The death of Khair al-Din Hamdan, who was killed by police fire in the village of Kafr Kana in November 2014, resulted in a strike in the village and other locations in Israel’s Arab sector. He was deemed a shahid (“martyr”) and became a symbol of police violence against Arabs.
But the true story is that Khair al-Din was not some tortured saint. Photos show him attacking a police car, knife in hand, trying to break the windows as if he was possessed. Israelis have seen such images many times in the context of terrorist attacks.
On Thursday, a justified protest was scheduled to launch across Israel’s Arab sector. In a very short period, Israel’s Arab communities have seen an unprecedented number of murders. Since 2000, more than 1,300 Arab Israelis have lost their lives as a result of crime and violence. Arab elected officials often blame the Israeli establishment, especially the police and government, for the rise in violence, thereby deepening the Arab public’s crisis of confidence in law enforcement.
But Arab society encourages violence within its ranks, especially when it takes the responsibility for seeing justice done away from the authorities and places it in the hands of families and communities. Instead of law and order remaining in the hands of the central government, Arab society sometimes prefers to “close matters” at home, or within the clan or the village. Tiny battlefields pop up one after the other around the term “honor,” with young people defending their own or their family’s honor. It’s part of a culture and a mentality that need to be opened to discourse, not merely addressed through practical steps.
I spent 10 years working in translation and transcription of police interrogations, and I encountered endless statements expressing Arab society’s attitude towards law enforcement. The revulsion at involving the police, and the faith in the custom of sulha (“forgiveness”) as a way of ending violent conflicts, are slowly becoming the status quo. So sulha ceremonies become a kind of black market for justice that reflect the society’s views on violence. The way they see it, violence doesn’t cross any red line—it is merely part of ordinary social relations. It’s allowed, and sometimes negotiations need to be held about its limits.
If we want a solution, we cannot Khair al-Din’s case separately from the other cases of violence. A society that embraces its criminals must take responsibility for the consequences that embrace entails. Israel’s Arab society must gather its courage and allow police to enter towns and villages, and back them up fully with both words and action. It cannot demand that the police come in and clear out illegal weapons while also attacking police, putting their safety at risk and insulting them. Arab leaders must make a fateful—but very easy—decision to turn their backs on criminals to ensure that society’s upstanding members can lead better lives, or at least, live.
Ali Adi is a political and social activist. He holds degrees in economics and film.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.