By Peter Lagerquist and Jonathan Cook
Middle East Report – Winter 2005, No 237
On August 4, 2005, Natan Zada, 19, boarded an Egged bus at Haifa’s Hamifratz station, picked a seat in the back and rode it into Shafa ‘Amr, a mixed Druze, Muslim and Christian town in the heart of the Arab Galilee. Zada wore his Israel Defense Forces uniform and, as prescribed, carried with him his military-issued M-16 assault rifle, magazine primed in the slot. On any given day, Israel’s public transport system brims with young men like him, shuttling to and from military bases across the Israeli coastal plain and the occupied Golan Heights and West Bank. On this particular day, however, he was neither returning home nor reporting for duty.
Several weeks earlier, he had deserted from the army in protest at his government’s evacuation of 8,000 settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip as part of Israel’s self-styled “disengagement” from shards of the Occupied Territories. Zada himself had recently moved to the West Bank settlement of Tapuah, where, it was later reported, he had fallen in with the far-right Kach movement. Formally outlawed by the Israeli government, Kach expounds a virulently racist ideology demanding the removal of all non-Jews from the Land of Israel. Once his bus had arrived in Shafa ‘Amr, Zada set his M-16 on automatic and put his beliefs into practice. He killed the driver and three passengers, and wounded another 12, before being overpowered and then beaten to death by angry townspeople, who shunted aside a handful of policemen belatedly arriving at the scene to handcuff him. All of the victims were Palestinian citizens of Israel, known to most Israeli Jews as “Israeli Arabs.”
Deploying the kind of flanking public relations maneuver that has become his hallmark, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moved quickly to contain the damage. To wide international acclaim, he branded Zada a “terrorist,” and slotted the shootings into appropriate context. “This terrorist event was a deliberate attempt to harm the fabric of relations among all Israeli citizens,” his office explained. It was widely presumed that Zada wanted to provoke disturbances among Israel’s Arab minority—a fifth of the Israeli population, and mostly concentrated in the country’s north—and so force the government to divert a share of the 40,000 soldiers and police mobilized for the southern Gaza evacuations, thereby disrupting the “disengagement.” At the very least, he inspired Asher Weissgan, 38, from the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rahel, who on August 17 shot dead four West Bank Palestinians with whom he worked in a nearby settlement industrial zone, and wounded two others. The following day Weissgan told the Israeli press he had “no regrets” and that he hoped someone would kill Sharon. The Israeli premier dutifully condemned the attack as an “exceptionally grave Jewish act of terror,” and “instructed the security establishment to deal harshly with all attempts to harm innocent people,” Israel Radio reported. In contrast to Zada’s attack, Weissgan’s crime garnered few headlines in Israel, and none in the international media, which was otherwise disengaged in Gaza. BBC World evening news showed the way by appending a one-line mention of the attack to a ten-minute panorama of tearful Gaza settlers jostling with Israeli soldiers.
That their lives are cheap came as no news to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. To Israel’s Arab citizens, however, Weissgan’s copycat rampage only deepened the sense that their own existence inside Israel is becoming similarly fraught, buffeted by obsessive Israeli demographic debates and hateful denigrations by senior politicians that reached a fever pitch in the run-up to disengagement, and in which “Israeli Arabs” figure as a national threat no less than their kin across the Green Line. In this respect, the government and media’s voluminous response to Zada’s attack did much less to reassure them than remind them of how warped is the “fabric of relations” in which they are entangled.
News from Another Country
For Arab citizens attempting to follow events in Shafa ‘Amr on the evening of August 4, the most surreal spectacle was provided not by Natan Zada but by their national media. Following an hour of stumped silence, fragmentary reports began emerging on radio and television, hazarding at first, as transcribed by the Nazareth-based I‘lam Media Center, that “a Druze soldier shot at the passengers in the bus.” Two and a half hours after the attack, Channel 2 reported a “conflict between the passengers and the soldier, who was drawn into it, with these results” and went on to note that among the victims “there are some people who are not Jewish.” On the rival Channel 10 news network, anchors Yiron London and Tzvi Yehezkeli “retained an easy, relaxed atmosphere,” observed I‘lam. “At the top of the broadcast, [London] gave no acknowledgement to the headline newsflash of a ‘major event, with shooting and deaths,’ [instead] beginning his report with news on the Maccabi Haifa soccer team, reporting with more seriousness than he did for…Shafa ‘Amr. [Afterwards] Tzvi Yehezkeli joined London in the studio, also with [a] calm, serene face as if the murder of these four people was an imaginary event, involving the deaths of imaginary victims.”
