The Arab Communities Living Under Fire in Northern Israel

Routine gun battles and illegal weapons caches in Wadi Ara have brought residents to breaking point

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Children in the village of Salem in Wadi Ara. Sirhan Sbeihat’s four kids go to sleep in the bathroom when the bullets start flying. November 2017.
Children in the village of Salem in Wadi Ara. Sirhan Sbeihat’s four kids go to sleep in the bathroom when the bullets start flying. November 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

On Sunday night, Sirhan Sbeihat’s four children abandoned their pink room, full of Hello Kitty gear, and went to sleep in the bathroom of their home in Salem, an Arab village in the area where the Jezreel Valley meets Wadi Ara. On that night there were bullets flying among the village’s homes for about 40 minutes, while the previous night residents counted 48 minutes of continuous gunfire. Even Sbeihat’s house, which is located high on the hill, was hit; the pockmarks can be seen on the walls.

Sbeihat, who manages the health maintenance organization Meuhedet’s clinic in the community and is head of the parents’ committee of the elementary school, isn’t prepared to take unnecessary risks. The children spent the subsequent nights at their grandfather’s home in a different area of the village that is less exposed to gunfire. They are refusing to sleep in their room and his six-year-old son, who can’t sleep at all, is suffering from bouts of vomiting.

A bullet hole in the window of the Jabareen family home, November 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

This time, the reason for the rounds of gunfire was a dispute between a business owner and his former employer. But this community of 1,800 people and the neighboring villages are no strangers to gun battles. The area is full of illegal weapons caches, which makes it easy for neighbors’ disputes or routine disagreements to turn into gun battles that can last for several days.

Residents say the violence has escalated in recent years, in parallel to the increasing availability of illegal weapons for the right price. Practically speaking, the area hasn’t had more than a few consecutive months of quiet over the past four years – “six months at most,” said one of the residents.

In June of last year, Ahmed Rafia, 16, was shot and killed in Salem. His family says he wasn’t involved in any dispute; he was killed simply because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. During the current round of shooting, two people were wounded by stray bullets, one of them an 81-year-old man who was hospitalized with a light wound to his ear.

The village of Salem in Wadi Ara, Noevmber 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Residents of Salem and the nearby communities of Zalafa and Kibbutz Givat Oz talk about tensions and fear, recurring property damage and difficulties keeping their children calm. All stress that the police aren’t doing enough to eradicate this phenomenon. During the most recent round of violence, the police did in fact arrest 10 people and conducted house searches for unauthorized weapons, but area residents have numerous cellphone videos documenting nights of gunfire during which the patrol cars stationed at the entrances to the communities did not come in to confront the gunmen.

Nabil Sbeihat, deputy chairman of the parents’ committee at the regional Ma’aleh Iron Salem-Zalafa high school was involved in shutting down three schools in the community and its surroundings last week in protest over the lack of security in schools. Among the reasons he decided to call a strike was a Facebook exchange between two students who are relatives of those involved in the current dispute. He said he feared that the argument would deteriorate into a confrontation in school.

“It’s like a military base here,” said Amar Rafai, a Salem resident. “All the senior officers at the Umm al-Fahm police station are familiar with the ongoing story of this community and are well aware of the situation.” Rafai says that during the nights of shooting, his wife and his children, ages four and five, leave town to stay with relatives in the nearby village of Musheirifa. “The kids are afraid of the shooting. It’s a war, not a fistfight. We feel like we’re back in 2006, during the [Second] Lebanon War.

Nabil Sbeihat, a resident of the village of Salem, November 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“Two days ago we heard three explosions,” he continues. “I still haven’t succeeded in identifying their source – grenades or missiles. One of the electricity poles was hit and our house went dark. The police aren’t able to prevent this and don’t do their job properly. If someone from Givat Oz had been hurt, the prime minister would have already intervened.”

The tension is also evident in the kibbutz. “The past few nights we heard the bursts of gunfire outside when we were still in the living room,” says Noa Gofer, a member of the kibbutz where stray bullets have hit homes, cars and awnings. “When the shooting starts the feeling is that it’s no longer the safe home on the kibbutz, that we’ve come to a different place. And if that’s how we feel, I can’t even imagine what it feels like in the villages. The whole feeling of security, freedom and a supportive community disappears in a minute.”

Gofer refuses to accept the situation. “We deserve security, and so do they. My neighbors, residents of this country, don’t have to suffer from the acts of crime families in this fashion,” she says. “The authorities battle this phenomenon with all their might in Netanya and in every other big city. Why isn’t that the case here, too? It’s not an acceptable reality, not for us and not for the residents of Salem or Zalafa. Respect them the way they respect us – though in the meantime, none of us is getting the proper attention.”

The arrests made by the police don’t particularly encourage the residents, either. Nabil Sbeihat says that seven of the detainees were only under house arrest for five days and then received restraining orders keeping them away from the area for an additional five days.

Sirhan Sbeihat, his wife and three of his children in the village of Salem, November 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“That’s not the way to deal with the situation,” he says. “They should have found and confiscated their weapons. We ask the police to get tough. It’s clear that the police need help from the Arab population because without them they won’t be able to cope with the gunmen.”

Nabil Sbeihat says that in the past it was easier to cope with the shootings through a sulha – a traditional reconciliation meeting. “Today the younger generation is immersed in Facebook and their telephones, and its losing its culture,” he says. “Once, the word of an adult was holy. Today fathers can’t control their children.”

Sirhan Sbeihat also decries the celebratory gunfire at weddings, saying there’s no reason his children shouldn’t feel safe in their beds. “That’s a red line,” he says, as he stands on the upper balcony of his home, watching his father, who lives further down the hill, examine the bullet marks on the walls of his home.

On the other side of his house lives Karam Jabareen, who was wounded in his hand earlier this week by shrapnel from a stray bullet. Jabareen says there’s only one way to put an end to this inconceivable situation. “You need a police force and intelligence forces to collect the illegal weapons and put an end to this crime,” he said. “It’s about time we stop this. This already crosses all lines. Even on the Lebanese and Gaza borders things like this aren’t happening.”

Jabareen refuses to attribute the phenomenon to any “clan” issues. He stresses that these communities are part of the State of Israel, and are meant to develop along with it. “We believe that the law is supposed to apply to everyone,” he says.

The Coastal District Police said, “On Monday evening in Kafr Salem there was a shooting incident involving two families. Numerous police forces entered the village and conducted searches and arrests. During the event seven suspects were arrested and jailed, and weapons and ammunition were confiscated. The police plan to leave reinforcements in the area and prevent additional friction between those involved. It should be emphasized that the police view irresponsible shooting that risks lives as very grave, and will continue to act resolutely to eradicate such incidents.”