A Small Palestinian Business Is Burglarized Over and Over, and Israeli Police Stand By

Mohammed couldn't go on working in Israel because his baby is sick, so he borrowed money and opened a plant nursery near his West Bank village. It has been robbed five times this past year. The thieves' car and ritual fringes leave little room for doubt about their identity

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Mohammed Mahmadi next to his nursery.
Mohammed Mahmadi next to his nursery.
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

This is a story about a small plant nursery along a highway. It’s also a story about a young Palestinian who was unable to go on working in Israel because his infant son is sick, so he borrowed money and opened the small nursery near his West Bank village – allowing him to be available for his son at all times. It’s a story about the small nursery that, since it opened a year ago, has been the victim of five burglaries. All together, thieves vandalized or stole merchandise worth tens of thousands of shekels. The latest break-in occurred on the night between last Saturday and Sunday.

The four young men showed up twice in their old Subaru in the dead of night. The first time they loaded dozens of flowerpots and seedlings into their car, and drove off; then they returned a short time afterward in order to empty the adjacent kiosk of all its packs of cigarettes. The owner of both places, Mohammed Mahmadi, was shattered. He is 29 years old, but he says he feels like he’s 90. Now he’s thinking of shutting down the nursery – perhaps that’s the aim of the thieves, who would not likely have broken into a Jewish-owned business. But Mahmadi has no way to cover his losses. “I’ve had it,” he says. He estimates the value of the stolen merchandise and the damage from the latest break-in at 11,000 shekels ($3,220).

From the beginning, he suspected that the thieves were settlers. One time he actually saw them escaping, he says; another time, the neighbors saw them. Any doubts were dispelled by the footage on the security cameras that Mahmadi installed after the fourth burglary. The telltale tzitzit, ritual white fringes, can be seen hanging out from under the shirt of one of the thieves as he climbs up a pole to steal the spotlight mounted on it.

Moreover, Mahmadi says he knows the thieves’ car, which is also clearly visible in the security footage: an old silver-gray Subaru Impreza with Israeli license plates, whose numbers can't be read, and an identifying mark: The driver’s door is painted white.

The nursery is named for Mahmadi’s firstborn daughter, 2-year-old Elul. “A variety of fruit and decorative trees, perennials and multi-seasonal, herbs, vegetable seeds, vases and window boxes,” declares a sign in Hebrew, aimed at the local settler population. The area, in the central part of the West Bank, is full of settlements. Mahmadi says he’s happy to sell to settlers from Eli and Ma’aleh Levona – in his eyes “they are better than the people in Tel Aviv” – but not to anyone from Rehelim.

“I do not sell to Rehelim,” he says. “They are racists. I am a native son. You know who is a good person in Tel Aviv and who is not, which neighborhood is good and which is bad. It’s the same with me here. If something bad happens, who comes to mind? The bad neighborhood. Rehelim is a bad neighborhood.”

His nursery is located near Highway 60, across from his village, As-Sawiya. The nursery is on the eastern side of the highway, at a junction from which a road leads to the village of Yatma.

Until the birth of his second child, Omar, Mahmadi worked in a restaurant on Yefet Street in Jaffa. But his son, now a year old, was born with a respiratory ailment, and since then his father has stopped working in Israel. Emergency visits to the doctor with Omar, night and day, compel Mahmadi to stay close to home at all times. So, with financial help from his brother, Visam, he opened this small, well-tended nursery. He invested 80,000 shekels (around $22,000) in it, he tells us. It’s aimed at Jewish and Palestinian clients alike, positioned on the busy highway that everyone uses. To supplement his income he also opened a small kiosk next door, where he sells cigarettes, drinks and candy. He says this is enough to enable him to provide for his family.

The first break-in occurred two months after the nursery opened last year. On that occasion the perpetrators made off mainly with fig and olive seedlings, and the physical damage was relatively slight. But matters got worse from there. There was a break-in every two months, on average, each one more serious than the last.

The morning following the fourth burglary, Mahmadi arrived at a completely empty nursery, virtually stripped bare. The thieves had taken everything, goods totaling 15,000 shekels. Fortunately, he hadn’t yet opened the kiosk at the time, so he didn’t lose thousands more shekels from the theft of cigarettes – as he did earlier this week.

The break in at Mohammed Mahmadi's kiosk.

Each break-in has forced him to start from scratch, with economic assistance from Visam, who works in the Palestinian police. Because of the frequent trips to the doctor, when Omar begins to choke, Mahmadi employs an elderly man, Abu Maher, who lives next to the nursery to mind the store. It was Abu Maher who phoned him last Sunday, at 4 A.M., to inform him about the fifth burglary.