Anxious Arab families were left to imagine the worst. There was no coverage of the dozen people Zada had wounded, notes I‘lam: “No reports or interviews were made from the hospitals, no emergency numbers were broadcast and no psychologists assisting the families were interviewed…. Not one media outlet posed even one question about the wounded, in stark contrast to standard practice in similar incidents where the victims are Jews.” Coverage of Zada’s victims was largely crowded out by coverage of Zada himself, presented with a solemnity otherwise reserved for Jewish victims of Palestinian terror. His picture was shown on TV, captioned with his identity as an Israeli solider, the dates of his birth and death, and the epitaph “God Bless His Soul.” The day after, Hebrew and English tabloids carried front-page pictures of Zada and his bruised corpse. Papers excavated the human story behind the killer and incessantly interviewed his stricken family—an interest they could not arouse for any of his victims. While framed by a wall-to-wall display of solemn condemnation that even recruited Israeli settler representatives for full, if also surreal effect, the coverage served only to remind Arab citizens that they are marginal in Israeli society in ways that even a Jewish extremist like Zada could never be. The contrast with the media’s parallel presentation of disengagement as a national trauma uniting Jewish settlers and soldiers in a pastiche of grief was stark.
Like Zada’s attack, such media coverage sharpened the question of just where Israel’s Arab citizens belong. What was most disquieting about his rampage was that it enacted a belief that they are as much enemies of their state as the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories—a presumption that Zada is far from alone in making, as the coverage infallibly demonstrated. Once the full story emerged, editorials and TV commentators predicted inevitable riots, muscularly anticipated by their government. In preparation for the funerals of Zada’s victims, Reuters reported, “Thousands of Israeli police were called to the north after alerts of potential riots,” ominously recalling that “forces shot dead 13 Israeli Arabs in October 2000 when they tried to quell a rally in support of a Palestinian uprising that had grown violent.” Such references to the “October Riots,” as they are known to most Israeli Jews, were ubiquitous in the press. Palestinian citizens of Israel had already registered the echo of an event they saw very differently—a debacle during which they had been open targets of a rhetoric and treatment akin to that meted out across the border.
The conversations that their Jewish co-citizens conducted over their heads the following week did nothing to allay this sense of elision. On August 11, the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz demoted the disengagement preparations and the Shafa ‘Amr fallout to lead with a piece of breaking census information. “For the First Time, Jews No Longer a Majority Between the Jordan and the Sea,” ran the headline. Nonetheless, the article reassured readers, by ditching Gaza and its 1.4 million Palestinians, Israel would buy itself Jewish demographic superiority for another 20 years. To Israel’s first citizens it was an overt plug for disengagement; to Palestinian citizens of Israel, it was a pointed reminder that the Jewish left-center lumps them with other Palestinians no less than did Zada. The inferred difference is that Kach begs the bigger question: after 20 years, then what? Aptly surmounting the day’s other headlines, the Ha’aretz census story provided a metatext for events in Gaza and Shafa ‘Amr. As veteran commentator Akiva Eldar fruitlessly noted in the same paper: “Solid politicians and popular intellectuals who lend a hand—whether by commission or omission—to erasing the Green Line that, in the collective consciousness, distinguishes residents of the Triangle [the densest cluster of Arab towns in Israel], from their neighbors in the West Bank, are turning Israel’s Arabs into enemies.”
“Lynching” the Victims
The press, however, was already busy working the transformation. As I‘lam observed, on the night of the attack, Channel 2 broadcast only one picture from the scene: the picture of the “angry mob.” It lingered in the ether well into the night, explicated by comments like “the mob is still angry,” and signified by incessant references to the “riots” of October 2000. According to the version of the latter events then enshrined by the media, they were carried out by an armed Arab “mob” seeking to invade neighboring Jewish communities, egged on by the local Arab leadership. Evidence presented to a subsequent government-appointed inquiry, the Or Commission, showed this narrative to be patently false. Yet the myth prevailed, and it was now readily redeployed. Relentlessly interpolating “Israeli Arabs” as violent, irrational and easily “incited” pathogens within the body politic, the effect, as in the aftermath of October 2000, was to pre-position them not as an aggrieved and threatened community but as a riot-in-the-making and to license, if necessary, their violent suppression. As Palestinian citizens mourned their dead, they were reminded that there might be more if they did not mourn quietly and that, as in 2000, those killed or executed would only have themselves to blame.
