Israel’s national failure: Not stopping violent crime in the Arab sector
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Israel’s national failure: Not stopping violent crime in the Arab sector

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Unlike the other 69, Ismael’s murder was front-page news, due to his close alliance with both New Hope leader and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.

“A brave and honest leader. Adviser to the education minister; engineer; educator. Member of the Druze community. We are certain that the police will do all it can to catch the despicable murderers,” the party wrote in an online post.

The rising violent crime rates in Arab-Israeli society are not new. According to a report published by the Abraham Initiatives, a shared society organization that works to enact equal and positive Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, 71 Arab citizens were killed in 2018, and 89 were killed the following year. A separate, unaffiliated report, released toward the end of 2020, reported a new high of 113 crime-related deaths in the Arab sector that year.
A protest against the rising crime and violence in the Arab sector in Israel, Jaffa, Saturday, February 6, 2021. (credit: SASSONI AVSHALOM)

Despite the fact that Arabs make up only 21% of the population, over 50% of violent crimes in Israel directly affect Arab citizens, the Abraham Initiatives found. It attributes the disproportionate statistic in part to “a history of under-policing and tense relations with the Israeli police.”

Regarding the murder of Ismael, the Abraham Initiatives believes his death proves that “no one is safe, not even senior government officials.” The organization stressed the urgency of bringing the perpetrators to justice “so that [a sense of] personal security can return to the Arab communities.”

LEAH LESHEM, Israel Police spokeswoman for the Northern District, disagrees with the statement that the murder of Ismael proves that nobody is safe in Arab communities, she said in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post.

“It is not accurate to say that there is an increase in violence in the Arab sector that affects politicians, too, now; it’s not correct,” she said. “It’s true that he was a political personality, but the incident did not happen because he was a political figure… the event was not carried out against a political background.

“To only speak about crime in the Arab sector is to not understand all the factors surrounding the issue,” Leshem continued. “There are issues between families, weapons within easy reach.”

Placing all the responsibility on the shoulders of the police is wrong, she stressed to the Post.

“The first address [people turn to] is always police, police, police, but that isn’t right,” Leshem mused.

One of the key issues, she said, can be found in the infrastructure of the Arab towns, particularly in northern Israel.

“In all the Arab villages the roads are terrible; they are packed full and overcrowded. It is so crowded and difficult, and people are coming and going from every direction.

“When you live in a place like that… that feels like a slum and looks like a slum [it affects you], and in the Arab sector it is really terrible.”

Such squalid conditions push people towards joining gangs or other criminal activities because they see it as a way out, Leshem explained.

Another issue, she shared, is the lack of structured activities for children and youth. Unlike in neighboring Jewish communities, where children frequently attend a variety of after-school activities known as hugim, a similar structure does not exist in the majority of Arab towns.

While some parents will send their children to hugim organized in Jewish towns, Leshem explained, there is an overwhelming feeling that the communities must be kept separate and apart, meaning most parents will not choose to send their children to mixed after-school groups.

This creates a vacuum, as youth grow up without structure and look for other ways to fill their time.

“Many of the youth – they don’t have income, they don’t have a profession,” Leshem explained. Many of them turn to gangs and organized crime groups, which seem to offer them more opportunities than they could find elsewhere.

“They see the groups and ask themselves, What do I want in life? Do I also want that? and they grow close to [the organized crime groups]… they earn salaries, sometimes high ones.”

Again, Leshem stressed, multiple bodies and factors are responsible for the high crime rates, not simply the police.

HOWEVER, THERE are those who disagree with the police spokeswoman’s assessment.

In his role as a volunteer EMT with United Hatzalah, Marwan (his first name) serves as the chapter head in his hometown of Taiba, and has been a first responder to many violent incidents. Speaking to the Post, he expressed frustration at the lack of effort he sees from the police at crime scenes on a regular basis.

He explained that not only do the police fail to adequately protect the victims of violent crime, but many first responders feel that they, too, have been put in danger on many occasions.

“We always feel threatened when we enter shooting or stabbing incidents,” Marwan said. “It is frightening because after every such incident, the police arrive after extreme delays, and we are already inside the scene of the crime.

“About a year ago I arrived at the scene of the murder of a woman at the hands of her partner,” he expanded. “We went up to the apartment to treat the woman, who was in critical condition, and the murderer was walking around outside at the entrance to the house. The police arrived very late.”

