'Israeli Banks Are Reluctant to Give Loans to Arabs. So Many Get in Trouble With the Mob Instead'

Activist Maisam Jaljuli, 49, explains what's causing the surge of violence and crime in Israeli-Arab communities, and what it's like to live in constant fear

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Maisam Jaljuli.
Maisam Jaljuli.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

You’re active in the struggle against violence among Israel’s Arab population. The situation was never simple, but in the past few months there seems to be a downward spiral.

It’s been intensifying in the past few months – every week there are more and more people murdered – but the spiral started two years ago. We keep thinking we’ve reached a record number, and then another record is broken. We came out of 2020 with 113 people killed. This year we’re already at 34, and we’re still early in the year. In Deir al-Asad, there were two murders on the same day. In Baka al-Garbiyeh two brothers were murdered in their car. For the crime organizations, it no longer matters whether the victim is the person they were looking for, someone who’s with that person or just a passerby. They shoot anyone in the vicinity. In the past, women were considered a red line: No one dared to gun down women. Today I know, regrettably, that many of the murders in the Arab society weren’t committed for reasons of gender – which is an appalling tale in itself – but were criminal in nature.

Perpetrated in revenge?

In some cases as revenge. Other victims were perhaps involved in some way or knew things they shouldn’t have known.

When was that line crossed?

About five years ago. You have to understand that this surge in crime has a significant economic basis. In the past few years there has been an economic surge in Arab communities. Arab society is undergoing a certain bourgeois-ification. Education is on the rise. There are many businesses and stores being opened in Arab towns, and that’s very fertile ground for the crime organizations to operate on. Where there’s money – that’s where you’ll find them. Besides which, as banks in Israel are still reluctant to give loans to Arabs, many people turn to the gray or black markets. Women too are tempted to take loans of this kind, and they often pay a steep price for it. Sometimes with their lives.

Let’s talk about the project that you and others founded, Women for Life, which is a cooperative effort of social activists and bereaved mothers.

In the summer of 2020, Mona Khalil, whose son had been murdered a month earlier, decided to march from Haifa to Jerusalem: She wanted others to share her grief, her distress, to mobilize the public. The march was joined by Jewish bereaved mothers and by activists from both genders, including my friends and me. The march concluded at the President’s Residence [in Jerusalem] and there was a meeting with the president, so it ended at a peak, but afterward there was quiet. That was it. The issue disappeared from the agenda. My friends Reham Abu Al Assal [head of the Na’amat women’s organization in the Nazareth district] and Hitham Wakid [head of Na’amat in central Galilee] thought about what we could do, how we could help these women, and finally the decision was made to create a project that would carry out ongoing activity, not just a demonstration here and there.

The issue of Jewish-Arab solidarity is also very important, because as long as we demonstrate within Arab society alone, we’re invisible. It was very moving to see the Jewish public rallying to our cause, both in the march and in a big demonstration we held in Tel Aviv. We want to reach as many people as we can. To establish a movement that will stir up the grass roots among both Jews and Arabs, because the despair is rampant and the violence is rampaging. We also visit bereaved families and try to enlist them in the project.

And there is no shortage of such families, unfortunately.

Jewish-Arab solidarity is very important, because as long as we demonstrate within Arab society alone, we’re invisible.

Jaljuli

The circle is only growing. We visit the families, offer support, suggest that they join. After every one of these visits, I return home devastated. I don’t know where the families get the strength to survive. Most of them don’t know who murdered their sons, or why. Some know, but there is no evidence. So the bereaved parents simply see their kid’s killer walking freely around in the neighborhood, enjoying life. After the murder of Suha Mansour [Mansour, 38 and the mother of three children, was shot to death in her beauty salon in Tira on April 12], I organized a demonstration in Tira. Forget all the messages I got that day – “What’s the point?” or “What does it help to demonstrate?” – during the demonstration itself, I heard someone say to his wife, “Let’s get out of here fast and go home, there are guys here on electric bikes, they’ll probably start shooting soon.”

Even those who want to join us are afraid. Many of the bereaved families we visit want to join our effort but are scared. Unfortunately, we have reached a stage in Arab society where there is great fear but also a sense of hopelessness about the possibility of change.

Given the situation, both feelings seem justified.

For sure. When I peel away my activist enthusiasm and my efforts, and look at things as they are, it’s simply awful. Awful.

Tell me a little about the fear. You live in Tira, where Mansour was murdered. A masked person came to her beauty salon and shot her. It was an execution, there’s no other word.

