The death of an off-duty Israeli soldier, allegedly at the hands of a Palestinian acquaintance who aimed to trade the corpse for the freedom of his own imprisoned brother, plays to the deepest fears of Israeli Jews. Whether or not the outrage has an impact on nascent peace talks aimed at creating two states — which seems, at first blush, unlikely — it most assuredly feeds the corrosive mistrust that already exists between two populations that already share one state: Israel, where every fifth citizen is of Palestinian descent.
“You know, when I see my Arab friend I laugh with him, everything is all right,” says Eli, 65, a retired factory worker in Bat Yam, the seaside Tel Aviv suburb where both the soldier and the accused murderer worked. “But you can’t believe him. You can’t believe him. You pay him, after that he might come to kill you, you know. This is a problem, very big problem.”
The retiree arched his brow and stared pensively toward the sidewalk outside Tzahi’s Meats, the shwarma restaurant where the victim, Tomer Hazan, 20, worked part-time when he was not putting in as a clerk in the Israel Defense Forces. Military service is mandatory for Israeli Jews. But Israeli Arabs are neither asked nor trusted to carry arms in defense of the Jewish state built on land also claimed by Palestinians who lived here before the Jewish state was established, in what Jews call the 1948 war for independence. Palestinians refer to the same events as Nakba, or the Catastrophe, because most of them left their homes, either by force or from fear. Those who stayed became Israeli citizens, but their identity remains mixed and their loyalties routinely questioned.
Nidal Amr, 42, also worked in the restaurant, more than full-time, arriving when it opened and staying until it closed at 11 p.m., the owner told reporters. His legal residence was on the West Bank, so he would have needed a coveted permit to cross into Israel to work. The owner says he had one; Israeli authorities said he did not. The background reality is that thousands of Palestinians work without papers inside Israel, like Mexicans in the U.S. The separation barrier credited with keeping suicide bombers from entering Israel is, in fact, riddled with gaps through which legions of Palestinians shuttle for the more immediate imperative of making a living. The suicide bombers are nipped in the bud by the intelligence networks of the Palestinian Authority and the Israel Security Agency (also known as Shin Bet and Shabak), which compete to stop terrorist plots on the West Bank.
Palestinians who live inside Israel appear to present a particular challenge. What few terrorist strikes have succeeded in Israel in the past three years — the March 2011 bombing at Jerusalem bus stop and the Tel Aviv bus bombing last November — were carried out by Israeli Arabs. What happened Friday was something else. Israeli officials called it “a bargaining attack.” Amr is accused of attempting to use the huge leverage Israel offers to anyone who captures an Israeli Jew, especially a soldier. For militant Palestinians, the incentives are clear. In October 2011, Israel traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the release of a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been captured at the edge of the Gaza Strip five years earlier.
But the Israelis need not be alive. Human remains are also crucial currency, the bodies of two Israeli soldiers were traded in 1998 for 123 Hizballah fighters. Amr’s aim, according to the confession related in Israelis news accounts, was to trade Hazan’s body for the freedom of his brother, serving 30 years in an Israel prison (for plotting a suicide bombing in 2003, the height of the second intifadeh). After the Shalit exchange, a senior Hamas official said the kidnapping Israeli soldiers would become the new priority, and Israeli security officials say they have averted 37 kidnappings in 2013 alone. Amr’s plan as alleged did not work, but if nothing else, its unfolding illustrated the tangled proximity, if not intimacy, in which Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs live their parallel lives, often amid mutual unease.
On Friday, Amr apparently persuaded Hazan to climb into a taxi with him after work. The cab drove on a freeway north out of Tel Aviv, exiting west onto the divided highway that steers directly into the West Bank, a commuter road built for Israeli settlers who work inside Israel. The cab encountered no checkpoint leaving sovereign Israel; only cars arriving from the Palestinian side are checked. Getting into the West Bank is no problem. The cab proceeded to a settlement, Shaarei Tikva, just a couple of miles beyond the Green Line that marks Israel’s 1967 border, before it took over the West Bank in the Six-Day War. Next to the settlement is the Palestinian village, Beit Amin, where Amr’s mother and father live.
Amr and Hazan apparently entered it through a gap in the security fence that surrounds Shaarei Tikva, like all Israeli settlements. There, in open ground, Amr is said to have killed Hazan and dropped his body in a cistern. The corpse was recovered by a search-and-rescue helicopter after Amr was arrested, at the climax of a massive manhunt launched when Hazan’s parents reported him missing. Certain questions remain. For one thing, it’s unclear just where Amr lived. His parents say he slept in the family home only occasionally. He reportedly had fathered several children with an Arab-Israeli woman who resided in a town just inside Israel, Jalijuliya, but had been unable to secure Israeli citizenship for himself (on family-reunification grounds) because of his brother’s record. Another report said he had since married a Russian woman, in Bat Yam, near work. Each of the reports sounds plausible, as does the plea of the mayor of Beit Amin, the Palestinian village next to the settlement, that the incident should not tar the law-abiding residents, many of whom rely for work on the settlement next door.
Life here is a tangle that, when tugged, adds greatly to the tension everyone feels even in times of peace. “Nightmare comes true” was the headline Sunday morning in Ma’ariv, a Hebrew-language tabloid. It’s a question of trust. And what is more contagious than fear? If someone new to Israel speaks of hiring a Palestinian as, say, a nanny, a Jewish friend will ask, “But how can you trust her?” More than a decade after it happened, every Jewish Israeli seems to be able to recite the details of the lonely 16-year-old Israeli who developed an online romance with Muna Jawad Ali Amna, ventured to Ramallah to see her and was murdered by militants the woman had alerted of her find. (Amna was among the 1,027 released for Shalit.) In Bat Yam, the Russian population votes heavily for Avigdor Lieberman, the Moldova native who has called for loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs, and a peace plan that would shift a mass of Arab towns from Israel’s side of the Green Line into a Palestinian state. After word of Hazan’s death broke on Saturday, hundreds of people gathered outside the restaurant, chanting anti-Arab slogans and hurling invective at the owner for employing Amr. On Sunday morning, a handful of people milled in front of the shuttered eatery. “I ate here a few times, but I won’t go there again,” says Eli, the retiree. The food was good. But never again, not a place that employs Arabs. “I’m afraid,” he says. “He could put something in the meat. Poison.”