WHEN NASHAT Milhem was shot dead in early January by security forces, most Israelis, regardless of their religion, were relieved, since the terror killing of three people in Tel Aviv by the 29-year-old Israeli- Arab gunman on New Year’s Day threatened to further poison the already tense and fragile relations between the country’s Jews and Arabs.
The personal story of Milhem and his family is illustrative of the broader picture of how Jews and Arabs try to coexist in a democratic country that also defines itself as a “Jewish state,” as well as the social, economic and political ramifications of this coexistence.
Milhem was brought up in a relatively well-to-do Arab family in the town of Arara situated in the Wadi Ara region 60 kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv.
His father had strong links to the security forces, and was allowed to carry firearms and keep them at home. Nashat, however, had been a troubled youth. At the age of 18, he was arrested for selling a kilo of hashish to an undercover police agent. A year later, he witnessed the killing of his cousin by police officers during a drug raid.
In 2007, Milhem tried to snatch a rifle from a soldier who, despite being badly beaten, somehow managed to thwart his assailant. Milhem was arrested and was sentenced to five years in jail. He had confessed to the crime and explained that seeing police officers shooting his cousin had traumatized him and he wanted revenge.
His crime was seen as criminal rather than nationalistic.
Following psychiatric examinations, the court recognized him as mentally ill and his sentence was commuted to three years, which he spent in a mental hospital.
After his release, and until embarking on his terror rampage, Milhem worked for nearly five years in the affluent north Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv, first as a grocery delivery boy and later as a construction laborer.
On January 1, 2016, he opened his father’s safe, stole his Italian-made Falcon submachine gun and went on a killing spree.
First, he killed two young Jews sitting in a pub on Dizengoff Street, and then shot an Arab taxi driver dead. Milhem managed to escape and found shelter in Arara for a week until he was tracked down by the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet).
The security forces had hoped to capture him alive so he could be questioned, but when Milhem realized that he had been discovered, he opened fire on his pursuers and was killed.
It is likely that he was not assisted in his flight by his family members and they indeed cooperated with law enforcement authorities. But he did have some helpers, who spirited him away from Tel Aviv and supplied him with food, water and cigarettes.
They were later arrested.
GIVEN HIS demise, we will probably never know Milhem’s true motive for carrying out his act of terrorism. Was it because of his hatred of Jews and, therefore, it can be defined as being a nationalistic crime? And, if so, what inspired him? Was he copying bloodthirsty Islamic State terrorists or was he influenced by local Hamas militants? Or perhaps the Tel Aviv attack was simply the act of an unstable person? Another possibility that has not been ruled out is that Milhem was motivated to clear himself and his family of the tainted image of being “collaborators” with the security establishment.
Still, with all the lack of clarity, the prevailing assumption among police and the Shin Bet is that Milhem’s descent into terror may have been motivated partially by his cousin’s death and by political ideology, and should be regarded as a nationalistic crime.
However, the attack stands out in contrast to the recent wave of Palestinian political violence and terrorism.
Most of the terrorist acts of the past four months, which have killed 29 Israelis and some 130 Palestinians, over 90 of whom were involved in attacks, can be placed into two categories: lone attackers and Hamas-directed terrorism. In the first case, the attacks have been carried out mostly by young Palestinian individuals acting as lone wolves with no organization behind them. Their weapons of choice are “cold” ones: knives or cars.
The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, doesn’t instruct its people to carry out these attacks, but it justifies them by arguing that they are a result of the occupation, the spreading of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the lack of diplomatic progress, and personal frustration and poverty.
Surprisingly, this explanation is also shared to an extent by the Shin Bet and its head Yoram Cohen. In a recent interview Cohen, however, also accuses the PA of incitement and creating the atmosphere that pushes young Palestinians to resort to violence.
The second inspiration for terror comes from Hamas militants in Gaza or abroad, who instruct its members or sympathizers in the West Bank to use weapons.
While Hamas has no desire to open a new war with Israel over Gaza (there have been three since December 2008), it does want to stir up violence and terrorism in the West Bank and inside Israel to inflict as many Israeli casualties as possible, as well as embarrassing the Palestinian Authority in order to weaken it and provoke Israel to act against the PA.
MILHEM’S ACT falls into neither of these categories. Rather, it was more reminiscent of an Islamic-style terrorist action – he targeted a pub on Dizengoff Street, which symbolizes the Westernized, secular lifestyle of Israel; he wanted to kill as many people as possible; and he wanted to get away alive.
The Tel Aviv attack nearly paralyzed the city and its surroundings for almost an entire week – parents were afraid to send their kids to school and people stayed indoors, refraining from going shopping or to restaurants and coffee houses.
It also raised the level of unease and suspicion between Jews and Arabs. This was manipulated by right-wing Israeli elements that tried to further poison, demonize and provoke hatred in order to widen the wedge between the two sides.
The relations between the two communities can be viewed through two contradictory lenses – one pessimistic, the other optimistic.
At 1.5 million people, the Arab minority constitutes some 20 percent of the state’s population. It is predominantly Muslim with small Christian, Druse and Circassian elements.
But even the Muslim community is not homogenous. It is divided between urban dwellers, rural villagers and Beduin. What they all have in common, however, is the feeling of being secondclass citizens and that the government discriminates against them in almost every respect – education, industry, infrastructure, health services and job opportunities.
Since the 1967 Six Day War, not only has the border between Israel and the occupied West Bank been eliminated, but also, to a certain extent, so has the distinction between “Israeli Arabs” and “Palestinians.”
Since then, Israeli Arabs have lived in a schizophrenic condition torn between a process of “Israelization” and “Palestinization.”
Most identify with their Palestinian brothers. They define themselves as part of the “Palestinian people,” but at the same time prefer to benefit from the more liberal, democratic, technologically advanced State of Israel.
When asked, most Israeli Arabs say that even if a Palestinian state is established one day – an idea that nowadays is more of a mirage than a realistic option – they would remain citizens of the Israeli state.
In the last 50 years, no fewer than 150 Israeli Arabs have been involved in acts of terrorism, including murder, while another 200 were associated in various capacities, mainly espionage and money or weapons deliveries with terrorist groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, in 2011, there has been a new phenomenon among young Israeli Arabs – traveling via Turkey to join Islamic State or al-Qaida in Syria and Iraq. According to Shin Bet and Justice Ministry figures, around 100 Israeli Arabs have joined the fighting or tried to establish cells in Israel.
Some were killed, others returned to Israel, and were arrested and sentenced to prison terms.
For pessimists who view the Arab minority via a hostile lens, these figures and trends are significant and dangerous. The pessimists claim it is only a matter of time until more Israeli Arabs, enfranchised or not, turn against the state. Right-wing politicians such as former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman demand complete loyalty from Israeli Arabs or face losing citizenship.
For the optimists, the statistics are negligible, arguing that with such heavy historical baggage and facing a conflicted reality, it is almost a miracle that just a small fraction of the Arab community has resorted to violence and terrorism.
The local Arab leadership, consisting mainly of Knesset Members, ill serves their sector. In fact, they contribute to the polarization of the crisis by focusing on the occupation and Palestinian rights, while almost completely ignoring “small” issues of how to improve the living standards and integration of their community into the state.
Even the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that in order to lower tension the conditions of the Arab minority must be improved. Recently, the government approved a long-term plan to invest 15 billion shekels in the Arab sector. But under pressure from radical right-wingers Netanyahu got cold feet and attached conditions to his plan.
Without pouring money into social welfare and economic programs, the process of alienation of Israeli Arabs will only continue and with it an increase in the number of young Arabs ready to resort to terrorism and violence. Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets @yossi_ melman