“It’s really hard, people have gotten used to it,” says Hala Ra’abi, a young social activist from Jaljulia, an Arab town in the center of Israel near Kfar Saba. She is describing the atmosphere following the second murder of a young adult from the town within six months. Despite the hard feelings in light of the continued violence, Ra’abi sees herself and her peers as responsible for bringing about a change: “We know that we can change things, that that’s our job,” she says, “and it won’t happen all at once, it’ll take time. A lot of time.”
Last month, Abed al-Aziz Jamaal Qurmata, a 26 year old resident of Jaljulia, was killed in the central town of Kafr Qasem. In March Muhammad Ades, a 15 year old boy, was killed in Jaljulia as part of a conflict between organized crime families in the town. The murder led to widespread protests throughout the Arab community, culminating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Dozens of other young people have been killed in Arab towns in the past six months, despite repeated announcements by Police Commanders and government Ministers of plans to eradicate crime in the Arab sector.
Ra’abi, a master’s student in architecture, chose to channel the difficult feelings following Ades’s murder into an attempt to make change. “On the night of the murder we opened a WhatsApp group for young people in the town called ‘Movement of the Youth.’ Within half an hour over 250 people had joined. We asked ‘What do you think we can do in order to change the reality we’re living in?’ and we got responses that we didn’t expect, on what we can do so that in another five or 10 years things will be better here. They suggested creating a parents’ group, to speak with teachers at the school, and to meet with professionals to learn how to talk to children about staying away from violence.”
“Whoever wants to make a change is part of it”
The discussions in the WhatsApp group led to a string of meetings and activities. Ten days after Ades’s murder a roundtable event was held in which the town’s youth gathered to share their thoughts, emotions, and ideas. Throughout the month of Ramadan the group would meet on Thursday evenings and talk with residents about Muhammad Ades and about the murder. Group members put on a performance advocating against violence and recorded a song about Ades. “We came together to sing, people from all of the families in the town, even those who hadn’t spoken in months. Everyone talked about how much good there is here. We have to fight for what’s good, and against the violence.”
Ra’abi says that Ades’s death is still felt every day. “I have a picture of him on my fridge, I see him every day. A few days ago I passed by his house and I saw his father. His friends started a new school year, and I wondered who will sit with his friends in his place. These might be the things his mother is thinking about.”
The shock that gripped the community after Ades’s death turned into sorrow and despair with the murder of Qurmata, and many began to feel that the violence was just a part of the daily routine. For someone like Ra’abi, this sense of resignation makes it hard to lead a movement for change. “I feel like I know what to do, but I also don’t know what to do,” she says.
For now Ra’abi and her friends are preparing for another roundtable conference of residents and educators in the town. “At the last meeting we were still caught up in feelings of mourning and anger, we only talked about the murder. Now we want to think about what we can offer the town’s youth so that they won’t turn to crime.” Ra’abi says that the group has already organized meetings and lectures for teenagers at the local community center, but turnout has been low. “We have to find a way to reach them,” she says.
Ra’abi says that “Movement of the Youth” is an informal, nonpolitical movement based only on the desire to change the situation in any way possible. “It’s a more spontaneous coalition. Whoever wants to make a change is part of it. It’s for everyone who believes in Jaljulia and sees that it can be a better place.”