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A Chance for Israeli Officials to Realize: Arabs Are Not a Security Threat

Jack Khoury
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A murder scene in the village of Rameh, two months ago.
A murder scene in the village of Rameh, two months ago.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Jack Khoury

The ministerial committee for combatting violence in the Arab community in Israel convened on Sunday for the first time. By all appearances, the convening of the committee, which is being chaired by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is a necessary and essential step to address the situation.

Since the beginning of the year, 95 Arab citizens – including 49 since Bennett took office in June – have been killed, according to the nonprofit organization the Abraham Initiatives. But the announcement regarding the convening of the ministerial committee has only increased suspicions in the Arab community that it’s a public relations effort and nothing more.

Bennett, along with Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and deputy Minister Yoav Segalovitz, who is supposed to spearhead the efforts on the issue, also appeared before the cameras on August 12 to ceremoniously announce the creation of a new Israel Police branch, the Seif division, directed by Maj. Gen. Jamal Hakhrush, to wage all-out war against crime organizations in Israel’s Arab community. But between then and this past weekend, the sense of security in the Arab community has only eroded even more.

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Last month, 16 Arab citizens were victims of homicide and even Hakhursh’s own house was targeted with gunfire. As a practical matter, the talk about action plans to address the situation has been seen as hollow. The impact of the plans on the ground is viewed as negligible.

When it comes to the balance of deterrence, the crime organizations have the upper hand. Gunfire in the middle of the day and the shooting of women and children are clear indications of that. And the situation has been eroding the Arab public’s trust not only in the national government but in local authorities as well.

A demonstration in the mixed city of Lod against violence against women in the Arab community, earlier this month. Credit: Ilan Assayag

During the period before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left office in June, Arab mayors were leading efforts on the issue, presenting plans and attending dozens of meetings at all levels of the national government. With the establishment of the Bennett-led government and the changeover in the cabinet – particularly at the Public Security Ministry, which is responsible for the police – the mayors had a sense of cautious optimism. That was also seen in statements made by Arab Knesset members including Mansour Abbas, the leader of the United Arab List, which is part of Bennett’s coalition.

But as time went by, the criticism has also been directed at United Arab list lawmakers and at the mayors. Their response was that there was a plan but that implementing it was slow and partial. The results were in keeping with that.

The government and the police have repeatedly defended themselves, claiming that operational plans take time and that a lack of cooperation by the Arab public hasn’t been helping matters. Such claims are met with anger and disappointment among the Arab public.

The widely held view in the Arab community is that the government and the police have sufficient resources to deal with crime if there is a strategic decision to make that a priority and allocate resources toward that end. The argument regarding cooperation from the public has also worn thin.

A demonstration near Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev against violence in the Arab community last week. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In an age of cybertechnology, who needs another informant? All one has to do is look at the number of arrests and indictments filed after the riots in May, when the police showed that they were capable of using a broad range of means to bring dozens of young Arabs to justice.

And if cooperation is the issue, it’s worth noting the change that has taken place in Israeli Arab society over the past two decades. In October of 2000 – 21 years ago – there were demonstrations in Arab communities along with confrontations of the most severe kind with the police. Those marches and demonstrations were met by the firing of live weapons. Twelve Arab Israelis and a Palestinian were killed by the police.

On Saturday, the Arab community marked the anniversary of those events. Twenty years ago, the demand was to withdraw the police from Arab communities to avoid friction and an escalation of the situation. Now the demand is to bring the police in, and there are even those, albeit a minority of the Arab public, who are asking for the Shin Bet security service to get involved.

In the Arab community, personal safety is viewed as a basic right, and people are able to distinguish between a police officer who is suppressing them due to their national identity and an officer who is dealing with a criminal who is undermining their personal safety. On the other hand, Israeli governments over the country’s history have not viewed the Arab public as entitled to such protection. Instead, the country’s Arabs were seen as a security threat.

Maybe at its meeting on Sunday, Bennett and his cabinet colleagues will change their way of thinking.

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