was in her sixth month of pregnancy – and his sister. She was spared, but his sister was left 100 percent incapacitated. The police were negligent in the case.
One of the judges told the police, after they didn’t send a representative to court sessions on four separate occasions– that if that happened again he would have to release the accused. Also, that if he can't be indicted for attempted murder, he should at least be charged with illegal possession of a weapon. He was released after five months. He murdered his wife [in April 2011] three months after she gave birth. We organized protests and he was convicted of murder. The wife’s brother testified, even though he was threatened beforehand – and her 8-year-old daughter also testified that she saw her father drag her mother to the car.
When a woman tells you she wants to escape, to get divorced, what do you tell her?
To do what is right for her.
Aren’t you afraid to give her advice that could cost her her life?
I tell her that there is a price to be paid.
Have you ever told a woman who asked you for advice not to act?
Even if you think it’s dangerous for her?
It’s her life.
Do you tell her she is liable to be murdered?
Yes. I tell her, “You have a dangerous husband, as you yourself know.” Is that news for her?
Has it happened that someone you advised to leave was subsequently murdered?
Dahlia Abu Ghanem [in 2008]. She hasn’t been found to this day, but the police told me it’s a murder case, not a missing persons case.
She just disappeared?
The family says she ran off with a man. I know her; she didn’t run off with any man. She was forced to marry a criminal, and she suffered a great deal. One day, after a period during which I’d been in contact with her, I ran into her by chance and saw that she was afraid, even afraid that she would be seen talking to me, so I just told her to take care of herself. That was the last time I saw her. But there are also women who’ve succeeded, against all odds. One woman had plastic surgery, changed her name and moved elsewhere. Some women have managed to flee the country. Women who make a decision to fight for their life have a reasonable chance of succeeding. But it takes a long time to reach that decision, because there is also the family and the children.
And social conventions.
If a woman suffers beatings from morning til night, let her do what she wants with her life. I worked with a woman who testified against her brother, who had murdered their sister. She decided to cooperate and reveal what she saw and heard. She put six men from her family in jail.
Is she still alive?
Yes. She underwent plastic surgery and she has a panic button that she got from the police. By the way, I tried it – it doesn’t really work.
The events of recent months probably haven’t helped the already-fragile [Jewish-Arab] coexistence.
In a grim atmosphere of hatred, violence of every sort – national, gender, economic, organized crime – acquires legitimacy. I think that there is also a connection between the violent atmosphere and the political violence, and what is happening in the Arab communities. The religious extremists in the government are nourishing hatred for other religions. Religious radicalization generates rifts. I feel that we are on the brink of chaos. It’s in the air. The Arabs have always felt hated. People who are hated feel that no one cares about their life.
So they, too, don’t care about others’ lives?
Yes. Everything goes. There are no limits. Who cares, for example, that a man is beating his wife in Jabal Mukkaber [a neighborhood in East Jerusalem]? If she goes to the police, she will be murdered. The police will not enter a neighborhood that’s sealed off with concrete blocks. The men of Jabal Mukkaber work in the Malha mall [in Jerusalem], where they are subjected to violence and curses and hatred – so whom do they batter and abuse at home? A local woman told me, “My husband said he would murder me and then commit a terror attack, and said: We will both be in the grave, but I will be a hero and you will be just another woman in the ground.”
What does a woman and a mother who goes to attack a soldier feel?
She is a woman who is suffering, who has reached the brink of despair. She knows she will be shot – she wants to be shot. A woman from a group I worked with in Bil’in [a West Bank village] told me that her family has no money, that she embroiders bags and sells them for 50 shekels [$12]. There’s no violence in the home, but also no food. She said, “The only reason I am alive is the children. I want to kill myself.”
Another woman in the group responded, “You want to commit suicide? Go to the nearby settlement. At least you’ll die in style. You’ll be remembered.” I really feel a kind of ISIS atmosphere, as though everyone is murdering everyone, there is nothing to lose. And that’s what really scares me.