The “lynching” of Zada became a fulcrum for this discourse, the angle quickly adjusted by editorial headlines like “The Shame of the Jews—and Arabs.” International wire services and major networks like the BBC also peppered their online stories with the word “lynching.” In Israel, indeed, the killing of Zada became a story to rival his killings. On Channel 1, journalist Ayala Hason treated viewers to phrases like “they slaughtered him” and “they took their fury out on him.” These were carefully cultivated echoes of the lynching of two Israeli soldiers who had mysteriously become “lost” in Ramallah during the bloodiest phase of the Israeli army’s counterinsurgency in October 2000, so linking “Israeli Arab” behavior to that of the Palestinian enemy at large. Israelis didn’t fail to pick up on this. “Who knows what happened to him?” one neighbor of Zada’s family told the press. “Maybe the lynching of the soldiers in Ramallah affected him.” That the Israeli journalist dismissed this as a “delusional theory” did nothing to dampen the atmospheric resonance. The outrage was critically amplified by the fact that Zada was killed after the local police had boarded the bus and taken him into custody, effectively turning the affair into an Arab assault on Jewish authority. Sharon soon ordered a full investigation into the matter, stressing that everyone would be held accountable.
By taking Zada’s killers to task, the lynching narrative also burnished Israel’s self-image as a state committed to law and legality. Recouping its failure to uphold the law with respect to Jewish extremists, it thrust the spotlight back on its unruly Arab minority. Indeed, as the media waxed nervous about the redistribution of security forces necessitated by disengagement, it reinforced the notion that law only existed when Jews were there to enforce it. Arab Knesset members fed grist into this mill by calling for the government to suspend its inquiry into Zada’s killing. “Usually a person who disarms a terrorist is considered a hero, but in this case the heroes are being accused,” protested one “Arab sector” leader to Israeli Army Radio. Under the headline “A Lynching Is a Lynching,” the right-leaning Jerusalem Post countered that “no country in which the law is properly enforced would permit an incident in which people take the law into their own hands to be ignored without investigating the circumstances and those involved.”
As a few Jewish commentators observed, however, a bit of investigative vigilance would have been in order well before August 4. The attack was, as peace activist Uri Avnery commented, “a massacre foretold.” Zada was on an alert list maintained by the General Security Services (Shin Bet), was a known Kach member, and had done at least one reconnaissance tour on the bus in which he would stage his attack. He had also deserted the army with his gun in hand. “The murderer himself was arrested several times in the course of extreme right-wing activities in the past,” noted Avnery. “And why didn’t the army act, in spite of the fact that the commanders of the murderer knew that he had deserted in protest against the disengagement, taking his rifle with him? Indeed, his mother, who foresaw what was coming, bombarded the army with requests to find him and take the weapon away from him.” What no commentator reflected on, however, was the fact that if Zada had known that his was indeed a country where “the law is properly enforced,” he might not have extinguished four lives.
“The Police Will Come, and It Will Be OK”
From firsthand accounts it is possible to reconstruct the trail of events on August 4. As the bus entered a Druze neighborhood of Shafa ‘Amr and pulled up at a stop, Zada went to the front, leveled his M-16 at the Arab driver, Michel Bahous, 56, and shot him. He then moved down the aisles, firing in short bursts at the dozen passengers cowering in the back. One rider managed to jump out the open door. Zada killed Nadir Hayak, 55, and sisters Hazar and Dina Turki, aged 23 and 21 respectively, but ran out of bullets with the barrel leveled at the head of a pleading young woman. As he fumbled to change his clip, she shoved him. Other passengers saw their chance and rushed the assailant. They were immediately joined by Husam al-‘Ayan, an armed Druze security guard who was driving in his car behind the bus, and boarded through the open door. For five minutes the other men wrestled with and beat Zada, who clung to his weapon, according to al-‘Ayan. He was effectively under citizens’ arrest by the time a few policemen arrived to handcuff him. A mobile phone camera recording broadcast on Israeli TV showed that Zada was still alive at this time. Soon enough, however, a growing crowd overpowered the police and what remained of Zada’s life was beaten out of him.
