January 5, 2006
Violent Crime Rises in Israeli Society
"Suddenly, I receive a telephone call: My brother, Avinoam, is dead. 'Impossible,' I say to myself: 'Avinoam, my kid brother, murdered?'"
It was a lovely April day when the young couple went down to the popular Nirvana beach in Haifa with their two dogs for a stroll and a cup of coffee. It was the last day in the life of Avinoam Shoshan, 31. He was murdered on the beach promenade in front of hundreds of people.
Why? Because Shoshan's dog got into a fight with another dog. It was too much of an insult for the owner of the other dog, so he pulled a knife and stabbed Shoshan to death.
Almost three years have passed, but Ziva Shulav, Shoshan's sister, relives that day over and over again.
She was one of the key speakers at a December symposium on violence in Israeli society held in Haifa. It was organized by the municipality and the Ibn-Khaldoun Society for the Advancement of Democracy.
"Everyone talks about political terrorism," Shulav said, "but people in Israel are also subject to civil terrorism, and this is often accepted as an inevitable divine punishment."
"We talk a lot about the symptoms for this phenomenon but not enough about the causes of violence," said Gideon Fishman, head of Haifa University's Minerva Center for the Study of Youth. "If we do not explore the causes, nothing will help -- neither more policemen nor more punitive measures."
The sociological explanations are numerous and not necessarily convincing:
- Police and military brutality against Palestinians has spilled over to Israel proper and is manifested by wilder driving habits and a propensity to violence.
- The large immigration from the former Soviet Union has led to more alcoholism in Israel, thus raising the number of alcohol-related acts of violence.
- The abundance of drugs -- according to government statistics, every 10th Israeli youth is exposed to drugs -- helps instigate acts of violence.
Israelis adore America. They like to dress American-style and are addicted to American cinema, junk food and music. But until a few years ago, stories of violence in America were dismissed as something that "could not happen here."
No more. Stories such as Shoshan's murder have become routine. According to police, in the northern part of the country alone, a murder takes place every seven and a half days, a rape every 10 days, a bodily assault every 30 minutes.
On the national level in 2005, police recorded a rise of 3.2 percent in physical violence , following five years of continuous decrease. An increase of 4.9 percent was reported in cases of violence against minors.
Eighteen and a half percent of crimes in the first six months of 2005 were crimes of violence, compared to 17.3 percent in the same period in 2004. Police opened 15,606 files on suspicion of violence in 2005, compared to 13,253 in 2004.
Tzahi Ya'acov, 16, was stabbed to death last February in the middle of a mall because he drew the attention of another minor to a 100-shekel bill -- about $25 -- on the shelf of a shoe store.
"I want to see the man who will dare touch this bill," said the youth, and his friend went over to Tzahi and stabbed him. The prosecution recently reached a plea bargain with the defense, downgrading the charges from murder to manslaughter.
A recent survey conducted by Haifa University's sociology department showed that out of 800 interviewees -- half of them Arab, half of them Jewish -- nearly 40 percent said the level of violence has increased in their neighborhoods.
In addition, 45 percent said anyone can easily get a weapon, though possession of arms in Israel is strictly licensed, and 72 percent said punishment of violent criminals is too light.
There was one hopeful finding in the survey: Only 3 percent of respondents said they had experienced violence themselves. The figure was slightly higher -- 5 percent -- among Arab respondents.
"These are more or less the figures," Dov Lutzky, deputy commander of Israel's Northern Police Command, said in an interview. "Violence is on an upward trend, but it's not as dramatic as it may seem listening to testimonies in the symposium."
"The worst case of violence is in the Arab sector," said lawyer Sylvia Freiman, the district attorney for northern Israel. "Arabs often have a mentality of 'we' and 'them' and refuse to seek the help of the police."
As'ad Ghanem, head of the Ibn-Khaldoun Association, said he no longer reprimands young drivers who drive too fast because "I'm afraid they will come out and beat me with a club."
Shulav and other bereaved families have set up a society of Families of Murder Victims, similar to groups in the United States and United Kingdom.
The only mention of political violence in the symposium came from a Muslim religious leader. Sheik Mohammad Sharif Ouda is head of the Ahmadiyya community in Haifa, a small community that is strictly antiviolence.
"I accuse religious education of encouraging violence," Ouda said in an interview. "Muslim children hear of jihad in school, Christians carry the heavy burden of the Inquisition's heritage and Jews say 'spill your rage onto the gentiles.'"
Shulav said that when she attended the shiva for Mayan Sapir, a 15-year-old who was murdered and raped by a 16-year-old in Rishon Lezion, Sapir's mother begged Shulav's forgiveness.
"'When I read about your brother's murder,'" Shulav recalled the mother saying, "'I felt sorry for the family, but just like everyone else, I continued to go about my business. I beg for forgiveness for having failed to get up and cry in protest. Murder and violence are no longer a matter for the criminal world only."
Shoshan's murderer was sentenced to 18 years in prison. In the Ruhana murder, the verdict will be handed down soon -- but for now, the alleged murderer's father still walks around his village, proudly waving his gun.