Israel’s Arabs facing a backlash after shooting in Tel Aviv

By Tia Goldenberg and Areej Hazboun, AP

ARARA, Israel–Israel’s brittle relationship with its Arab minority is under strain after a deadly Tel Aviv shooting rampage this month by an Arab man from the north of the country.

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.