Crime: Not all in the family

As two feuding clans in Jaffa suck the rest of the city's Arab population into their turf war, police are stepping up operations by pounding the pavement.

crime scene 88 (photo credit: )
crime scene 88
(photo credit: )
Lined with trees, green parks and beautifully refurbished homes and churches, Rehov Yafet in Jaffa seems like the last place a bloody turf war would be playing itself out. Among the colorful homes built faithfully according to authentic Middle Eastern design, local Jaffa-based Israeli-Arab families are at war fighting for control over land, the local drug industry and, according to one frightened resident: "What everyone fights over power." It is "business as usual" at the nearby flea market, with tourists milling around looking for the latest bargain on Jewish and Mideastern antiques. The nargila cafes are packed with youths from all over the country who come here to wind down with a cup of Turkish coffee and some fruit-flavored tobacco. But as one turns off the main drag and into some of Jaffa's back side-streets and alleys, a new reality awaits filled with fear and violence. Some locals say they try to stay off the streets, and if they do venture out, they are constantly looking over their shoulders. "No one is safe here anymore," says a vendor. "Everyone Jews and Arabs alike are targets." In the course of the past month alone, four people were murdered on Jaffa's seemingly tranquil streets, some of them gunned down in broad daylight. Two weeks ago, Yasser Abu-Shihab, 26, and Mustafa Abu-Huti, 42, were gunned down by an unidentified assassin who police believe was sent to avenge the murders of brothers Imad and Muhammed Atrash 10 days earlier. In January, two Jaffa residents were killed in the space of 12 hours. Ali Rihan was shot to death by unidentified assailants outside his felafel stand on Rehov Yafet. Several hours later, a known criminal was murdered not far away. At the center of the violence, police say, is a war of hamulot a feud among rival Arab families the Hameds up against a coalition made of the Ashour, Atrash, Mahajna and Ayash families all veterans of the seaside city. According to urban legend, the war began in the mid-80s, when the Ashour-born wife of a Hamed family member left her husband, claiming he had beaten her. The couple's brothers then got involved in the marital rift, and the families declared war against one another. But what was once a stabbing here and a punch there has recently turned into a bloody battle, police say, with both sides heavily armed and easy on the trigger. "The war is no longer merely between two families," says one police officer. "It has sucked in the entire Arab population of the city." Police mark Rihan's murder in January as the opening shot of the recent escalation. Not a single suspect has been arrested, but police say they believe he was ordered killed by Izat Hamed. Rihan returned recently to Jaffa after a 12-year exile in Jordan, where he fled after testifying against Hamed and landing him in prison. Hamed was released last year, and police believe that Rihan's murder was Hamed's first act of revenge. With this kind of violence on the rise, police decided to take drastic measures, among them the deployment of several hundred reinforcements to Jaffa to patrol the streets. Cavalry units and heavily armed Border Policemen from the elite Yasam unit can be seen patrolling the inner streets of the city. The goal, police say, is to prevent crime by making police presence on the streets as powerful a deterrent as possible. In 1995, local community leaders hoped to revive the once cordial relationship that existed between the families. Sheikh Basan Abu Ziad referred to by locals as "Jaffa's rabbi" arranged for a sulha, or peace meeting, with the participation of local lay leaders and Arab Knesset members. Quiet was restored, although not for long. Today, Abu Ziad, 58 and confined to a wheelchair, doesn't believe a second sulha would have any influence over the deteriorating situation. "Ten years ago, we had a big party and invited Knesset members," Abu Ziad recalls. "Today it is much more difficult, since the entire city of Jaffa is involved in this war not a mere two families." According to Abu Ziad, the younger generation "punks who heed to no higher authority" has taken over the streets of Jaffa. The war, he adds, is not over anything specific neither drugs nor prostitution but rather over who has more power. A Jaffa business owner agrees. "The sides fight to show who is stronger," the middle-aged man says, puffing away at a fruit-scented nargila. "These are youths who think everything is just a game." While police believe their newly-launched operation will ultimately stop the bloodshed, Abu Ziad and other Jaffa residents claim the men-in-blue aren't doing enough. "If the police wanted to, in a matter of hours they could finish everything," one store owner says. Abu Ziad concurs. "The police need to be more forceful," he says. "Why do they allow the youths to run around with weapons which they don't confiscate when everyone here is in danger?" The police tell it differently. They point to the establishment of a new Border Police unit called "Aviv," which has been assigned the task of "looking after Jaffa." There are currently more than 250 uniforms roaming the streets of Jaffa, they say, to deter crime, collect intelligence and perform undercover operations. Right now, they are trying to collect evidence against criminals such as Izat Hamed or convince one of his confidants to turn state's witness against him. "If we cut off the head of the snake, the rest of the body will fall," one officer says, explaining: "The whole war here is about power. If we the police don't bring this to an end once and for all, it will never finish."