After a Year of COVID Lockdowns, Israel's Criminals Get Busy Again

This year the country might see the first increase in its crime rate in nearly two decades, with the biggest rises so far in sex crimes, vandalism and public-order breaches

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An Ethiopian arrested by Israel Police, two years ago.
An Israeli police officer making an arrest.Credit: Nir Keidar
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

The coronavirus pandemic – or more precisely, the lockdowns imposed to contain it – brought a sharp drop in crime in Israel. But the decline was only brief, and a year after COVID made its first appearance in the country, criminal activity has roared back – indeed, 2021 may suffer the first increase in Israel’s crime rate in nearly 20 years.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the overall rate – a potpourri of human misbehavior encompassing everything from homicide to “erection of barrier” – fell 4.5 percent last year to 287,127 reported incidents.

The drop occurred in the first half of the year as the government ordered the first of Israel’s three lockdowns. In the second half, crime was back up again, 7.7 percent, with 148,883 files opened, even though a second lockdown was imposed in the autumn. The rate pushed higher in the first half of this year, during the third lockdown, rising another 2.4 percent, according to the statistics bureau.

If the trends of the first half continue, Israel’s crime rate could end up higher in 2021 than in 2020 or 2019, the last pre-coronavirus year. That would mark a break in the steady decline over the past two decades.

Logic says that the pandemic, lockdowns and other social-distancing restrictions should stifle most kinds of crime. With people at home far more than usual, chances for break-ins plummet. The closure of bars and nightclubs provides fewer opportunities for people – mainly young men – to engage in the drunken behavior that sometimes leads to violence. There are fewer opportunities for sexual harassment when offices, malls and public transportation are shuttered.

“It doesn’t take a scientist to see that when you make people stay in their homes, they are less likely to be victimized outside,” said Prof. David Weisburd, who holds the Walter E. Meyer chair in law and criminal justice at Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology.

“Crime can be seen as a function of victims and offenders coming together at a place and time that offers opportunities for crime. If offenders are unable to move around and victims are unable to move around, they can’t come together in space and time.”

But Weisburd warns against trying to ascribe changes in the crime rate to specific causes. Crime, he notes, is a function of multiple factors, and even something as traumatic as COVID may not be the sole cause of an improvement.

Police arresting an ultra-Orthodox man in Jerusalem last October as they try to enforce a COVID lockdown.Credit: Emil Salman

Domestic violence

Still, there were plenty of reasons for crime to rise during COVID lockdowns. Empty stores and offices made easy targets for theft. The police were often preoccupied with enforcing coronavirus rules. In a few cases, COVID restrictions led to rioting in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods or towns, which showed up in police statistics as arrests for property damage and assault.

Most importantly, domestic violence, which the statistics bureau doesn’t break down into a separate category, rose as breadwinners were put on unpaid leave and schools were closed. That left families confined to close quarters for days and weeks.

Even if the economic impact of rising unemployment was mitigated by increased government aid, many families struggled financially. Even for those that did well, boredom and frustration were inescapable.

Figures from the Israel Police, issued in response to a freedom of information request by Haaretz, show that domestic violence complaints climbed 13 percent in 2020. Most of the rise occurred during the first and most draconian series of lockdowns in the spring. “Spending many hours together heightens day-to-day frictions and sometimes exacerbates conflicts that preceded the pandemic,” a police source told Haaretz.

Although some cities such as New York saw a worrying surge in homicide during the peak of the pandemic, crime throughout most of the world dropped. A study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in June found that in 27 cities it surveyed, including Tel Aviv, crime plunged 37 percent after stay-at-home rules were ordered. The drop varied considerably by type of crime, with theft and robbery naturally falling the most. Homicide fell as well, although in most cities the decline was not statistically significant.

In Tel Aviv, rates for assault, theft, burglary, robbery and vehicle theft all tumbled in the double digits – and in most cases at about the same rate as in Chicago, whose overall crime rate in normal times is several times as large. But murders in both cities rose, according to the study, which was led by Amy Nivette, an assistant professor of sociology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

In any case, the study found that the effect lasted only two to five weeks from the time the lockdown rules were imposed; after that, crime resumed to its pre-lockdown rates. The researchers said they weren’t surprised by the resurgent crime – the stay-at-home orders had reduced it. That made COVID different from other traumatic events such as blackouts and natural disasters, which often spur criminal activity.

“We found strong evidence that crime levels respond quickly to changing opportunity structures and constraints, and that change in crime levels does not necessarily require large-scale changes in offender motivation,” the authors wrote. “At least in the short run, the change in routine activities rather than the increase in psychological and social strains was the dominating mechanism that affected change in overall crime levels.”

Compared with a year earlier, when rates dropped sharply, in the first half of this year criminal activity in Israel was up almost across the board. The biggest rises were in sex crimes (15.2 percent), vandalism (13.8 percent) and public-order crimes (9.3 percent). For 2021, the police haven't yet broken down homicides from other deaths caused by people, but crimes involving bodily harm are 2.8 percent higher, the statistics bureau says.

An Israeli police car in action.Credit: Moti Kimche

The Arab community

One category that continued to tumble was breaking and entering, down 13.8 percent; it could be that though lockdown measures have disappeared, fewer homes are unoccupied even for part of the day. Many Israelis are still working at home even though offices and other workplaces have reopened. In addition, far fewer Israelis are away from home on vacations due to travel restrictions.

COVID arrived at a time when Israel, like much of the world, was enjoying a long-term decline in crime. In Israel, the crime rate per 1,000 people was at 46.4 in 2011 and fell to 32.7 in 2019, the police say. In the COVID year of 2020, the number eased further to 30.4.

One high-profile exception has been the surge in violent crime in the Arab-Israeli community. The number of newly opened homicide cases involving a non-Jewish victim rose from 67 in 2016 to 138 in 2020, while those involving a Jewish victim declined. This year, the number of murders in the Arab community is on track for another annual increase, with 77 victims in the first eight months of the year, up from 55 at the same time in 2020.

Criminologists hesitate to explain why Israel’s overall crime rate has fallen over the years, because so many factors play a role. Weisburd notes Israel’s growing economy and low unemployment, so there are fewer incentives to engage in crime. Better policing is probably another reason, he adds.

With or without the current resurgence of the coronavirus, the pandemic has almost certainly wrought long-term changes in the way people live. It will undoubtedly change the way criminals go about their business, too.

“COVID changed people’s lives – the way you work, how you work, more work over the internet, Zooming, people not going to the office like they used to,” Weisburd said. “All this will have an effect on crime and types of crime. This is all speculation, but I’m intrigued by how criminals behave and how they are organized. Are they more likely to meet with co-offenders and plan crimes online? Are they more likely to interact with victims online?”

It seems they are. The Israel Money Laundering and Terror Financing Prohibition Authority says online crime has been rising in recent years as criminals exploit the low cost of perpetrating fraud and easy access to the masses of potential victims online.

Economic crises such as the 2008 Great Recession tend to stoke financial fraud, and the coronavirus was no different. In 2020, the number of fraud cases – most of them pursued online – rose 7 percent, the authority found, based on the number of complaints it received.

“The coronavirus pandemic brought changes all over the world in finance among other areas, accelerating a transition to remote activities with new risks for money laundering and financial crime,” the authority said in its annual report released this month. “Recognizing the changes that the economy has undergone, criminals have also ‘moved to work at home.’”

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