Inferring that “he knew he would never get out alive,” Palestinian Knesset member Azmi Bishara dubbed Zada’s “a suicide operation” in Egypt’s al-Ahram Weekly. But Bishara was mistaken. As Zada confessed on the bus, he didn’t think for a moment that he would pay with his life for what he had done. “Do you know what you are doing?” one man asked the pinned-down soldier, according to al-‘Ayan. “There are soldiers and policemen living here.” The man was referring to the Druze, who have been encouraged by the state to foster an identity distinct from Arab Palestinians—and, unlike Muslims and Christians, must by law serve in Israel’s armed forces. “All I know is that this is an Arab town,” responded Zada. “Soon the police will come, and it will be OK.” His intended victims, now turned captors, knew he was right. “Punishment depends on nationality,” Amira Hass reminded Ha’aretz readers afterwards. Among others, she recalled the example of Yoram Skolnik, who in 1993 “murdered an Arab who was bound hand and foot, and was given a life sentence. President Ezer Weizman twice reduced his sentence: first to 15 years, and then to 11 years and three months. He was ultimately released seven years after his arrest. Skolnik is part of a list of Jews who murdered Arabs and were released by the judicial system.”
The most poignant comparison, however, evaded even Hass. In 1984, in what came to be known as the “Bus 300 Affair,” operatives from the Shin Bet—the same agency charged with investigating the killing of Zada—stormed an Egged bus hijacked by four Palestinian militants from Gaza. Two gunmen and a passenger were killed. The two remaining Palestinians were removed in handcuffs, as captured on film by Israeli journalists, and were soon executed on the orders of the agency’s director, Avraham Shalom. The government claimed they died on the way to hospital. Despite a lengthy and murky state investigation involving internal disciplinary hearings, no was ever jailed over the killings. When the attorney general threatened to indict the involved, he was sacked. To forestall any other legal challenges, Israeli President Chaim Herzog awarded the Shin Bet agents an amnesty in 1986, a decision subsequently backed by the Supreme Court. Ten years later, on his retirement from the Shin Bet, Ehud Yatom admitted to an Israeli newspaper that he had crushed his two captives’ skulls with a stone, adding that such extrajudicial killings were routine during Shin Bet operations. Yatom’s handiness did not much impede his career. In June 2001, Ariel Sharon sought to appoint him as a special “counter-terrorism” advisor but was forced to back down after the courts intervened. Today Yatom is a member of the Knesset for Sharon’s Likud party.
Such stories are familiar to Israel’s Palestinian citizens. As one witness to the attack told the Jerusalem Post: “If this attack had occurred in a Jewish neighborhood and the attacker was Arab, he would have been killed immediately. The police came and they didn’t do anything!” It was notable that al-‘Ayan himself had not used his gun, as he was trained to do against terrorists, and despite the fact that when he boarded the bus, Zada was still clutching his M-16. Al-‘Ayan is employed as a security guard by the Israeli government, serves in its armed forces and, in the absence of the police, boarded the bus as the state’s emissary. But the idea of an Arab killing a Jew, even when the Arab is defending life and the Jew threatening it, was too forbidding. Al-‘Ayan’s caution doubtless underscored to the local crowd that the arrival of the police meant not that Zada would be delivered unto justice, but that justice would be snatched from his victims. Told that he had treated them all as just Arabs, they returned the gesture. Over the ensuing days, it was commonly recounted in the neighborhood that there had been an additional 14 M-16 clips in a bag Zada had carried with him on the bus.
Equality before the law was not an issue for the killer alone. At the funeral of Zada’s victims, ‘Abd al-Rahman Salih, a Bedouin leader, demanded that “the Israeli government destroy the house of the man who did this. If they do it to a [Palestinian] terrorist they should do it here.” In the irony-free corridors of Israel’s government, however, collective responsibility does not extend to Israeli Jews: Zada’s parents were not rendered homeless. When equal treatment was afforded, meanwhile, it was so conspicuous as to beg more questions than it stilled, as Amira Hass again noted: “Shortly after the murders in Shfaram [as Shafa ‘Amr is rendered in Hebrew], it was reported that those wounded and the families of the murder victims would receive recognition as victims of terrorism, dealt with and compensated accordingly. And the question immediately arose, since when do you highlight as a news item something that is self-explanatory and common sense? Except that equality among Jews and Arabs in Israel is not something self-explanatory. Therefore the news item, which should never have been a news item, was appropriate.” A ministerial committee later decided that it would not be possible to recognize Shafa ‘Amr’s dead and wounded as “victims of terror” because Zada was a soldier and could not under the law be identified as a “member of a hostile organization.”