Four women have been murdered in Tira since the beginning of the year. Four women in a town of 27,000 people. When I got home after Suha’s funeral, my daughters told me there had been shooting in the neighborhood. Armed young people drove by in front of our house and started shooting in the air. It’s scary. It’s living with fear. It’s getting up every morning and saying ‘Allah yustur,” God protect us. Every night I hear shots. The truth is that lately, it’s also been happening during the day. It really is a life that’s hard to describe. Hearing every day that someone’s house was shot at, that someone’s business was burned down. Incomprehensible. More than a decade ago, when my children were still small, my house was shot at. Twice. At the time I was involved in a workers struggle and they wanted to scare me. To this day, my daughter tells me, “Mom, halas, stop with the activism, do you want to be shot at again?”

How old are your children today?

Grown up: 24, 22 and 17.

That’s even scarier, of course.

Definitely. My son doesn’t live in Israel. He’s studying abroad, and every time he hears about an incident he calls. He tells me, “Mom, it’s frightening, I don’t want to come back.” My younger daughter comes to me at night and says, “Mom! Did you hear the shooting?” It really scares her. I’m always giving them instructions. My greatest fear is when they’re driving. You can take a bullet here for honking the horn or even a giving someone the wrong kind of look. I beg my children not to blow the horn. If someone blocks the way, don’t say a thing, just wait quietly. If someone passes you or drives wildly, don’t even look at him. Lower your eyes. These days the criminals don’t care anymore – women, children, the elderly – it’s all the same to them. I beg my children not to leave the house in the evening. I’m scared to death.

The scene of the killing in February of Ahmed Hijazi, a 22-year-old nursing student who was caught in the crossfire between police and suspected criminals, in Tamra. Credit: Rami Shllush

Aren’t you afraid for yourself, too?

Very much so, very much. Last week some friends wanted to go for an evening walk. We didn’t have much time, so we walked in town. Along the way I told them, “Listen, this is the last time, forget it.” I was really stressed the whole time. Every little noise and I jumped sky high.

So you’re afraid to walk around in the town you’ve lived in all your life.

Absolutely. During the day I’m on automatic pilot: I go to work, I go shopping. But in the evening there’s no way I’ll go out. Even when I’m in a café or a restaurant I’m always looking left and right. I’m constantly thinking, “Maybe people are after someone who’s sitting at the next table? What if someone comes in and starts shooting the place up?” Normal people aren’t meant to think that way – I’m absolutely starting to get paranoid. And if these are my thoughts, imagine the fear of the bereaved mothers. They live in constant fear that their other children will be murdered, too. Two weeks ago we visited a bereaved mother. Her son was sitting with friends at the neighbors’ place one evening. He hadn’t gone out, wasn’t wandering around, he was sitting in the neighbors’ backyard, like every Friday. Someone entered and started shooting, and her son and his friend were killed on the spot, and another few friends were badly wounded.

My friends and family keep telling me that I’m taking risks, that I need to be careful. My mother heard a radio interview I gave and she shouted at me about why I said what I said. Scary. She’s afraid, too. You know, I hear myself talking to you about these things, and it’s like something inside me is saying, “Enough, it’s completely crazy, why are you living in such a reality, why are you still there?” But it’s not like I really have a choice. Life isn’t only at home – it’s family, community, language. And where am I going to go? To live in a Jewish city? We’re not wanted there – let’s not pretend.

There’s a theory that attributes the increase in crime in the Arab society to the dismantling [by the police] of crime organizations in Jewish society. Arab society is said to be filling the vacuum.

That’s true, and it’s happening along with the economic surge. If it wasn’t worth their while to enter, they wouldn’t have entered. They used to deal in drugs, today less so. These days it’s mostly protection money, and with the influx of [state] funds and the development of the Arab local governments, they’re also spotting an opportunity in the public sector. They bid for public contracts, they influence them. Crime has entered the local governments, and a great many mayors and council heads feel threatened. There’s also the overcrowding, which is fertile ground for conflict. Conflict over land, houses, inheritances.

Those disputes aren’t new.

Of course not, but the difference is that today people turn to the crime organizations to resolve them. Everything changed in the past decade. In the past, if there was a dispute over land in a family, a sulha [reconciliation] would be arranged between those involved. But today, if there’s a conflict, the sides turn to the crime organizations to intervene. I’ve spent my whole life in Tira, but I’ve never experienced or seen the kinds of things I’m seeing now. In the past, there were certain focal points of crime in Arab society. Everyone knew where they were. In Taibeh, for example, there was a dispute between two families that led to a number of murders. Everyone knew that Taibeh was a dangerous place. Today it can no longer be said that Taibeh is [particularly] dangerous – every place is dangerous. Crime is present even in the smallest locales, where you would never imagine. Places with 2,000 residents. No one is safe.

