Amid protests by the Arab community in Israel against perceived police inaction, Haaretz has found that while the murder rate shows a year-on-year increase among Israeli Arabs, it seems to be trending down in the West Bank.
Researchers and public figures on both sides attribute the change to improvements in law enforcement in the West Bank, and to the fact that traditional clan structure, which takes an active role in solving local disputes, has been eroding in Israel.
According to the Aman Center, an organization that combats violence in the Israeli Arab community, the number of murder victims in Israel has climbed steadily from 58 in 2015 to 75 in 2018. The number for 2019 to date is 77. Aman emphasized that 80 percent of the victims were killed by guns.
In contrast, 28 died from violent deaths in the West Bank this year, when 54 were murdered in 2015, according to figures provided by Louay Zreikat, a spokesman for the Palestinian police. The trend was up from 24 in 2018. There are less than 2 million Arabs in Israel, while around 2.8 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, according to a 2017 census.
Crucially, Palestinian Police does not record the deaths of women suspected of having been murdered by their relatives. In 2016, twelve women died under 'suspicious circumstances,' a phrase often used to refer to the phenomenon, thirteen in 2017 and eleven in 2018. But even then, the number pales in comparison to the figure on the other side of the Green Line.
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Personal disputes are more to blame for the murder rate in the West Bank than organized crime, Zreikat told Haaretz. But the police spokesperson said the force was taking a hard line with criminals. This year, according to the Palestinian enforcement authorities, all murders were solved.
"In the cities we operate directly against lawbreakers,” Zreikat said, adding that the Palestinian police also intervenes in criminal cases in areas B and C, where control is shared with the Israeli military authority, and where police presence is low.
A 2019 campaign in Nablus showed the extent to which Palestinian police could handle violent crime. Special units entered the Balata refugee camp, taking on armed suspects, some of whom had previously belonged to the Fatah military arm. “Armed suspects found shelter as freedom fighters for the Palestinian people, then turned into gangsters and mercenaries,” said a camp resident. “Nobody finds that acceptable."
Sources in the West Bank refugee camps also cite the PA factions’ work in imposing order: Palestinians perceive criminal violence as serving the occupation, said Abu Muhanad, an activist at the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. “There were times the refugee camps looked like hotbeds of militias but that isn’t so any more,” he said.
“The chaos and the use of arms characteristic of the late stages of the Second Intifada have disappeared from the territory of the PA," Razi Nabulshi, a researcher on Palestinian society at the Dirasat Arab Center for Law and Policy, said. “There are no more armed men wandering the streets just as a show of power. That doesn’t mean weapons have disappeared, but… you could say the Palestinians have enough problems being under occupation, that brakes and barriers prevent escalation when it comes to violent crime."
Nabulsi believes the differences in murder rates cannot be ascribed wholly to the Palestinian police’s efforts to fight crime. "The principle of the family or clan in Arab society in Israel has disintegrated, but in the West Bank it still plays a central role,” he said, emphasizing that clan chiefs and family associations remain relevant in discouraging violence.
But "if we don't get into comparisons with the West Bank, Arab society in Israel isn’t substantively violent,” Professor Muna Khoury-Kassabri, dean of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said. “It has violent people and their violence needs handling,” she added, blaming the rates on poverty created by endemic discrimination, changes within Arab families in recent decades, as well as the personal history of the perpetrators.
Poor police practice is also to blame for the rise of crime, Khoury-Kassabri said. Many cases remain unsolved, and when criminality isn’t handled, it sends the message that crime pays, she explains. “The responsibility belongs to the state, to invest in Arab society on all levels, including policing, as well as education and welfare,” she added.
“Comparison with the West Bank may be accurate at some levels, but even though we’re all Palestinians, the political and social realities are quite different,” Walid Hadad, a criminologist studying violence in Arab society, said. “In practice, the attitude within the PA is different from the attitude of the Israeli government. Fighting violence, with emphasis on use of arms and crime, is perceived as part of national security."
"In contrast, crime within the Arab community within Israel is perceived as an internal matter," Hadad said. "Only now, after 77 people have died, and the public has gone into the streets, is somebody starting to wake up"
Modar Younis, mayor of Ar'ara, said that comparing the West Bank and Israel compliments neither. “As chairman of the local [Arab] governments committee, which communicates with police officers, I don’t care what’s going on in the territories,” he said. “I’m dealing with the numbers in my own society. We already have 77 murders this year. That is an intolerable situation and the police needs to deal with it.”