Innocent Victims Pay With Their Lives for Growing Gun Violence in Israel's Arab Communities

In the past two years, at least seven people died, including young children and old women, and many more were wounded because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time

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Sharifa Abu Muammar's relatives mourn her death at a funeral tent near her house in Ramle, September 1, 2020.
Sharifa Abu Muammar's relatives mourn her death at a funeral tent near her house in Ramle, September 1, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

Sharifa Abu Muammar, 30, a teacher and mother of four who was killed outside her Ramle home last week by gunfire between criminals, was at least the seventh innocent person in the past two years to die as a result of organized crime in Israeli Arab communities.

Some of the victims, whose ages ranged from 17 to 84, were hit by stray bullets or caught in the crossfire between rival gangs. In other cases, the intended target was a family member.

The police commander in one Arab community said the proliferation of illegal guns was in part the result of the failure of the police to address the problem for many years. He also cited a culture that prizes gun ownership. “These weapons are a status symbol, like a Mercedes,” said the commander, who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity.

“Today every family has a weapon,” he said, adding that the police have not always maintained a presence in the country’s Arab communities, and families felt the need to defend themselves. “They’ve bought doomsday weapons. The phenomenon increased. We in the police got into the picture too late. Now we need to come and show that we are here to deal with the situation.”

But the police are not the only ones responsible for the situation. Lenient sentences given to those convicted of the killings have also been a factor. One clear example of that is the case of Intisar al-Issawi, a mother of five from Ramle who was killed in May 2019 when a criminal who was seeking to intimidate her son shot at her home. The gunman, Omar Musrati, escaped the scene but, in an unusual turn in the case, he was apprehended after being fingered by his wife and brother.

The case, which was considered a high-profile case for the Central District of the Israel Police in its fight against crime in Arab communities, ended in a plea bargain. The original charges of manslaughter and aggravated assault were reduced to reckless homicide and illegal use of a firearm, despite the objections of the victim’s family.

In March, Musrati was sentenced to five years in prison and a six-month suspended sentence. The Issawis were outraged. “What’s five years? It’s nothing,” a relative of the victim told Haaretz this week. “I’ve been in mourning ever since. I will mourn my entire life.”

In August 2019, Sabriya Abu Saif, 70, was killed at her home in a family compound in Jaffa by a stray bullet. The crime has not been solved, but police detectives have concluded that the gunfire was intended for her grandson, possibly as a warning. Also wounded in the incident were a 45-year-old woman and an 11-year-old boy.

In March, Tamam Jabali, 84, was killed by a stray bullet while sitting in her living room in Taibeh, in central Israel, presumably in the course of a gunfight in the town between criminals. Police dispatched to the scene made no arrests, and the case remains open.

In a case from December 2018, two hours after a couple was killed in a dispute with organized crime groups in Lod, in central Israel, gunmen shot at the home of a family, killing Ali al-Assam, 47, and wounding another man. Relatives of Assam said he had nothing to do with the earlier killing. His brother Ahmed al-Assam told Haaretz that Ali had gone to the home to collect money from his employer, and had no enemies.

In May 2019, Tawfik Zaher, 60, a prominent oud-player, was killed at a bakery in Nazareth during an outing with his 4-year-old granddaughter. The bullet was presumably meant for an employee. Police say that Abd al-Majid Marwan Waked, who has been charged in the case, shot the employee and fired at least five more bullets into the bakery before escaping on a motorcycle, together with a second man who is still at large. Zaher, who shielded his granddaughter from the bullets, was shot in the heart. Waked was arrested nine days later. His trial is ongoing.

In two other incidents last year, a 9-year-old girl in Lod and an 8-year-old girl in Kalansua were wounded by gunfire that had not been aimed at them.

In January 2020, Avi Tzitzuashvili, 17-year-old Jewish boy from the northern Israeli coastal city of Nahariya, was accidently shot and killed in an alleged assassination attempt involving two criminals in the city. The gunman, Hilal bin Mohammed Halu of Acre, had allegedly been aiming at someone whom he was in a dispute with when Tzitzuashvili walked into the line of fire. Halu was charged with aggravated murder in March.

“We live this 24 hours a day. We think about the incident every moment,” Tzitzuashvili’s father, Yossi, told Haaretz. “When we heard about [Sharifa Abu Muammar], my wife started crying. That’s how it is every time we hear about someone shot by accident. It comes back to us. Up to now, we haven’t recovered from it.”

Conflicts in an explosive atmosphere

A study by the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem law school, in cooperation with the Israel Police, examined the police response to the increasing use of firearms in Israel’s Arab community. An additional portion of the findings were recently released from the study, which was led by criminologists Dr. Yael Litmanovich, Prof. Badi Hasisi, Prof. David Weisburd and Shani Tshuva. Their work included interviews with senior police officers at four police stations serving Arab communities.

The researchers found that at three of the four police stations, the station commanders perceived the widespread use of guns as what was described as “a result of a lack of governance, a lack of legitimacy on the part of the police and low confidence in the police and state institutions.”

The police noted two main impediments in effectively dealing with the problem – a lack of readiness by civilians to cooperate with the police and obstruction of investigations. One commander described the situation as follows from the standpoint of the Arab citizen on the ground: “I would complain, but at night, when they shoot at my car, you won’t protect me.”

The commander said the Arab residents understand that they are alone. “If he’s alone, he deals with it by himself. He will settle it internally, with a sulha [an informal conflict resolution process], and then the problem gets worse. We need deterrence, so they know that if someone shoots, he will go to jail.”

The study found that the focus of the police on specific criminals or areas has led to a drop in violent crime, including specifically shooting incidents. According to one intelligence officer, 85 percent of shootings are the result of ongoing disputes between clans or rival criminals.

The yard of the home in Ramle, in central Israel, where Intisar al-Issawi was shot dead in May, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Ninety percent of the shootings are to intimidate, a warning. They shoot at your business, at your car. Only 10 percent are intended to harm or kill,” the study states quoting an investigation officer at a large police station in an Arab community.

“If they want to reduce the shootings, they need to deal with the disputes,” said one station commander. “We will be successful when the police understand that they aren’t dealing with the shooting, but with the dispute.”

The study found that the source of the dispute might be a decades-old rivalry, a dispute over land or even something trivial. Nevertheless, there was a consensus among the police officers interviewed that many of the conflicts were not complicated and were the result of trivial events “in an explosive climate,” as it was called.

“The small incidents lead to the large incidents. An argument at school leads to a brawl, the parents’ intervention, the throwing of a grenade, arson and gunfire, or an argument between women. Most of the cases of gunfire start with ‘I didn’t look at him right.’ … We also deal with the posting of sex videos. Then you need to catch it and prevent the posting because it would end in murder.”

One station commander put it this way: “Here over any nonsense they go out with a weapon and shoot. He didn’t say hello to me. He insulted me on Facebook. Anything from zero to 100. Anything ends in gunfire. If I didn’t shoot at you, you won’t have gotten the message.”

“We have to deal with the small disputes and make them a priority. The deeper we get into that, the more we will prevent shooting incidents and the more serious cases,” said another commander said.

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