Crime Is Rampant in Arab Israeli Communities, but Police Lack the Resources to Bring About Change

A new study reveals a complex picture in which personnel shortage is just one of many problems police chiefs in Arab communities are faced with

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A protest against violence in Arab societies last year in Kafr Qasem
A protest against violence in Arab societies last year in Kafr QasemCredit: תומר אפלבאום

Last Saturday night, Nizar Jahshan, 55, sat down to a meal in a Nazareth restaurant. While he was eating, unknown assailants fired at him from a passing car, hitting him in the head. He was hospitalized in critical condition. The gunmen have not been found, and Jahshan’s family believes they are unlikely to be apprehended.

The police aren’t necessarily surprised by this; they might even understand it. “The number of police officers I have here isn’t a tool to work with,” the commander of a police station in an Arab community told Haaretz. “These are tools to put out fires, not effect change.”

Crime in Arab society and a lack of a sense of personal security are nothing new. But recent research that studied the situation from another perspective, that of police chiefs in Arab communities, reveal a complex picture of which the personnel shortage is just one aspect. Others include high crime rates, lack of cooperation with complainants and the concealment of evidence.

As part of the study, 11 station commanders were interviewed (anonymously), mostly in all-Arab cities and a few in mixed cities. Commanders of three stations in East Jerusalem were also interviewed.

The study, called “Seeking Different Engagement,” was carried out by Prof. Badi Hasisi, of the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law and Dr. Yael Litmanovitz of the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute.

The commanders starting point is indisputable: One the one hand, crime in Arab communities is rising and on the other, government ministries neglect Arab communities in terms of funding and resources. Another conflict is the way in which the police are perceives in Arab society. As far as the residents are concerned, the commanders say the police don’t just provide a service to the community; the police are seen through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a threat to the residents. “It’s also what you convey to the environment. If I go around here with a helmet on they’ll throw stones at me and if I go around with a hat, they’ll say hello.”

Beyond the two hats of the police, there’s another element that increases alienation between the police and the people: a cultural gap. “You have to know the culture, the way [of life], the mentality, everything together,” a commander told the researchers. To this end, station chiefs have developed “special protocols,” by which officers adapt themselves to the city where they are serving. “When you come to an incident, you already take all the considerations into account. You don’t handle it in the classical way of ‘hello sir, let me take your testimony.’ You already make your calculations of ‘wait a minute, take him to the station, he’s not going to say anything here.’ ‘Wait a minute, it’s a woman, somebody will have to come with her but it looks like this somebody has nothing to do with it.’ If you don’t recognize this, you won’t handle the incident right,” the commander said.

And yet, there is a difficulty stemming from a lack of willingness to cooperate with the police. One of the commanders showed this by means of a case where shooting was heard. “In the Jewish community, even before the police arrive, there will be a hundred calls to 100,” he said, referring to the Israeli version of 911. I might not get even one call. There’s great fear of getting involved in feuds. The fear of being involved is incredible,” he said. That is also the reason why taking testimony and complaints is so difficult. “A guy will come and say, ‘so and so hurt me.’ A week later he’ll say that they’ve reconciled on the basis of ‘pay me this or do this or that for me. ... Then [the complainant will come and say, ‘no, I take it back,’ everything I said was wrong.’”

Sometimes even when the police are working alone, they feel like somebody’s impeding them; concealing evidence is very common. “They remove the closed-circuit cameras, collect the bullet shells, wash down the scene,” one of the commanders explained.

As the difficulties pile up, violence is on the rise. According to Knesset Research Center figures based on police data, 64 percent of all murders between 2014 and 2016 took place in Arab communities, although Arabs constitute only about 20 percent of Israel’s population. Moreover, the number of murder victims per 100 people in the Arab (or as the research puts it, “the non-Jewish sector”) is five times that of Jewish murder victims. “When there’s such a deviation in the crime rate, the police can’t fill the vacuum with its current forces and tell citizens from the [Arab] community, ‘I will protect you,’ one commander says openly. “This does not exist and apparently won’t happen. Change has to come from the people. On the day people say ‘guys, I won’t shoot at you and you won’t shoot at me, let’s go to the police.’ That’s where the big change will happen,” he said.

