SHFARAM, Israel,(Reuters) – After burying four of their neighbours killed by an Israeli militant in army dress, the residents of Shfaram are questioning their security as an Arab minority living at the heart of the Jewish state.
Two Muslim sisters in their 20s and two Christian men were shot dead on a bus in a Druze neighbourhood in the Arab town by a 19-year-old Jewish gunman who had recently deserted his army unit. He was later beaten to death by residents.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon condemned the gunman as a "bloodthirsty terrorist." Many Israelis were so outraged by the attack that the militant was denied a military funeral and officials refused to bury him in the town where he grew up.
But Israeli Arabs say the killings have heightened fears that they will bear the brunt of ultra-rightist Israeli anger over Israel”s upcoming pullout from the Gaza Strip even though Arab citizens have generally avoided armed conflict with Israel.
"We are targetted by racists, by fundamentalists. We are worried especially if they withdraw from Gaza that these people might take revenge on us Arabs," said Kamal Kaderiya, a Muslim in a white skullcap who attended Friday”s funerals.
"We live in Israel but are originally Palestinians. We have Israeli nationality. So they must provide security and take away weapons from people who would do this kind of barbaric act."
Arabs make up about a fifth of Israel”s population and sympathise with a Palestinian revolt in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. They also complain of rampant discrimination and say Israel is not doing enough to protect them.
"I think there is a majority of Arabs who thought wrongly that we were secure here," said Khaled Daghash, director of the Haifa-based Centre Against Racism, who protested in Shfaram. "We think this terrorist is not alone. There are so many people who support him. Racism is the cause of these attacks and we are afraid this one will not be the last."
A palpable sense of rage permeated Shfaram after the shootings, although police refrained from entering the town during the funerals to minimise the risk of violence. Israeli-Arab activist Abed Anabtawy, quoted by Israel”s Ynet news website, said: "A public that feels its security has been abandoned will do everything to defend itself and therefore all possibilities are open to us including an Intifada."
Arab parliament member Azmi Bishara said he did not think it was the right time for a "political explosion" by Arabs, and the Shfaram mayor called for coexistence. Israeli Arab leaders were meeting in the town on Saturday to weigh how to respond.
Many felt betrayed that Israel had not confiscated weapons from the gunman, also a West Bank settler.
His lawyer said his parents contacted the army two weeks ago to say he was armed, held ultra-rightist views and could be dangerous, but that nothing was done.
Throngs of mourners at the funerals, in chants similar to those heard in Palestinian protests in the West Bank and Gaza, labelled the four dead as martyrs.
They also chanted for "national unity" between Muslims, Christians and Druze, but did not mention Israeli Jews.