Of the 70 murders in the Druze and Arab communities this year, 10 of the victims have been women.

Although Leshem stated that she believes crime can be reduced through improving infrastructure and after-school programming, she touched on the issue of easy access to weapons, acknowledging that it is a large contributing factor.

Illegal weapon possession contributes in no small part to the high death rate in Arab communities, and it has been reported that during 2020 alone, 1,150 guns, over 200 grenades, large amounts of ammunition, magazines, explosive materials and more were confiscated in Arab communities by the Israel Police.

“In my opinion, the eradication of weapons in the Arab sector would significantly lower the level of violence,” Marwan stated.

“Every morning there is a new murder. The year is not over yet and we have already almost broken a record for crime compared to the previous years.”

In a 2019 personal security index published by the Abraham Initiatives, under the section “Recommendations concerning the work of the police and law enforcement agencies for Arab society,” the organization outlined its goal of “intensifying the struggle against illegal weapons.”

According to the Abraham Initiatives, one such way in which a reduction in illegal weapons could be achieved would be through amnesties, where people would be afforded the opportunity to hand in their weapons, no questions asked, with guaranteed safety from prosecution.

At the same time, penalties for weapons offenses would be increased, encouraging people to take part in such an amnesty.

DESPITE THE steady uptick in crime-related deaths, many are hopeful that things are about to change. In 2019, after mass protests of Arabs against crime in their communities, the Knesset Committee on Violence in Arab Society announced its plan to combat the spread of organized crime.

At the time, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu participated in the discussion, calling it “a great improvement” in closing the gap between Jewish and Arab communities.

By mid-2021 however, the plan is yet to be implemented, in part, a representative from the Abraham Initiatives told the Post, due to the failure to pass a government budget two years in a row.

However, certain aspects of the plan, such as the inauguration of a department designated to this specific issue, did not require a specific government budget, and yet the process to create the department took much longer than it should have.

The establishment of the department was first announced in February, the organization representative explained, and yet it took over six months to actually happen. It was the only aspect of the plan not caught in the political deadlock, and while it could have been created much sooner, there were considerable delays, for which there was no explanation.

This seeming oversight from the government is obvious to Marwan, too. When asked if he believes that the police and politicians have failed his community and others, he answered in the affirmative.

“It is a huge failure, in my opinion,” he stated, “because we do not see increased activity to eradicate crime. We see the opposite, that the level of crime is rampant at a very high frequency.”

On August 11, over two years after the initial committee meeting on the subject, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett officially launched the plan to combat crime in Arab society and inaugurated the aforementioned designated department to handle the issue at the Kiryat Ata police station.

The prime minister stressed that, under him, the government is “determined to act and fight tirelessly, persistently and consistently,” against crime in the Arab sector.

The Abraham Initiatives, which has played a significant role in helping this plan come to fruition, is hopeful, if a little doubtful.

It is worried, its representative clarified, that the plan isn’t big enough, and will be unable to effectively combat the problem.

“The budget of NIS 2.5 billion – NIS 1.5b. for policing and NIS 1b. for civilian aspects – isn’t enough…. It is good that it is happening, but it isn’t enough.”

The plan is being implemented against an increasingly difficult background, one where trust between the Arab sector and the police is at an all-time low. Statistics from the 2019 personal security index indicated that the general level of trust in the police among Arab citizens is at its lowest, at just 17.4%, a significant drop from the previous year, when 26.1% of Arab citizens indicated that they trusted the police.

Marwan believes that the police could still regain his community’s trust, however. Although most are frustrated with what they see as police inaction, the implementation of the plan could turn things around, because, as he explained “the community is fed up with the existing situation.”

On the police plan, he is cautiously optimistic, although it is clear that the police will have to work hard to regain the EMT’s trust.

“I hope the program will help to lower the level of violence everywhere in the country, of course, and not just in the [Arab] sector,” he concluded.

Leshem, too, is hopeful that the plan will enact positive change.

“What is the difference between Jewish and Arab [communities], at the end of the day,” she mused. “Our religion? Most people are similar. We are all scared of the same things. We are all more or less the same. It cannot be that the Arab sector cannot receive help.”•

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