But it seems that such change is far off, and the road has a few obstacles particular to Arab society, the commanders say. “Until I got here, I never ran into such extremes in everything. It’s a kind of very, very high aggressiveness that people have. You can see it in the driving and the use of weapons,” one commander said. The interviewees also said that relatively simple incidents can escalate very rapidly.

“You come across opposition to getting a ticket that can lead to assault on an officer,” one commander said.

Another commander presents his own example: “I can intervene into a fight between a husband and wife and end up with an assault on officers in seconds.” Such instances, the commanders say, not only hurt law enforcement, they also impact the way more unusual incidents are handled, the officers said. “Sometimes you can find yourself for three months with brawls that distract you from the basics of what you’re doingyou’re supposed to be giving service and in the end your only dealing with a certain area.”

This frustration has another side, in Arab society itself, which is that many people become victims. “We don’t absolve ourselves of responsibility on the local level,” a resident of Umm al-Fahm, Tawfiq Jabarin, told Haaretz. Jabarin, who is active on a conflict-resolution committee in the city, concedes that success is limited considering the increase in crime. “We certainly bear responsibility but can’t deal with crime organizations and weapons, that’s the job of the police,” he says.

Dr. Wail Jahshan, a social and political activist in Nazareth, agrees with Jabarin. He puts an emphasis on priorities determined from above. “Every child in Arab society understands that there’s only a suspicion that weapons, which are found in huge quantities in Arab communities, will be used [for nationalistic purposes], it will be a matter of hours before it will be dealt with and arrests will be made,” Jahshan, who is a relative of the Easter eve shooting victim, said, last week in Nazareth. “But as long as it’s in the Arab community, it is dealt with poorly,” he added.

The research, which was conducted in cooperation with the police, revealed that some of the commanders tried to turn the disadvantage in a lack of good governance and neglect by the state into a means making the police more accessible, and to forge informal ties with people in the community. “I went personally and opened people’s stopped-up sewage, I saw to it that a mosque was built, that a road was paved,” one of the commanders said, adding: “The wise thing is not so say, ‘this isn’t my responsibility.’”

Hasisi welcomes this approach, saying that it builds confidence in the police, which is “all the more important with regard to the Arab community where there’s a problem of good governance.

On the matter of good governance, all the commanders said there are not enough police to help reduce the crime rate in Arab communities. But this issue is also complex. The main problem is bringing Arabs into the police force, which the officers said would increase effectiveness and confidence in law enforcement. “The added value of a local cop is much greater,” one commander said. “What I get done with 10 cops, he gets out of a phone call. ... He understands the way of life, he bridges the gaps with the language and reduces tensions,” a station chief said.

But this is where some obstacles come up. One is cultural — “They could call him a spy” — but there are also organizational problems in the police, such as field security and knowledge of Arabic. Thus the police are left with relatively small numbers of officers with what might be said at the very least is challenging to the residents whose safety they are in charge of. One of the possibilities the commanders raised is to teach Arab culture to new officers. “I’m not sure we in the police know exactly what Islam is,” one commander said, adding that officers might not know the Arabs of this country and their history. Once this issue is studied, he said, “you find there’s a lot in common and there are many people who do want to work with us. We’re not there,” he said.

The Israel Police responded that Arab police officers “work shoulder-to-shoulder with all communities and religions that make up the social mosaic of Israel.” The statement also said that the number of Muslims on the police force has been rising constantly over the years, “and increased in 2016 with the establishment of the Arab Communities administration.” The statement added that there are now more than 200 Muslims in various phases of induction into the police force.

As for the fight against crime and violence in Arab society, the police said: “In recent years, the Israel Police and the Public Security Ministry have instituted a multi-year program to deepen police series in the Arab sector to respond to the special needs of Arab society, reduce crime and increase the sense of personal security and faith in the police and the rule of law among citizens.” The statement also said that the police “are constantly working to expand and increase police series in the sector. In terms of prevention, the police are working determinedly against weapons and in major efforts in intelligence work have captured an unprecedented large quantity of weapons.”

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