The sentencing this week of Arad resident Aryeh Schiff returned a longstanding Israeli debate about the “purity of arms” to the fore. Though the crime for which he was convicted in July wasn’t military in nature, the arguments surrounding it are reminiscent of those raised in relation to the IDF.
A year ago in December, the then-70-year-old was arrested for shooting and killing 36-year-old Bedouin Mohammad al-Atrash – an ex-con with a hefty rap sheet – who had broken into his car and was driving it away. Schiff recounted that he and his wife were awoken by a noise that they realized was the auto theft in progress.
He then ran outside with his pistol drawn and fired twice at the car. The first thing he did when he discerned that the thief had been hit was to phone the police and an ambulance.
Paramedics evacuated Atrash to the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, where he was pronounced dead from a bullet wound to the head. Meanwhile, Schiff fully cooperated with interrogators, admitting that he had not first fired a warning shot in the air. He claimed, however, that he had aimed at the car’s tires, not the robber in the driver’s seat.
“All my life, I will have to live with the fact that I killed a person unintentionally,” Schiff told the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court. “My grief is deep for taking a person’s life… I am very sorry for the tragic event.”
POLICE AND prosecutors told a different story, however, based on video footage of the incident, which showed Schiff pointing his weapon at Atrash. They appealed the court’s decision to release Schiff on house arrest for the duration of the investigation, requesting that he be charged with reckless manslaughter, and claiming that he posed a flight risk. After extending his remand three times at the behest of the prosecution, the court finally sent Schiff home.
The following July, three months ago, the Beersheba District Court rejected Schiff’s claim of self-defense and convicted him of manslaughter. He was sentenced to nine months of community service through a plea bargain, thwarting the prosecution’s initial demand that he be imprisoned for four to six years.
Not surprisingly, responses to both the case itself and the verdict were divided along political lines, with the Right backing Schiff and the Left assuming its customary, bleeding-heart stance.
Meretz MK Mossi Raz, for example, called the sentence an “embarrassment,” warning against the “normalization” of citizens taking the law into their own hands. Of course, he had to add, “I can’t help thinking that if Schiff had been an Arab, his punishment would have been far more severe.”
Never mind that the second part of his statement is especially ridiculous, given the major problem of violence and lawlessness in the Arab sector, which police and prosecutors have been at a loss to tackle and that the government keeps vowing to rectify. Raz’s point was clear: to suggest that nationalism and racism are responsible for all of Israel’s societal flaws.
Speaking of which, “racist” is what the Bedouin who gathered outside the Beersheba courthouse to protest Schiff’s “lenient” sentence screamed at right-wing MK Itamar Ben-Gvir when he arrived on the scene. A commotion ensued when he called Schiff a “hero” who wouldn’t have had to shoot Atrash if the police had been effective in deterring crime in the South.
Ben-Gvir was referring to a particular extenuating circumstance. But there were many others that are crucial to grasping the full picture and forming a judgment.
ONE IS that Schiff has an impeccable record as a law-abiding citizen. Another is that he is a former Israel Police volunteer, which is why he was in possession of a legal firearm.
A third is that he is the bereaved parent of a son, Ofer, who was killed 24 years ago in a car accident. In Ofer’s memory, he and his wife set up a tent in their yard to provide refreshment, at no cost, to hikers traversing Israel’s National Trail – a path crossing the country from its northernmost tip along the Lebanese border to its southernmost point in Eilat. Since establishing the rest stop in 2009, the Schiffs have hosted more than 10,000 trekkers.
A fourth is that prior to that fateful night when he killed Atrash, he’d already had three cars stolen. Indeed, he’s one among a multitude of Arad residents who’ve been burglarized by a ring of thieves with which Atrash was likely associated.
Schiff’s reaction to watching Atrash brazenly take off in his vehicle, then, wasn’t the act of a trigger-happy vigilante. It was a spur-of-the moment move deserving of empathy.
When viewed in the above context, the shooting was not only understandable, but its consequences will wrench Schiff’s gut for the rest of his life. The Atrash family, while grieving its loss, would do well to acknowledge the risks involved in a life of crime, not decry the Israeli justice system from a high-horse perch.
SCHIFF’S PREDICAMENT calls to mind the 2008 “Dromi Law,” named after Shai Dromi, a farmer in southern Israel charged with killing a burglar who broke into his house and poisoned his dog to keep it from barking.
The culprit was a Bedouin named Khaled al-Atrash (undoubtedly from the same clan as, if not a close relative of, the Atrash who tried to steal Schiff’s car). He died of his wounds in spite of Dromi’s attempts to resuscitate him.
You heard that right. Dromi administered CPR to the dangerous creep who invaded his home to pilfer his belongings and murdered his pet. Nevertheless, Dromi was arrested, detained for a month and put on trial for manslaughter.
Although he was acquitted on that particular charge, he was convicted of “illegally possessing” the gun he used in the shooting – a rifle given to him by his father, who had failed to make an official transfer of ownership. Throughout the period of the whole ordeal, his farm and livelihood naturally suffered a huge blow.
Dromi’s plight aroused sympathy on the Right. Only left-wing parliamentarians opposed legislation, proposed by Likud MK Israel Katz, to classify actions such as his – during home invasions deemed life-threatening – as “self-defense.” The rest of the Knesset voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill.
While the “Dromi Law” isn’t applicable to Schiff, because the thief in his case was on the run, the moral parallel is plain. In both instances, someone defending his property became the accused party – guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around – due to a split-second decision he was put in the position of having to make.
LIKUD MK Amir Ohana, who held the public-security portfolio when Atrash was shot by Schiff, summed it up nicely at the time: “In the fight against crime, there are good [guys] and bad,” he wrote on Facebook. “There are law-abiding citizens who work to protect themselves and their property, and there are violent and dangerous criminals who make a living at [their] expense.”
The state, he said, is responsible for protecting the former, but “it’s not possible to place a police officer on every street corner 24/7, [and] in cases of citizens acting to protect themselves, the state should back them up.”
In the same post, Ohana cited the Israeli penal code, according to which “a person shall not be held criminally liable for an act that was immediately necessary to repel an unlawful assault that posed a tangible danger of harm to his/her life, liberty, body or property.”
In other words, Schiff is not guilty even where the letter of the law is concerned. It’s a shame, thus, that he was convicted of manslaughter and put through the ringer for so many months before a reasonable compromise, in the spirit of the law, was reached on his punishment.
It may be perilous, as Raz pointed out, for people to take that law into their own hands. It’s downright immoral, however, for a society to confuse victims with villains.