Analysis: Tribal culture, animosity behind Israeli Arab town’s hiding of killer

“Loyalty to one’s group is the first and only principle.”

January 13, 2016 07:03
2 minute read.
Security forces search for Nashat Milhem in the Israeli Arab village of Arara

Security forces search for Nashat Milhem in the Israeli Arab village of Arara. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The fact that Arara residents sheltered and kept quiet about the fact that the shooter in the Tel Aviv terrorist attack Nashat Milhem was hiding in the town can be explained by the Arab tribal cultural trait of family honor, which overrides any countervailing considerations.

For a family member or fellow resident of the town, turning the shooter over to Israeli authorities would be a breach of local mores. Furthermore, locals sympathetic with anti-Jewish or anti-Israel attitudes would have other reasons not to turn him in.

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“What happened is a combination of tribalism – loyalty to a member of the clan at any price, anti-Jewish sentiments and anti-establishment feelings which prevail all over the Middle East,” Mordechai Kedar, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam, which is under formation, and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told The Jerusalem Post.

In a Kebab fast-food joint on a main street of Arara a few days after the attack, one youth who refused to give his name told the Post victims of the shooting attack “deserved it.”

“They kill our children,” he angrily declared, adding that the government persecutes Palestinians.

Israelis are astonished and upset that residents in the town hid or did not alert authorities that the shooter was in their town for nearly a week after the attack, but the West and Israeli Jews do not hold the same cultural values as the Arab world.

This was clearly demonstrated in recent years with the “Arab Spring,” which early on was deemed by much of the Western world as revolutions based on the demand for democracy and political rights. However, as the uprisings became an Islamist winter, the continuity of Arab political culture was illustrated.


“Morality in a tribal society requires that each individual be loyal to his or her family, lineage, clan and tribe, above all other considerations,” Philip Carl Salzman, a professor of anthropology at McGill University and an expert on Arab tribal culture, told the Post.

“Such universalistic rules as encoded in laws – for example, against killing – which purport to apply to all citizens equally – are disregarded in tribal morality,” he said.

“Loyalty to one’s group is the first and only principle.”

Halim Barakat, a novelist, sociologist and retired professor at The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, was born in Syria and raised in Beirut.

He writes in his book, The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State, about the importance of the classic Arab family as the fundamental unit in Arab society – holding just as true among a traditional Beduin family as it does among that of a modernized urban Arab.

“The success or failure of an individual member becomes that of the family as a whole.

This centrality of the family as the basic socioeconomic unit is now being increasingly challenged by the state and other social institutions. But the network of interdependent kinship relations continues to prevail.”

Therefore, whether it was incitement from imams in mosques, political leaders, family members, or Islamic State videos online – a culture of strong family solidarity along with enmity toward the state facilitated Milhem’s ability to hide from authorities.

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