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Israel grapples with a new kind of violence

Good, old-fashioned murder catches off-guard a country always prepared for war

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk on the beach in Tel Aviv Jan. 14, 2009. An hour's drive from the border of the Israeli-bombed Gaza Strip and an even shorter journey from Israeli towns hit by Palestinian rockets, bars and cafes are bustling in a Mediterranean city that never sleeps. But a string of violent crimes has tarnished its image. (Sharon Perry/Reuters)

TEL BARUCH, Israel — It may surprise you to learn that many Israelis are only now realizing they live in a violent place. And they’re freaking out.

Not the terrorist violence for which Israel is something of a byword. The murderous gang beating type of violence. The dismembered women kind of violence. The homophobic hate crime sort of violence.

Earlier this month, an as-yet unknown masked gunman shot down two men at a Tel Aviv gay hangout. Two women’s bodies were last week uncovered chopped into pieces — one in a dumpster near Tel Aviv and the other in a river further north. This week, a landlady showing a potential tenant around a Jerusalem apartment was stabbed to death by the man she intended to evict.

But the biggest headlines were for the beating death of Aryeh Karp on the Tel Baruch beach, just north of Tel Aviv. Last weekend, Karp’s daughter was harassed by a young Arab man from a town near Tel Aviv. Karp warned him off, but the youth called some drunken friends over. A group of eight Arab men and two Russian women chased Karp along the boardwalk and kicked him repeatedly in the head. He was found dead on the beach soon after.

The shock among Israelis was as much for the location of Karp’s death as it was for its violent nature. The beach, particularly to Tel Avivians, is a refuge from the bustle and general craziness of Israeli society.

Just how crazy the country has become is at the heart of the chest-beating opened up by a few weeks of violence. Israelis have long bragged to foreigners that — apart from the terrorism — Israel is a very peaceful place where typically children can wander towns without parents worrying and anyone can go anywhere at night without feeling threatened.

Israel’s police chiefs maintain that this image is correct. The crime rate, according to a police official, is at its lowest since 1996. Break-ins and car theft are both down more than 20 percent, though that could be explained in large part due to the security barrier around the West Bank. (Burglary and car theft inside Israel were popular with Palestinian criminals, who can no longer cross the network of walls and fences separating them from Israelis.)