Crime has also become more efficient.

"I ask myself, why are you still there?" But it’s not like I really have a choice. Life isn’t only at home – it’s family, community, language. And where am I going to go? To a Jewish city? We’re not wanted there.

Jaljuli

Certainly. That’s seen also in the fact that the crime organizations have soldiers everywhere. Every locale where they discern momentum, a trend toward development – and they go in immediately. They look for people in the locality who can be their soldiers.

Now you’re touching on a different problem of Arab society, one that leaves it very vulnerable. I refer to the high proportion of teens and young people who have dropped out of every [organized] framework, who aren’t working or attending school. Add to that a difficult economic situation at home, and they are easy targets for recruitment.

The neglect of children and teens, especially in distressed families, is what has brought us to this pass. Arab society is the poorest in Israel. Sixty percent of Arab children are considered poor. They need education and welfare systems that function. They can’t be left on the street. Yet they will drop out of school at age 13 or 14 and end up on the street because they have no direction. They’re just kids. They want to dress well. They want to have money. The offers from the crime organizations are very tempting to them. Take a gun, shoot at a house, just to scare the people inside, or burn someone’s car, for 1,000 or 1,500 shekels. A kid like that will do it without any problem.

I have a degree in criminology, and all criminological theories deal with modeling. Think about a boy like that who’s hanging out on the streets and sees his cousin, who’s already involved with crime organizations, driving an expensive car and buying whatever strikes his fancy. He’ll want to be like him. A criminal subculture simply comes into being.

And the criminal is normalized.

Totally. A subculture usually remains on the margins, but that isn’t the case here. In Arab society, it’s a long time since it’s been on the margins.

Is the normalization of crime a general societal phenomenon? Doesn’t it happen occur in the home, within the family?

In the home, too. I am very critical of the society I belong to. Parents simply accept it. In some cases even the mother is proud of her son, praises him for bringing home a lot of money. Boasts about his success. The normalization is also seen in the fact that the [surrounding] society doesn’t condemn them from within. For example, why do people continue to attend family events of these people – why does everyone show up for the wedding when they get married? That’s normalization.

And there’s something else we need to understand. Arab society is still developing. A lot of its conventions, which of course I am very critical of, have simply disappeared, and there’s nothing to compensate for their absence. The respect that was once given to father, grandfather, sheikh, doesn’t exist any longer.

There’s no authority.

None. Total chaos. With all my criticism of the patriarchal mechanisms, there was someone to turn to. If there was a conflict, people went to the sheikh and did what he told them to do. They accepted his authority. Today the authority belongs to the crime organizations. They decide who needs to pay whom and how much, and it’s big trouble for anyone who dreams of resisting.

Arab women demonstrating in Tel Aviv against crime in their community, in March. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Don’t you see the parents as victims? What can that mother actually tell her son? Can she cope with him?

Some are victims and some end up encouraging it. You know, families in economic distress aren’t crime families. Just because there’s no money in the house doesn’t mean it’s a crime family. Regrettably, I often see that when the son brings money home, and the family starts to breathe easier, the parents don’t ask him where he got the 20,000 shekels [about $6,000]. They see a pistol in his room, and they are silent.

The problem of weapons in Arab society is an old, familiar one.

And what is the source of those weapons? The Israel Defense Forces. The huge, vast IDF can’t prevent weapons thefts?

On the assumption that the weapons are in fact stolen (sometimes soldiers sell their own weapons).

It’s a matter of both theft and arms dealing: Soldiers sell weapons. The last state comptroller’s report warned against this phenomenon and asserted that it needs to be investigated. I don’t believe they’re only stolen. I believe that people sell them.

One of the bereaved women, Watfa Jibli, said that a pistol can be bought for less than a pair of Adidas sports shoes. Can you buy a pistol in Tira?

I haven’t tried, but I imagine you can. There are makeshift pistols, such as the “Carlo,” that are made in metal shops. The weapon with which Watfa’s son was murdered cost 3,000 shekels [approx. $1,000]. Right after it’s used, it gets sold, in order to get rid of it, and the price is already down to hundreds of shekels. You can buy such weapons in both the territories and in Arab towns in Israel. The police chief in Tira said on one occasion that he knows there are 3,000 firearms in town. Okay, you know there are 3,000 forearms, but you don’t know how to get to them? The weapons-collection operations are bullshit. Do you expect a criminal who bought a gun with good money to turn it over? There are masses of weapons in Arab communities, and the police know about it and do nothing. Setting up a table and ask people to turn in their guns is not an operation; to send in a large number of police officers with search warrants and intelligence information – that’s an operation.

