The New Year’s Day attack deepened Jewish suspicion of the Arab community, which is suspected of divided loyalties, and has drawn attention to the inequalities that help fuel Arab-Jewish tensions.
“All Arabs are being blamed for the attack,” said Said Milhem, 60, a distant relative of the shooter. “If you are an Arab today, you are a target.”
Israel’s Arab citizens, ethnic Palestinians who remained in Israel following the 1948 war surrounding the state’s creation, have for decades maintained a tenuous relationship with Israel’s Jewish majority.
As citizens, they are granted full rights. Arab-Israelis have risen to top posts in politics, the judiciary, sports, medicine and entertainment. But the community has long been viewed by many with suspicion, seen as untrustworthy, with loyalties torn between their Israeli citizenship and their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Arab Israelis and their lawmakers often take part in protests supporting Palestinian causes that at times turn violent. Unlike Jews, most Arabs do not serve in the country’s military. They face discrimination in the workplace and housing market, and their towns suffer from poor public services and infrastructure.
The deadly Tel Aviv attack on a bar in the heart of the coastal city was carried out by Nashat Milhem, a 31-year-old from the northern town of Arara.
The shooting spree stung Israelis, not only because of its brazenness but because it touched fears that the country’s 1.7 million Arabs, one-fifth of the population, could emerge as a threat from within.
The manhunt for Milhem reinforced those concerns. In contrast to Palestinian assailants from the West Bank, he was an Israeli citizen who worked at a greengrocer’s in a Tel Aviv neighborhood and knew the lay of the land. A frantic, weeklong search caused widespread panic until he was found hiding in his hometown and killed in a shootout with Israeli forces.
Milhem killed two Jewish Israelis at the bar in Tel Aviv and an Arab taxi driver.
The attack came during a monthlong wave of near-daily Palestinian stabbings and shootings that have killed 24 Israelis and one American student. More than 140 Palestinians have been killed, the majority of them said by Israel to be attackers. A handful of Arab Israelis have been involved in attacks.
While the motive for Milhem’s assault was not known at first, Israel eventually declared it to be politically motivated. The attack drew immediate fire toward the Arab community, many of whom condemned the violence and called for Milhem to turn himself in.
Hard-line Israeli lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman, who has in the past proposed that Arabs pledge loyalty to the state, said “there is fertile ground for another Nashat Milhem.”
The night after the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the scene of the shooting. After welcoming Arab leaders’ condemnations of the attack, he demanded a crackdown to impose law and order on Arab towns.
“We will demand from everyone loyalty to the state’s law. You can’t say ‘I am Israeli’ when it comes to rights and Palestinian when it comes to duties,” he said.
Israeli Arabs say Netanyahu is capitalizing on an attack by one person to incite ill-will against the entire community.
They remain scarred by Netanyahu’s election day comments last year, when he galvanized his hawkish supporters by warning that “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls.” The comments drew accusations of racism and international condemnation and Netanyahu later apologized.
Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint Arab List in Israel’s parliament, told The Associated Press that Netanyahu was responsible for “perpetuating a situation of discrimination” against the Arab population.
“If there is an individual, Jew or Arab, who breaks the law, we need to punish him accordingly and not disparage an entire population,” Odeh said.
Residents of Milhem’s hometown of 22,000 say police ignored their rights in the search for the attacker – treatment they say a Jewish community would not receive.
They say that last Friday, as police were closing in on Milhem, hundreds of officers spilled into the town of Arara. For hours they sealed off the area leading to the home where Milhem was hiding, preventing anyone from entering and searching homes seemingly at random. Then they descended on Milhem’s hideout.
Police said they opened fire when Milhem shot at the security forces. In a reflection of the deep mistrust toward Israeli authorities, residents dispute this version of events, claiming a connection to Israel’s Shin Bet security service prompted the attack. The Shin Bet has denied the allegations.
This week, the home where Milhem hid remained sealed off. A plank of wood and a brown tattered couch blocked the front door. The windows were shuttered, but through a crack, a disorderly kitchen and a bathroom could be seen. The yard was littered with garbage.
Israel has continued to hunt for accomplices. Milhem’s relatives say police overturned their house, damaging a car and several home appliances.
Adel Milhem, a cousin, said jewelry had disappeared after the raid.
“If (Nashat) Milhem is a bad guy, it doesn’t mean that every Milhem is a bad guy,” he said.
Police, citing a gag order, declined to comment.
The acrimonious atmosphere has been compounded by a bitter spat in the northern city of Afula, where a plan by Arabs to move into town has met fierce resistance from Jewish residents. Jews and Arabs typically live separately, though Arabs have begun to move into Jewish areas in growing numbers for better schools and services.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said the prime minister is “committed to equal opportunity for all Israeli citizens,” pointing to a recently announced landmark billion-dollar budget intended to improve the living conditions of the Arab community.
But days after the Tel Aviv shooting, Netanyahu appointed a committee of government ministers to study the budget in what critics say is a bid to make the funds contingent upon certain conditions.
While Arab legislators and activists welcomed the budget, they say that without addressing the deep-rooted suspicions between the communities, the new funds will not bring many benefits.
“For Israeli society as a whole to prosper, Jewish-Arab relations must be addressed,” said Thabet Abu Ras, co-director of the Abraham Fund, a group that promotes coexistence between Arabs and Jews.