The security footage shows the Subaru backing into the nursery’s parking area at 2:19 A.M. The first haul took seven minutes. Three young men emerge from the auto, apparently relaxed; the driver waits inside. They’re wearing gray sweat suits, hoods cover their heads and faces. With a confident step they approach the property, look for a place to break in, jump over the small barbed-wire fence that surrounds it and start to load flowerpots into their vehicle. A frightened cat scurries back and forth around them.

One of the thieves climbs up a pole to take down the spotlight, revealing his ritual fringes. After seven minutes exactly, the car’s lights come back on and they speed off with their loot. It’s 2:26 A.M. Less than half an hour later, at 2:53, they’re back. Mahmadi is certain that the only place they could have driven to, to unload, in the short time that elapsed between one break-in and the next, is nearby Rehelim.

The second time around the men raid the kiosk, breaking its door. The booty here consists mainly of cigarettes, whose value Mahmadi estimates at 5,000 shekels. They even stole homemade Palestinian cigarettes, which sell for 3 shekels (88 cents) a pack. “Even a donkey couldn’t smoke them,” Mahmadi says.

Back and forth the tree thieves go, loading more and more merchandise into the car. When a yellow Palestinian taxicab suddenly appears on the internal road leading to Yatma they quickly hide in their car. The taxi’s lights illuminate the getaway car, but the driver inside apparently doesn’t notice anything. Vehicles also pass by occasionally, on Highway 60, but don’t bother the burglars. A Palestinian minibus traveling on the internal road sends them scurrying to their car, but afterward they carry on as before.

Shattered garden statues at Mohammed's plant nursery.
Shattered garden statues at Mohammed's plant nursery.Credit: Alex Levac

At 2:58 A.M. the driver turns on the car’s lights and the group leaves the site quickly, their car loaded with stolen goods. Behind them a trail of wreckage: broken flowerpots and decorative garden items strewn all over the floor.

Mahmadi rushed to the nursery after Maher phoned. He called his policeman-brother and also the Israel Police, whose investigators arrived fairly soon, around 5:30 or 6 A.M. He pulled the security footage and watched the burglary, minute by minute.

In the days that followed he was constantly taken aback as he discovered more and more missing items. A saw worth 3,000 shekels, a Makita power screwdriver costing 1,500 shekels. The burglars even took disposable plastic cups.

Nonetheless, the focus this last time was on the loss of 5-year-old citrus and plum trees, which are already bearing fruit and sell for about 100 shekels each. The thieves chose only the most expensive ones, Mahmadi says – about 20 of them. They also stole braided wicker baskets and bamboo fencing for gardens, smashed decorative sculptures and took the heavy wooden stools on which the flowerpots were displayed.

“Dogs are better than them,” Mahmadi says, his frustration and anger very much apparent. “Do you know why I am upset? Because never in my life have I done anything bad to anyone. They robbed me once, twice. I didn’t say anything and I didn’t tell anyone. Maybe it was someone with no money. I said: There is a God. Sometimes you think you’re the one in the wrong. But then I discovered that it was the settlers.”

Mohammed Mahmadi. “Dogs are better than them,” he says of the burglars. “You know why I’m upset? Because never in my life have I done anything bad to anyone.”
Mohammed Mahmadi. “Dogs are better than them,” he says of the burglars. “You know why I’m upset? Because never in my life have I done anything bad to anyone.”Credit: Alex Levac

Although the police showed up, Mahmadi didn’t think they took it very seriously. “Nothing could interest them less,” he says. “If it had interested them, they would have already found my merchandise and returned it to me. That’s the only thing I care about. If a Jew were to call and say, there’s an Arab who’s just holding a stone – not even throwing, just holding one – they would shut down the whole area. Call the police now and tell them you saw an Arab with a stone in his hand. They would come and turn the whole place upside down.

“If I were to steal something from a Jew, they would fuck me over. I’m sick of it, ‘bro. I don’t know what to do. I told the police officers: Before you take fingers [fingerprints], take me with you to Rehelim and we’ll find the merchandise and bring it back. But the police officer said: That’s our job. And he left.”

The next day, Monday, personnel from the forensic department of Israel Police’s Shai (Samaria-Judea) District arrived at the nursery; Mahmadi gave them the footage from his security camera. In a letter that Israeli attorney Eitay Mack sent this week to the legal adviser of the Shai District, he described the police’s handling of the recurring thefts as negligent, adding that they were politically motivated.

“The behavior of the Shai District police helps settlers involved in nationalistic crimes to evade justice,” Mack stated.

The spokesperson for the Shai District, Shlomit Bakshi, made do with a brief reply to a query from Haaretz about the last incident: “An investigation is underway. Suspects have not yet been arrested. The proprietor is invited to come to the station and provide identifying details about suspects he claims he knows.”

After our visit to the crime scene, we visited Rehelim. There’s a new neighborhood of large single-family homes there, and also mobile homes whose neglect and shabbiness are conspicuous. We looked for a silver-gray Subaru with a white door but didn’t find one.

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