JERUSALEM — Late last month, on a Friday night, a young Tel Aviv couple walked through the barren but well-lit cement rectangle that is Rabin Square, adjacent to City Hall. Upon entering the garage, they were confronted by a slender young man wielding a knife.
He drew them into the bathrooms and ordered them to have sex before raping the woman and stealing both their cell phones.
Residents of Tel Aviv — and, in fact, citizens of Israel — were deeply shaken. Whereas international media covers Israel as a violent, conflictive place, daily life in Israel has long been placid and, sometimes, even village-like.
Israelis still stop on the street to ask random strangers if everything is OK, and are famous for offering unsolicited opinions to bystanders about everything from childcare to fashion. Hitchhiking is a common activity. Women walk alone late at night along city sidewalks, free from fear.
A few days after the rape, a 21-year-old Palestinian from Nablus, working clandestinely in Tel Aviv, was arrested and charged.
Then, an apartment near Jerusalem's central market in which four illegal foreign workers were sleeping was intentionally set on fire. All four were wounded.
According to Israel National Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld, the incident was "an example of the unpleasant atmosphere in various places where illegal foreigners live. Someone attempted to attack innocent people simply because they are foreign."
But these are only two in a number of recent violent acts, perpetrated by Arabs and Jews alike, that have whipped up a media storm here. Late last month a man in the southern city of Beersheba beheaded his wife. And, recently, police accused a father of murdering his 10-year old son.
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The media panic over violence in Israeli society was first ignited in late March by a riot in which fans of a notoriously right-wing Jerusalem soccer team stormed a neighboring mall after a match and assaulted Arab workers at their jobs.
Beitar Jerusalem is the only Israeli team that does not have any Arab players, and its fans have always been considered coarser than the norm. Still, security camera footage showing an out of control mob attacking stunned mall employees set the nation's nerves on edge. The team's management immediately condemned its own fans. The mall’s executives, whose paltry security was no match for the hundreds of enraged fans, apologized publicly and repeatedly. The police made arrests.
Settlers living beyond the green line, which separates Israel from the Palestinian territories, have been implicated in a number of recent incidents of violence against Palestinians. The Israeli human rights organization B'Tzelem recently released several incriminating videos, including one in which settlers are seen firing rubber bullets at stone-throwing Palestinians, while Israeli Army soldiers stand idly and unresponsively by.
In another example of violence, about 1,000 residents of an impoverished southern Tel Aviv neighborhood surrounding the city's old bus station rioted last month against Sudanese refugees who have infiltrated through the Sinai desert at a growing rate.
Some estimates say 50,000 African refugees, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese, now reside in various degrees of legal limbo in central Israel, and now have a significant presence in the Tel Aviv's less prosperous districts.
Politicians have been quick to jump on the populist bandwagon, most notoriously Likud lawmaker Miri Regev, who made a surprise showing at the Tel Aviv riot and referred to the refugees as "a cancer" upon Israel. She later denied having made the statement. After a humiliating video mash-up of her uttering the statement and then simultaneously denying it went viral, she apologized, awkwardly, both to Holocaust survivors and to cancer patients.
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Aryeh Dayan, a former political correspondent for the daily Ha'aretz, who is now researching a book on the place of Palestinian citizens of Israel in Israeli soccer, the national sport, believes that violence was always part of Israeli society but, until now, has remained repressed. According to him, tough political realities, and not just politicians' statements, are behind the outbursts.
"Most of the violence is not against ‘Israelis.’ The reason all this is coming out now is that Israelis feel that Israel is in a crisis and that it has no way out, that we are at a dead end. We can't solve the crisis with the Palestinians. And therefore we can't do anything. So we blow up."
Soccer, he adds, until now, has been "a part of Israeli society in which violence and racism have been much less visible than in other parts."
Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, said there has not been "an actual increase" in crime rates in Israel, and that when it comes to areas with a high concentration of illegal foreigners, whether assaults are upon them or perpetrated by them, the discussion is only about petty crime.
"There is no more crime than before," he said. "We are not seeing an increase. In areas like south Tel Aviv what we see is a certain population, thousands of people, who sometimes have contact with petty crime. These are the same people who come to eat at soup kitchens, who wander about looking for a place to sleep, who can't work. It has just involved upping police visibility in certain areas, but nothing that is not regular, normal police work."
Gad Yair, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that based on the recent events it was impossible to tell whether society is getting more violent or if violence is simply being discussed more.
In fact, it’s not the first time the country has erupted in panic after a wave of violence made the news. In 2009, after a shooting outside a gay nightclub in Tel Aviv, Israelis also worried that violent crime was spiraling.
“People are very sensitive about the subject right now, especially since the rape in the garage in Tel Aviv. What we are seeing is a moral panic, in which the panic itself is more relevant than the acts that cause the panic, which may be very small in number. Without connection to facts, speech and reports become much more hysterical."
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