Wanting to Believe
Zada’s choice of Shafa ‘Amr as the site for his attack exposed awkward ironies in the imagined Arab-Jewish equality in Israel. Though close to Nazareth, the “capital” of Israel’s Arab Palestinian minority and home to many of its most prominent political and cultural figures, Shafa ‘Amr is widely viewed as a “pro-Israeli” Arab town by the government and praised as such by media commentators. During Israel’s 1948 war of independence its leadership openly cooperated with Jewish forces, with the result that its inhabitants were spared the forced evictions that accompanied the conquest and near-emptying of Arab Palestine, executed with particular brutality in nearby villages like Tantura and Safsaf, where Zionist forces carried out a massacre of the civilian population. Tellingly, Shafa ‘Amr’s mayor served an uninterrupted term from the late 1930s through the 1960s, just after the Israeli government suspended the application of martial law to its Arab minority. Unusually, the present mayor is a member of the Likud. The spoils of such loyalty are evident in a gleaming glass-and-chrome cultural center on the outskirts of town, and in a relative prosperity that, while a pale shadow off the Galilee’s self-consciously “colonizing” Jewish communities, contrasts favorably with the crowded ghetto-like conditions of Arab towns like Nazareth, Acre and Sakhnin.
In this arrangement, Shafa ‘Amr’s Druze community, of which Husam al-‘Ayan is a typically upstanding member, occupies a marginally more privileged tier. Like him, its men serve in the Israeli security forces, one of the few employment advantages afforded them over other Arabs in Israel. Yet it is telling that, as a member of a community distinct from Israel’s Jewish citizens, al-‘Ayan’s exemplary conduct during the attack was not highlighted. In reporting by Ha’aretz he was identified only as a “security guard,” from which many readers would infer that he is Jewish. In the Arab mob tableau, he did not fit the picture. Indeed, a day before the expiration of the first deadline set by Sharon for the Shin Bet’s Shafa ‘Amr investigation, al-‘Ayan had not yet been interviewed by a single official, though he was an ideal witness for the state.
Though none of Zada’s victims were Druze, his attack in Shafa ‘Amr’s Druze neighborhood opened minor cracks in the community’s relations with the government. Shamil Ibrahim, the owner of a kiosk across the street from where the shooting took place, was among the first Druze locals to board the bus. A lean man with a crew cut, he is also a member of the Israeli army’s crack Golani brigade, with a tour of duty in Lebanon on his record, and had just been called up to serve as part of the army’s disengagement mobilization. The day after the attack, however, he tore up his summons. “After what I saw, I can’t wear this uniform,” he explained with a hard stare. Knowing the importance of the Druze to Israel’s armed forces, Zada’s calculation may indeed have been to provoke precisely this kind of response. But Shamil is in a minority. Ayalan heeded his own call-up order that same week. Despite loud complaints from the police that nine officers had been injured in scuffles with the crowd, officers on the scene relied on local residents for cups of coffee and food as they entered a long standoff with the crowd for control of the bus. In the immediate wake of Zada’s rampage, Israeli flags still fluttered from several houses in Shafa ‘Amr’s Druze neighborhood. Such a sight is rare in Arab towns in Israel, even in less aggrieved circumstances.
Many of Shafa ‘Amr’s residents belong to the shrinking segment of Israel’s Arab population still struggling to believe in the “fabric of relations,” tested though they may be by their government. A friend of Shamil’s, Jabbour Jabbour, a local travel agent and the son of Shafa ‘Amr’s Christian deputy mayor, proudly recounted that in the late 1990s he had made national and international news by trying to become the first Arab Israeli steward on El Al airlines. He was declined three times by the hiring board and then took his case public, in what proved to be a major international embarrassment for Israel’s national carrier. Finally vindicated, he became a poster boy for how, purportedly, Arab citizens can combat prejudice within the parameters, and indeed with the help, of Israeli law. Though he never accepted his belated job offer, he feels his case opened the door to a few Arab individuals who later did, but he admits that such victories may still be token. He sustains no illusions in matters such as the Zada attack. “The problem was that people were afraid that if the police took him away he would be judged as crazy and freed after three to five years. He would be released a hero,” he said unhesitatingly.
