Israel Police Brace for Economic-driven Spike in Crime Amid COVID Crisis

Rise in property crime predicted after 
end of coronavirus crisis, internal documents say

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Store owners protest against Israel's second COVID lockdown, Tel Aviv, October 2020.
Store owners protest against Israel's second COVID lockdown, Tel Aviv, October 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The police and Public Security Ministry forecast a major rise in crime once the coronavirus crisis ends, due to the dire economic situation facing Israelis.

Documents obtained by Haaretz reveal internal discussions held by the police and Public Security Ministry during the first lockdown and after it, in which police officials said the crisis will lead to a severe dependence by business owners on gray market lenders. They also anticipated a significant increase in property crime and domestic violence.

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The documents reported here came from a Freedom of Information Law request made by Haaretz and the Movement for the Promotion of a Fair Society (Hatzlacha) nonprofit, and show predictions of a crime wave were made at the end of April. “The police need to prepare for the economic crisis just around the corner,” said a senior official in the Public Security Ministry. They should prepare by creating a “narrative of a victory picture. It is important that we come out of this incident with the police being depicted as acting for the public, and not against it,” he added. It is doubtful that the police have managed to create such a picture as of now.

In the meetings, which were held from March through May, police officials estimated that along with the rise in the number of crimes, the number of demonstrations and public disturbances as a result of the economic crisis would also increase – a prediction that became true very shortly after it was made.

The Israel Prison Service expected the number of prisoners to rise too after the crisis. Both the prison service and the police correctly forecast an escalation in domestic violence. Domestic assaults have jumped by tens of percent. The police created a special group in the planning branch whose job is to predict what will be after the coronavirus crisis ends. In many cases, their forecasts have already come true: The police prepared for a lockdown in which soldiers assisted the police officers patrolling the streets, crowds mobbing supermarkets and pharmacies, and chaos in the prisons.

The head of the police’s operations department said on the eve of the first lockdown that it is possible that force will be needed to enforce the restrictions, as happened during the second lockdown. A senior ministry official warned that “if we don’t know how to provide food and medicine to the public, it could boomerang on us.” The police also predicted the number of internet crimes would rise, too, with an emphasis on cybercrimes and those against minors. This chilling prediction has also come to pass.

Three main groups were discussed in the meetings between the police and Public Security Ministry officials: the ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and asylum seekers. As for the latter, the police feared that their economic situation and the rise in unemployment would force many of them into crime, and lead to an increase in prostitution as well. The police also made preparations for an outbreak of COVID-19 in the asylum seeker community.

Given these forecasts, the police decided to treat the asylum seekers with uncharacteristic leniency during the coronavirus crisis, and even to provide them with special aid. In a document from April, the head of policy in the ministry recommended encouraging local governments to distribute food and hygiene products. “The guiding principle needs to be not to differentiate between legal residents and illegal residents in terms of the virus.”

Other worries included a rise in domestic violence, crime and racism against asylum seekers by “activists who are trying to incite against groups without [legal] status and take advantage of the crisis to incite against them.”

The police and the ministry were even more worried about how to handle the Haredi and Arab communities. The fear of a failure to follow the rules in Haredi society was clear in the meetings. There was also concern about “gaps in governance and policing in Arab towns, and all the more so in the [unrecognized] Bedouin communities in the south.”

The presentation in May by the ministry’s strategy branch, titled “The Day After,” predicted particular challenges with the Arab community, saying: “The longer the crisis lasts and deepens, the more challenging [it will be] both to enforce the restrictions imposed on personal freedom and to deal with the rising crime and violence.” As for the Haredi community, “There are various groups that do not answer to the authority of the state, but to sources of authority in the community.” The police also said that one of the problems was that the Health Ministry’s guidelines were not clear.

A series of meetings was also devoted to the police’s public relations. In addition to the desire to show a “victory picture,” the police hired outside consultants to help out with PR. One topic raised was how to improve the public image of the acting police commissioner Moti Cohen and of then Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, with this described as one of the main issues of the meetings.

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