Israel horrified by sheer brutality of heatwave killings

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The Independent Online

Is it the intense summer heat, or a symptom of a chronic disorder in a society collapsing from within? Murders have been occurring at the rate of one every 17 hours in Israel in the last few days. But Israelis have been shocked less by the statistics than the pettiness of the apparent motives.

Is it the intense summer heat, or a symptom of a chronic disorder in a society collapsing from within? Murders have been occurring at the rate of one every 17 hours in Israel in the last few days. But Israelis have been shocked less by the statistics than the pettiness of the apparent motives.

The country was yesterday digesting details of the latest homicide, that of Michael Baram, a 46-year-old medical equipment salesman and father of three, who was beaten to death in a parking lot brawl. The police say his killer was a motorist with no previous criminal record with whom he had earlier had an argument over the right of way at a road junction.

Before him, there was Alon Michaeli, who was fatally stabbed in an argument over a deckchair on a beach in Tel Aviv, (a crime for which six people are now being questioned).

On the same day, last Friday, Uri Macroya, 33, was carted off by the police on suspicion of beating his lover's 30-month-old child to death with a belt. The toddler's mistake? Interfering with his viewing of the Euro 2000 match between France and the Czech Republic.

The apparently trivial causes for these killings - combined with three other murders in Israel within four days - have been greeted with genuine horror. The Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, has appealed to Israelis to be especially vigilant, and to stop this "terrible chain of events."

The mass-selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper turned to the Bible, which depicts a society on the brink of total destruction, fatally corroded by its own vices. "Have we become as Sodom? Are we likened unto Gomorrah?". The paper concludes that the answer is "yes", and that Israel has become "violent, frightening and impatient to a fatal degree". It also blames the current heatwave.

The Russian language newspaper Vesti - whose readership are no strangers to a society engulfed by crime - declared the latest events "a big tragedy in a small country". And Yedioth's tabloid rival, Ma'ariv - whose publisher, Ofer Nimrodi, went on trial this week on charges of conspiracy to commit murder - announced "the summer of 2000 is becoming one of the most violent the country has known."

This is, in fact, not the case, at least in terms of homicides. Police statistics show a slight dip in the murder rate. In 1998, there were 154, dropping to 136 last year - placing Israel in the middle of the international murder league table. Sixty-four people were murdered up to 19 June last year; this year, the figure stands at 57.

But the extraordinary nature of the latest killings adds to the evidence that Israel - a small constricted country with deep ethnic and religious divisions - is a pressure cooker in which the heat is rising.

Barely a week goes by without a new addition to a growing pile of statistical proof. A national survey, for example, has just found that one out of five teachers feel helpless in dealing with school violence; recently released government figures show that a state-sponsored hotline on domestic violence received 4,128 calls last year. To this should be added the steady pulse of killings which earlier this month saw a convicted killer murder his estranged wife while on leave from prison.

So why is it happening? Israelis say there is no simple answer. "These days, there are more pressures on people," said Dr Sarah Ben-David, a senior lecturer in criminology at Bar-Ilan University.

"There are many factors. We are in a politically unstable environment. There's the heat, worries about new tax laws, the collapse of the government, the future of the Golan Heights, the debate between the religious and the non-religious. Even so, there are other nations that are more violent than us."

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