Just last week a God-awful tragedy took place in Bir al Maqsour, the Bedouin village next to my kibbutz, Hannaton, in the Lower Galilee. A 4-year-old boy, Ammar Muhammad Hujayrat, was enjoying an unusually warm January day in a playground when, in front of his aunt and several cousins, he was shot and killed in the crossfire between two criminal gangs. By the next day four suspects were arrested, little Ammar was buried, and in Bedouin tradition, the bereaved family began to sit in mourning outside their home. As this death of a small, innocent child was so horrific and unusual, Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Knesset member Mufid Mari visited, promising strong action against the wave of violence plaguing Israel’s Arab communities.
In 2021, some 126 Israeli Arabs were killed in this violence. The causes are many. Criminal gangs, inter-clan violence, honor killing of women. The Abraham Initiative, which monitors and campaigns against violence in the Arab community, reports that 62 of the victims were below the age of 30, and 16 were women.
This time, however, a killing took place not in an Arab town 25 kilometers away, but a 15-minute walk from my front door. And the victim was a small child. I was horrified and heart broken. Ammar had the face of an angel.
Many of us in Hannaton know people in Bir al Maqsour. Indeed, one Hannaton resident is from that village. There was no question what was needed to be done. We must visit the family as they sat in mourning and pay our respects.
So, a visit was organized for yesterday. A group of us from Hannaton met just outside the village with the head of the village’s local council who led us to the family sitting in mourning. As we approached the mourning space, I was immediately struck by how similar this was to the Jewish custom of sitting shiva. No coincidence, I thought, it’s for good reason that Jews and Arabs are often called cousins.
As we entered the mourning space, we were greeted by Ammar’s father, Muhammad Hujayrat. We stood in line each of us formally offering words of tanhumim (comfort). I rehearsed what I would say in my head, and when it was my turn, I looked into Muhammad’s stoic face, but his eyes gave it all away. He was a broken man.
I froze. No words would escape, as though my lips were paralyzed. Without thinking, I fell into his arms and embraced him. He also embraced, leaning on me. He began to weep, as did I. Finally, my lips unfroze I simply said, “gam ani bokheh, gam ani bokheh” (“I too am weeping”). He sobbed on my shoulder. We hugged for an extended time; I really don’t remember how long. The murmuring around us fell to complete silence. When the embrace ended, I was surprised to see that all around us joined in the moment.
As I type this, I am again weeping.
The men among us joined the gathered men, while the women among us went to where the family’s women were sitting. We were offered coffee made extra bitter to mark the bitterness of the moment, dates and water. We spoke of the immediate tragedy, and of the larger tragedy overtaking the Israeli Arab communities. A sheikh came to offer prayers, and then other visitors arrived. Druze from kilometers away, Ahmadiyyan Muslims from Haifa, Bedouin from other nearby villages, Jews from nearby Alon HaGalil.
One of the family members, Subhi, remarked to me how surprised they all were at how many visitors from so many backgrounds, even from the highest levels of the government, came to visit. Maybe, just maybe, if any sense is to be made of Ammar’s death, perhaps this will be the catalyst for change. “Insh’allah,” he said, “May God will it.” “Insh’allah,” I said.
When it was time to go, my wife, Anat, brought me to greet Ammar’s mother, who sat quietly, surrounded by family and friends. After offering her words of comfort, I was brought to Ammar’s aunt, who witnessed the shooting. She was also surrounded by family and friends. Yet, five days since the shooting, she was still trembling from shock, a distant look in her eyes. Broken. Amar’s cousin, a little boy, who also saw the killing, hasn’t spoken a word since. Someone from our group gave him a piece of chocolate, he smiled, but no words passed his lips.
The violence in the Arab sector did not begin in 2021. It has been going on for many years, growing and getting worse. Weapons stolen from the army or smuggled across the borders are flowing freeing among family crime gangs in Arab communities. The causes of this violence, its continuation and growth are many. I am not writing in detail about the politics of this situation. Not while the emotions of yesterday are still churning inside me.
Suffice it to say that leaders of Israel’s Arab communities have been crying out for a solution for years, and due to Israel’s paralyzed politics resulting in not having a budget for three years, and politicians in denial just hoping the problem will go away, the situation only got worse. Finally, last year when it became clear just how out of control the situation has become – developing into a national security threat – has the government begun to act. Overdue and too late for Ammar and his bereaved family, but a critical step forward.
I am not the government. I am not the police. I am not a Member of Knesset. I don’t have the power to nab criminals and take away their weapons. I am, however, a neighbor, a father, a grandfather. Reaching out in an embrace to another father whose beautiful little boy was taken from him in a senseless act of violence is the least I can do.
May the memory of Ammar Muhammad Hujayrat be only for blessings. May his family be comforted. And let’s together, Arabs and Jews, find a way to end this violence once and for all so we may all find the peace we deserve.