Let’s talk more about the role of the police in this story. On paper, at least, it looked recently as if they intended to act. Patrolling was stepped up. Many police stations were opened in Arab towns. An Israeli Arab was appointed to the position of major general. Yet crime is still surging and fewer than 30 percent of the murders among the Arab population are solved.

A few years ago, in Taibeh, I called the police and told them I was hearing rifle shots and I was afraid to go outside. The officer tells me, “But that’s how it is with you people, you shoot guns in weddings.”

Jaljuli

If you ask an Arab citizen what his local police station does, he’ll just start laughing. There’s a very big police station in Tira. A year ago I called them because there was shooting in the neighborhood. I asked them to send a patrol car. The duty officer started to interrogate me about where I was hearing it, what I was hearing, where I was standing. I explained to him over and over where I was, where I was hearing the shooting from. After a conversation of more than a quarter of an hour I simply despaired and told him, never mind, it doesn’t matter. A few years ago, in Taibeh, I called the police and told them I was hearing rifle shots and I was afraid to go outside. The officer tells me, “But that’s how it is with you people, you shoot guns in weddings.” A police officer said that to me. Honestly.

So the police aren’t a place to turn to.

No, and I wish they were.

They don’t want to, or they’re not capable?

I think they don’t want to. A year ago a police car in Tira was fired at, and within a few hours they arrested the shooters. If they want to, they can. But they don’t want to. I say regretfully that they [the Israel Police] want this chaos in the Arab society. It serves the state.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman [Joint List] says something similar.

I think she’s right. They want Arabs to be busy with one another, they’re a security threat anyway, let them liquidate themselves. This disintegration of Arab society serves the state. It’s convenient for the state to have Arab society devour itself from within, which is a fundamentally twisted viewpoint. Those who hold the reins – the state’s security institutions and the government – don’t see us as citizens. Only as a threat. If a Jew is attacked in Tira, heaven forbid, the assailants will be caught within hours. I guarantee you. It’s nice to have police stations, but I want those stations to prove themselves by catching the criminals. That’s the job of the police.

Suha Mansour’s husband said she was afraid to leave the house. She felt it, she knew, but she couldn’t do a thing. What can a woman who feels threatened do?

She can’t do a thing. Either she goes to the crime organizations and begs, hoping they can neutralize whoever is threatening her, which means that the conflict will only be aggravated and involve more people, or she can simply hide at home and wait for her death, because they’ll get to her home, too. She can’t do a thing, and I say that painfully. Who can help her? Who can she turn to?

There’s no logic to these shootings, the victims are innocent. Sharifa Abu Muammar, the teacher from Ramle – I can’t forget her face. She was standing in her kitchen last September and a bullet came through the window and hit her.

I visited that family together with other bereaved mothers. Awful. Her husband is totally shattered. He moved out of the apartment, with the children, and went to live at his mother’s place, because they’re unable to be in the place where she was murdered. One of the mothers in our organization had a stroke. She told me, “Maisam, I see the murderers walking around on the streets, happy, laughing. I go to the medical clinic and I meet their mother there, as though nothing happened – how would I not have a stroke?”

I hope the public will wake up. Neither the police nor the government are going solve it. Only all of us together. After Suha’s murder, I was in complete despair. Do you know what gave me strength, nevertheless? Watfa [Jibli], who continues to visit more and more families and get them to join us. Or another mother from the project who called to say that we hadn’t had a big demonstration for a long time, and it was time we did. With all their pain, they go on. I tell myself: If they’re not despairing, am I going to despair?

Police: ‘We’re acting with determination’

Following is the response of the Israel Police to several questions posed by Haaretz this week: “The police act with determination every day of the year against possession, dealing and use of weapons, all the time and everywhere. That activity has brought about the confiscation of unprecedented amounts of weapons, especially in Arab communities. Over the past year, in the shadow of the struggle against the coronavirus, the police actually heightened activity against weapons offenses and arrested more than 5,000 suspects in Arab communities in connection with offenses involving firearms and other weapons. In the past month alone, hundreds of weapons, explosives, grenades and the like were seized in these communities, including dozens of firearms of different kinds.

“Unfortunately, various people frequently try to present an alternative reality and to cast aspersions on the activity of the police against criminal elements in Arab society, instead of encouraging the police in their determined treatment of violence in this society and acting with all the existing tools to bring about a change.”

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