“Not an Isolated Incident”
Jabbour’s fears were justified. Zada had acted “in a fit of insanity,” according to a typical Israeli editorial in the wake of the attack. “We will not allow crazy men and terrorists to harm your life here,” echoed Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres as he visited the victims’ families two days later. Not incidentally, insanity was also the plea quickly adopted by Asher Weissgan’s lawyer in defense of his client. “A sane and balanced person would not have said what he said,” he argued, prompting the Petah Tikvah Magistrate’s Court to order a psychiatric evaluation. Though calls for Sharon’s head were hardly an aberration among the settler community in the run-up to disengagement, this rationalization found frequent purchase. Allowing Israeli society to selectively distance itself from Zada, the moniker of the Bad Apple from Tapuah (“apple” in Hebrew) rapidly gained currency in the press.
Importantly, this pathological subtext also denied any equating of Jewish and Arab terror, Sharon’s condemnations notwithstanding. Zada was a sick human being, but a human being nonetheless. Arabs, by implicit converse, are merely sickly inhuman: unlike Jews, degeneracy is innate in their nature. Such inferences could not but be drawn by Palestinian citizens habitually characterized by Jewish politicians and religious leaders as a disease or vermin. The most frank exponents of such language are the Moledet and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, which campaign openly for the Arab population’s transfer from the country. Moledet sat in a coalition government with Sharon’s Likud from 2001 until 2004 and like Yisrael Beiteinu mines a deep vein of public sympathy. Support for transfer—expulsion—has always been high in Israel and is showing no signs of abating; a 2003 Democracy Index survey shows that 57 percent of Jews support the idea, either as implemented through “incentives” or by force. Not surprisingly, Peres’ assurances to Zada’s victims that “your pain is the pain of the entire State of Israel” were hard for most Palestinian citizens to swallow.
As Arab communities across Israel observed a one-day strike, Sheikh Ra’id Salah, the formerly imprisoned head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, echoed the rest of the Arab leadership in his response. “This is not an isolated incident. It is the outcome of the Israeli discriminatory policy against the Arab residents of Israel,” he noted at the Shafa ‘Amr funerals. “Israel officially incites against the Arabs in the country. Senior officials repeatedly state that we are considered a demographic danger, and describe us as cancer cells which should be removed.” State policy reflects such rhetoric, tightly constraining the development of Arab communities through rolling land confiscations, strict limits on new construction, house demolitions, discriminatory social budgeting and encystment by rings of Jewish development. That the Arab minority is socially disadvantaged is widely acknowledged by the Israeli media. As a rule, however, the effects of structural state violence are mystified by references to Arab primitiveness and “anomie.” Redress is at best indefinitely deferred, at worst openly acknowledged as a non-issue for a state whose primary responsibility is to its Jewish citizens. When Israel’s National Insurance Institute published a report five days after Zada’s attack showing that poverty in Israel has reached historic highs, a Ministry of Finance spokesman could accordingly hasten to add that more than two thirds of those poor were Arab and ultra-Orthodox (non-Zionist Jews). Critically, acknowledgement of discrimination never licenses Arab protest, a lack of empathy that conspicuously contrasts with the media’s coverage of the Zada family’s life on the down-and-out margins of the middle-class town of Rishon Letzion. “They have put us into a ghetto,” complained Zada’s father, Yitzhak. “How is it possible to live this way?”
Arab leaders who posed the same question after Shafa ‘Amr, however, were quickly intimidated and promptly vilified as agents provocateurs in an overt throwback to Israel’s master narrative of October 2000. In the mandate subsequently laid down for the Or Commission by the government, incitement charges against Arab leaders were prescribed as a fact and the Commission dutifully sustained them in three cases. Resetting the stage after Shafa ‘Amr, the hawkish Jerusalem Post sought to shift the blame even further, complaining: “In its final report that commission chose to place emphasis on the long history of official discrimination against the Arabs rather than on the growing and vociferous identification of the Israeli Arab leadership with Arafat and the PLO.” As documented by the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth, police brutality against Palestinian citizens has continued unabated since October 2000, subject to widespread impunity. Symptomatically, not a single policeman has been prosecuted in connection with the October 2000 shootings, even though strong evidence, pointing inter alia to point-blank executions of protesters, implicated several officers. An official line was drawn belatedly under these events in September 2005, when the Justice Ministry’s investigations unit, Mahash, published a report after five years of mostly inactive inquiries in which it refused to indict a single police officer. But, whereas Israel’s attorney general has argued that incitement by Jewish anti-disengagement protesters, shading into death threats against Sharon, is merely part of lively public debate, Arab leaders who worked Zada’s actions into context were themselves immediately labeled as inciters.
