Violence in Israel's Arab Communities Reaches a Grim Peak, but Prospects for Change Are at All Time Low

The record 95 deaths in a single year have coincided with coronavirus, the growth of extremism in the Jewish community, and the debilitating infighting between their political representatives

Jack Khoury
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The scene of the killing in Baka al-Garbiyeh, December 19, 2020
The scene of the killing in Baka al-Garbiyeh, December 19, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush
Jack Khoury

On Friday evening Amir Abu Hassin, 25, was shot dead in his grocery store in Baka al-Garbiyeh. Shortly afterward two of his uncles – Ahmad Sharqiyeh, 26, and Mohammed Sharqiyeh, 47, from the nearby community of Jatt, who were following the ambulance bringing their nephew to a hospital – were also shot and killed. Three people died, but Israeli Arab communities have grown accustomed to such violence. This year 95 Israeli Arabs have been murdered, the most in at least 20 years, according to research by Haaretz. Who gets upset over yet another shooting, another murder? The sounds of gunfire and of the sirens of ambulances and police cruisers are such a common soundtrack in some Arab communities that they have become white noise.

Last year, which ended with 90 murders in Arab communities, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and the main roads demanding a change in the government’s treatment of its Arab citizens and greater personal security. This year there would seem to be even more reasons for protest: more murder victims than last year, with more than a week to go to the end of the year; greater economic distress, facilitating the spread of organized crime in Arab communities; demolitions of homes built without permits, despite the promises of the Kaminitz Law, and heavy fines levied on tens of thousands of Arabs for building violations. Hovering above it all is the nation-state law, challenges to which the High Court of Justice is scheduled to hear beginning Tuesday.

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The coronavirus, which struck particularly hard in Arab communities, has put a damper on demonstrations. It seems that Israeli Jewish society has grown more extreme this year, and completely indifferent to the troubles of the country’s Arab residents. And there’s little reason to pin our hopes on the community’s elected representatives: The Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab political parties is falling apart and also losing contact with its voters. This combination of factors is creating a sense of apathy and disbelief in the possibility for change that is bringing Arab society to its lowest point in decades.

'Pray for my son’

Amira Abu Hassin, Amir’s mother, on Friday joined the terrible club of families who have lost members to murder. While traveling to the hospital to which her son was brought, she sent a voicemail to her friends. In a choked voice she exhorted them: “Pray for my son, I am pleading. Pray for God to save him.” She never though that she would also lose two of her siblings the same day. “Just imagine the situation of a woman who loses her two brothers, and her son is lying on the operating table and a few hours later she is told that he has also died,” a friend of Amira’s told Haaretz. “How can anyone absorb and tolerate this? Such disaster happens only in wartime.”

Three deaths in a single night, and 15 additional murders to date in December, prompted the Arab Knesset members and representatives of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee to convene an emergency meeting in Baka al-Garbiyeh Saturday afternoon. The script of the limited forum was nearly identical to that of its predecessors: the same slogans, the same criticism of the police. “Many in Baka knew that the next murder was a matter of time, only the police intelligence officers didn’t know?” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi wondered out loud. “Preventing such a murder doesn’t need a plan and a budget, it needs a strategic decision by the police to fight crime,” he added. Tibi’s criticism was also directed at his party colleague, sitting a few meters away – Mansour Abbas, the chairman of the Special Knesset Committee for Eradicating Crime in Arab Society.

Abbas has been waiting since November 9 for the cabinet to approve and appropriate funding for the plan to eradicate crime in Arab society, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised him. In a statement issued Saturday, Abbas in effect admitted that it’s not clear if and when the plan will be approved. “People have lost hope and feel that they have been abandoned,” he wrote. “I’m not saying that the problem will be solved in one day, the moment the plan is approved, but there will be hope that the solution is in sight.”

It appears that the meeting in Baka al-Garbiyeh was intended more as an opportunity to vent than for making concrete decisions. Only one speaker – Jamal Abu Hassin, who after losing his grandson Amir had nothing more to lose – dared to say what many were thinking. “Not only in Baka but throughout Arab society there are shootings, and we know who has guns and who uses them. And then the police come and ask for them, and everyone conceals or refuses to cooperate out of fear for their own safety and of revenge. The police bear responsibility, but we must examine ourselves as well,” he said.

Even before Friday’s murders, and in light of the lack of movement on the government’s crime-fighting plan, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee decided to renew the protests. On Monday a convoy is slated to set out from Wadi Ara on Route 6, headed for the Knesset in Jerusalem. The plan is to disrupt traffic in the hope of returning the protest to the public agenda. The demonstrators will demand that Netanyahu keep his promise.

Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Thabet Abu Rass of Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit organization promoting Jewish-Arab equality, sent a letter to the prime minister in which they wrote: “You declared that within two weeks from the [November 9 meeting of the Knesset Committee] the plan to eradicate violence in the Arab community would be submitted to the cabinet for approval. ... Since then, 17 Arab citizens have been murdered.” Given the lack of funding for the plan and the fact that we seem to be heading to an early election, it is very doubtful that the plan will get off the ground.”

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