Peaceful by nature

While Eilat's City of No-Violence program is transforming the town to a tranquil place, countrywide there's a growing culture of violence in all spheres of society.

eilat tourism 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post [file])
eilat tourism 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post [file])
It's hard to imagine anyone getting riled up in Eilat. The resort town on the shores of the Red Sea, surrounded by serene, sandy mountains, is usually the place where most people go to escape the madness of daily life elsewhere in the country and relax. But since its official establishment during the early 1950s, the town has been adopted as a safe haven of sorts for criminals and runaways from all spheres of life. That, combined with the struggling socio-economic makeup of the development town's 55,000 permanent residents, has meant a sure recipe for crime and violence. Even as recently as last week, when quite by chance 8,000 politicians, government officials, police chiefs, social workers, local authority staffers, educators and journalists were gathered there for a conference examining violence in society and ways to prevent it, the local police department announced that it had captured a wanted murderer hiding there. Shimon Vehava, 22, who was arrested on Wednesday just as the conference was kicking off, is suspected of murdering a security guard during an attempted supermarket heist in Holon on March 30. "Eilat is different from most other places in Israel," said Southern District police chief Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev at the conference. "With a large proportion of the town's population coming from transients and tourists, things happen in Eilat that would not happen in other places." Vehava's arrest was an ironic start to the two-day symposium, organized by the city of Eilat specifically to showcase the success of its "City of No-Violence" initiative. The program, which has been running as a pilot for the past three years and will eventually be expanded to 200 cities countrywide, features projects ranging from police teaching kindergartners to after-school sports activities led by trained youth workers to courses for parents on how to relate to their children, as well as closed-circuit TV cameras in trouble spots and beefed-up police patrols throughout the night. Figures released last week by the police show that the programs seem to be working. The data show a 51 percent reduction in domestic violence, a 35% drop in youth brawls and a 30% decrease in vandalism. In the education system, where the program has perhaps been most active, the results are even more impressive, with a 30% fall in physical violence and a 61% drop in vandalism and damage to school property. While statistics from Eilat are encouraging, and police figures pertaining to youth crime nationwide suggest that there has actually been a fall in youth violence over the past year, Asst.-Cmdr. Suzy Ben-Baruch, head of the police's youth department - who spoke at the conference about the dangers of pedophiles and sex offenders using the Internet to reach more victims - told The Jerusalem Post that the severity of youth crimes is on the rise. "While overall there has only been a 2% increase in violent crimes by youth, the types of crimes they now commit are much more dangerous than ever before," she said. But police figures are only the tip of the iceberg. DURING A SESSION on violence against women, social worker Anat Almoznina, coordinator for the Maslan women's shelter, a project of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, said only 10% of victims report the crimes against them. "People always ask me why women do not report sex crimes," she said. "But I always say, 'What reason do they have to report what has happened to them?'" Both Almoznina and lawyer Kinneret Barashi, legal counsel for "Alef" - one of the defendants bringing the case against President Moshe Katsav - argued that the law does not do enough to protect female victims of sex crimes. With so many crimes left unreported, a more complete picture of violent crime can be gained from data published by various NGOs. The National Council for the Child's 2006 annual report indicated a 6% increase in violent crimes committed by minors from 2004 to 2005. While statistics collected by the National Hot Line for Battered Women and Children at Risk noted close to 5,000 calls were received between May 2005 and April 2006. The hot line found that 1,518 of the callers had been victims of physical violence, 432 reported violent threats, 154 economic abuse and 80 sexual attacks. The organization also claimed that from December 2005 through November 2006, 18 women had been murdered either by family members or by partners, including victims of so-called honor killings, up from 16 the previous year and 12 in 2004. Add to that, the results of a recent study conducted by the University of Haifa's Department of Gerontology and School of Social Work, which stated that a quarter of the country's elderly population living at home and being cared for by family members are neglected and abused, as well as other cases of violence that are never officially recognized, and there certainly seems to be a growing culture of violence in all spheres of society. BACK AT THE conference, guests are milling about the booths at the information fair, which offer insights into the 20 or so projects run by Eilat's City of No-Violence program and promote similar national initiatives sponsored by the Ministry of Social Services and Welfare and/or various NGOs. Suddenly, two dark-haired teens, dressed almost identically in jeans and tight tank tops, start to yell at each other. No one is quite sure why the argument has broken out or whether it is real, but the girls start to get physical, slapping and pulling hair. A youth worker breaks the two apart and they storm off in different directions. He attempts to do follow-up, coaxing them to talk out their differences rather than use curses or physical actions. It is only one of a handful of sideshows put on by the city's young people, who are very obviously proud of reaching their goal to bring down violence in their society. The architect of the City of No-Violence program, Dr. Orly Innes-Kenig, is proud too. She told the Post she is not surprised that it has achieved such impressive results. "This is an excellent social program that can really make a difference in Israeli society," she says. "It really needs to be given the attention it deserves." "It offers a holistic approach to preventing violence in society," offers the police force's Ben-Baruch. Asked whether this preventive approach also needs tighter laws and tougher punishments, Ben-Baruch says, emphatically "no." "In Israel we believe in rehabilitation before severe punishment. In other places, such as the US, 16-year-olds are judged as adults. We believe that if we reach potential criminals before they commit the crime and work with them educationally, then we can prevent them choosing the wrong path," she says. But Innes-Kenig says the program does contain an element of punishment, but with more emphasis on prevention and the use of all facets of society - police, education system, social welfare system and ordinary citizens - to fight violence. "We will never get to zero violence, but what we can do is to pull all these elements together in dealing with violence in society," she says. Although Tiberias, Upper Nazareth, Acre, Hadera, Netanya, Bat Yam, Ramle, Rahat, Ashkelon and Ma'aleh Adumim have joined the program in the last two months, Innes-Kenig said she believes that it needs to be expanded more rapidly and was gratified by the participation of many other local authorities in the conference. However, she adds that its success really depends on the support it gets from local authorities and back-up funding. "Eilat succeeded because Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevy was crazy about the idea and really pushed it. The program needs to have leadership like that and then it will work," she says.