With headlines like “Residents’ Restraint and Leaders’ Threats,” the media helped the government shift responsibility for any fallout onto Israel’s Arab leaders. “Most of the media (broadcast and print) did not hesitate to impose the task of ‘calming things down’ on the Arab members of the Knesset,” noted I‘lam. “Channel 1’s Ayala Hason dedicated all of her post-attack interviews with Arab MKs… to this subject.” Editorializing on the center-left, Ha’aretz admonished that “Israel’s political leaders—Jewish and Arab—must work together as seldom before to ensure that, in contrast to the early days of this round of conflict in the fall of 2000, protests and anger in the Israeli Arab community do not explode into bitter violence.” On the right, the Jerusalem Post fulminated against those responsible “five years ago” for “widespread anti-Israel hostilities…in obvious coordination with the eruption of Yasser Arafat’s second murderous intifada in the territories.” Largely, the coverage singled out for censure the very same leaders targeted by the Or Commission as “inciters” and “organizers.” The Jerusalem Post was not above seeing such shadowy forces at work on the bus itself. “It may well be that Zada was killed in a more calculated fashion by extremist elements in what has been one of the most pro-Israel minority cities in Israel,” warned one editorial.
Afterthoughts on the Margins
The final narrative of Shafa ‘Amr came to rely heavily on the “extremist element.” Its ghost plainly gunned for Palestinian citizens as they grappled with the event. When the crowd sang “Biladi, Biladi,” the Palestinian national anthem, while mourning and protesting at the scene of the attack, TV reporters immediately seized upon this as a “call to extremism,” noted I‘lam. Israeli viewers would have been even more alarmed by the funerals of Zada’s victims. In cars festooned with black antenna strips—contrasting with the orange strips adopted by Israeli Jewish anti-disengagement protesters—more than 10,000 Arabs from Shafa ‘Amr and the surrounding area gathered in town on August 5. Many joined a solemn procession conveying the coffins of sisters Hazar and Dina Turki to their graves, threaded with young men holding aloft a few Palestinian flags and shouting slogans like “With our blood and soul, we will sacrifice for you, o martyr.” Leading the procession, Shafa ‘Amr native and MK Muhammad Baraka spoke to the crowd of Israel’s history of violence against its Arab citizens.
More ambivalent dissent was voiced by the Arab Higher Follow-Up Committee, a moribund association dominated by mayors. Spokesman ‘Abid Anabtawi predicted the possibility of a “non-violent intifada” erupting in response to the killings. “A popular uprising against the fascism and negative treatment we receive is the most reasonable scenario,” he told Israeli Army Radio. Yet such rhetoric was immediately softened by committee chairman Shawqi Khatib, who said that the Israeli Arab leadership would continue “to act responsibly as it has in the past 57 years.” There were other signs of fabric mending at work: wreaths from the Israeli government deposited on the graves of victims that none of the protesters thought to remove, and the appearance of Rabbi Menachem Froman from the West Bank settlement of Tekoa at a prayer ceremony for Zada’s two Christian victims, condemning the soldier on behalf of Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. “Nothing will happen,” one despondent Arab activist commented during the funeral. “People will talk about it. It’s good, nice, to see people unite. The question is, what will we do Monday? We are still living with them [the Jews] as if nothing has happened.”
Yet in contrast to an Arab minority still struggling to organize dissent within the forbidding parameters laid down by their government, the Jewish “fringe” makes no attempt to “live with them as if nothing has happened.” In the wake of the attack, Jerusalem Post writer Yosef Goell was content to reinvent common Israeli illusions of normalcy. “No segment of Israeli society has condoned this attack, much less cheered it,” he averred. “The contrast between these attitudes and the funerals of Palestinian terrorists is telling. No frenzied thousands are waiting to march with Zada’s coffin, to vow more bloodshed and glorify him as a heroic martyr.” The posturing at Hamas funerals is, however, the preserve of the weak. The militant settlers, one of whom told Ha’aretz at Zada’s funeral that Zada was “a righteous man and did what we are incapable of doing,” launch attacks on Palestinian villages from state-subsidized settlements with only very occasional penalty.
