The usual suspects

Aftermath of the bank murders in Beersheba

A Border Police guard stands outside the bank doors where 4 people were killed Monday, May 20, 2013 in Beersheba. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Minutes after reports that shots were fired in a small Beersheba bank branch on Monday, wide swaths of the Israeli media had already ID’d the suspects: two young men from Rahat, a Beduin city of around 50,000 people, some 15 miles outside of town.

Within a half hour or so, a southern district police spokesman stated that the shooter was a resident of the city, a 40-year-old Jewish man, and that he apparently acted alone. As the day progressed, a picture emerged of an unhinged local man, armed with a score to settle, who walked into the bank branch with no intention of taking money, or apparently of making it out alive.

The damage was done. Israel’s largest Beduin community found itself facing what Rahat Mayor Faiz Abu-Seheban called an “act of defamation” against the city. He added that he had sent a letter to Channel 2 and Channel 10 demanding an on-air apology for the initial reports.

On Tuesday, Channel 2 issued a statement reading that “at times during a rolling broadcast we are fed information from sources which are less reliable. During the broadcast yesterday we apologized for this and we again apologize for this mistake.”

First recognized as a city in 1994, Rahat is a crime and poverty-plagued city that ranks near the bottom of Israel in most socio-economic indicators. Unemployment is rife, and the sons of the Beduin clans of the city typically try to find work in the service industries of Beersheba and other Jewish towns in the Negev. When Rahat does make the news in the Israeli Jewish media, its usually for tragic circumstances – the arrest of a local mother last September accused of murdering her three children, the indictment last year of a local man accused of being part of a crime ring that abducted Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Sinai and held them for ransom, and the violence between clans that erupts in brawls, stabbings and gunfire on a regular basis.

Rahat, so far from God and so close to Beersheba (to paraphrase Porfirio Diaz), was unintentionally slandered momentarily in the press on Monday (though I should add, I did not write that the men were apparently from Rahat, and tweeted that police were saying it was a man from Beersheba), it probably won’t be the last time their sons will be blamed in the initial moments before the dust clears, when panic and rumors set the tone of the reports and information is streaming in from all types of sources, trustworthy and otherwise.

On a personal note, the shootings on Monday happened on Jabotinsky street in Neve Zeev, a middle-class neighborhood not too far from the Negev Mall and the central train station. The bank branch is only a block away from one of the first places I lived in Israel – the family apartment of an ex-girlfriend on the 5th floor of one of the many towers built in the neighborhood in recent years. Neve Zeev was one of the first places I got to know personally in Israel and it made a rather nice first introduction to the country. It was quiet, there was a basketball court and the mall nearby, and it seemed far away from the Second Intifada.

I remember many things from Beersheba back then, even if the city seems a bit different now – more built up and well-off, more connected by high-speed rail to Tel Aviv. One thing I remember well was the relationship with the Beduin, a constant and prominent feature of the mosaic of the city. It seemed that they were to be feared and avoided if possible. They were the local boys you didn’t want to trifle with, the ones you’d suspect if your car was stolen or your house broken in to, the ones you didn’t want to get in a fistfight with following a traffic accident, the ones you kept at an arm’s length if possible.

I remember one incident walking around Neve Zeev one night with the ex, around the corner from the Bank Hapoalim branch, and seeing a car pull up blasting Arabic music, and seeing a young Israeli teenage girl lean across and kiss the driver, before jumping out and heading into one of the apartment towers. The ex sneered and shook her head, and started talking about the pretty young Jewish girls from Beersheba (and not just from the poor “dalet” neighborhood) who run off with Beduin drug dealers and hoodlums from Rahat and Tel Sheva, drawn by the money and the danger, knowing they found the ultimate way to enrage their fathers.

Another time, heading back from a mimouna in Dimona, we had to take the “highway of death” (as the ex’s cousins called it), a Negev highway between Dimona and Beersheba that runs alongside Beduin villages, from where Beduin men in four door pick-up trucks pull out into the highway at top speed from unlit dirt paths, and haul ass in both directions at all hours of the day and night.

The feeling, one repeated by local Negev politicians and MKs in the Knesset who talk about the “Beduin conquering the Negev”, is of a community that has little concern for the rule of law, that fears no one, that puts the clan above God and country.

On Monday, the Beduin were again the immediate suspect, with who knows how many Israelis picturing two young hotheads raiding the bank branch and spraying the lobby with gunfire.

Though Channel 2 has already apologized for this error, it probably won’t be long until Beduin from Rahat, (or Arabs from Tira or Taibeh or Kalansua, etc) are ID’d again by the media while the bullets are still flying.

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