Sentiments like those voiced at Zada’s funeral, moreover, are more common than many Israelis would like to admit. A 1987 poll of Jewish youth conducted by the Van Leer Institute showed that one third “supported the ideas of Rabbi Kahane and his [Kach] movement.” A 2001 Haifa University survey found that 20 percent of Israelis would vote for Kach if permitted to do so. Ironically, legalization of the movement is no longer necessary, with Moledet and Yisrael Beiteinu channeling Kahane’s politics into more elliptical and therefore ostensibly permissible agendas. The latitude nevertheless afforded Jewish “extremists” contrasts starkly with the state’s obsessive concerns about Arab militancy, observes Uri Avnery. “The Kach group was officially declared a terrorist organization and outlawed some 12 years ago. This means that anyone belonging to it, supporting it or assisting it with money or in any other way, is legally considered a terrorist…. But for years now, the Kach people have been roving the country without hindrance and have committed numberless outrages against Israeli Arab citizens and inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Indeed, in attempting to distance themselves from Zada, Israeli Jews struggled to compartmentalize a “fringe” movement whose sensibilities increasingly ply the country’s political mainstream and were even rehabilitated by media coverage of the disengagement process. On the Israeli left, some commentators sought to attribute Zada’s action to the zealotry incubated in the country’s settlements. Eliding the quiet repression of Israel’s own Arab citizens, this narrative also contended awkwardly with the fact that in the summer of 2005 no Israelis were at once presented as more human and more sacrificing for their nation and its ideals than these zealots. In the weeks following Zada’s attack, TV screens filled with children and tight nuclear families and gardens and houses and pets, everyone hugging and crying. The pathological Zada fitted poorly into this picture. More typically therefore he was described by one reporter for the Jerusalem Post as “unconsciously camouflaged by the thousands of the settlement movement’s entirely peaceful activists…. His newfound fanaticism fueled his hatred, and compelled him to do what the vast majority of settlers think unconscionable.”
That settler “activists” had on June 29 tried to stone to death a Palestinian youth by Gaza’s Gush Katif bloc had no bearing on such explications. Nor did a trail of killings in the West Bank—some perpetrated by prominent settler leaders like Pinhas Wallerstein—of which Weissgan’s was only the most recent. Instead, the spectacle of military officials demanding that settler leaders condemn Zada and Weissgan contributed to the re-edification of the “ethical” colonists, and displaced questions about the underlying politics that spawns their project. Chasing away from Zada’s grave “a few children with long side curls and big woolen skullcaps…[is] easier than dismantling Tapuah,” commented Tom Segev in Ha’aretz. In parsing the final ruckus over where Zada would be buried, Segev also noted that, though many settlers and ordinary Israelis might indeed shy away from emulating Zada, theirs would not be a judgment on killing Arabs, as much as the context of such killing. “Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz prohibited Natan Zada’s burial in a military cemetery,” noted Segev, “as though he had not been a soldier or had served in a different army. Mofaz, who is not exactly a moral authority, argued that the murderer of Arab passengers on a bus was ‘not worthy’ of a military grave. However, if we were to remove from the military cemeteries all the soldiers who are tainted with moral opprobrium, in some cases for illegal killing of Palestinian civilians, quite a bit of space would become available.”
A Matter of Time and Place
As much as Zada’s attack, Israeli discourse on it proved a disturbingly revealing installment in a running debate about the terms of Palestinian life both in and out of Israel. Though it cuts to the heart of the question of just who and where they should be, this is not a debate in which Palestinian are included and it remained that way after Shafa ‘Amr. As Yitzhak Laor characterized their enduring situation in Ha’aretz: “They are part of the demographic danger; their mothers’ wombs are a ticking bomb.… Because they constitute a ‘demographic danger’—and they must hear this every day, because they do make children—and if their children overcome the backwardness that is fostered from above and make it to university, here, too, they have to listen to learned discussions about the danger of their natural increase…. Who will now include the experts on the demographic danger among those responsible for incitement? As a rule, the Arabs are a danger, a matter of time. How much time? It’s not clear.”
If disengagement is a preemptive maneuver in the demographic battle Israel self-consciously wages against all the Palestinians under its rule, Zada bloodily reminded everyone of its final frontier. Currently demarcated by a combination of disenfranchisement, discrimination and occasionally overt violence, this divide hardened further in Shafa ‘Amr. Unreflective acceptance of Israel’s terms of engagement with its Palestinian and Arab minority allowed most Jewish Israelis to cast Zada’s act as that of a crazed loner, and simultaneously use the opportunity to reinscribe limits to any Arab challenge of these terms. Israeli Palestinian reactions, on the other hand, could not but be filtered through their broader experiences within the threadbare “fabric of relations.” To them, the larger question remains whether Israel is disengaging not just from Gaza and slivers of the West Bank, but also from a future in which Palestinians might have a real and secure place anywhere in their own country.