Arabs in Israel Often Find the Best Way to Fight Crime Is to Do It Themselves

Since the police often fall short or ignore problems, local people are turning to traditional ways to solve disputes.

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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An archive photo of an Israel Police car.
An archive photo of an Israel Police car.Credit: David Bachar
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

Last month Tira residents discovered that the town had been plastered in posters. “Tira will no longer be a safe place for you and your street dogs,” the posters said. “We’re declaring war on anyone who wants to sow fear and corruption among the residents.”

The posters were aimed at the Hariri gang, an Arab organized crime ring active in Tira and many other Arab towns. Having despaired of the police, local people have banded together to try to drive the gang out by themselves. According to the posters, anyone who asks the gang to resolve disputes will be subject to “social punishment” and his business will suffer.

But the posters worried many Tira residents – not just because they feared vigilante score settling, but because of rumors that some people seeking to drive out the Hariris were buying illegal weapons. Illegal gun sales in Tira are on the rise, residents said last week.

Last year, police Maj. Gen. Jamal Hakrush was appointed to head a new unit charged with improving policing in Arab towns and villages, in part by opening new police stations and increasing the number of policemen in these communities. But residents are skeptical, and many towns are now taking matters into their own hands.

In Umm al-Fahm, for instance, residents have gone back to using a sulha, a traditional Arab method of dispute resolution, to solve problems. And in Lod, women collect evidence against abusive husbands and bring it to the police – though even this doesn’t always help.

Even the police’s recent crackdown on illegal weapons isn’t proving very effective because many of the people who own such weapons aren’t criminals; they’re just trying to protect themselves.

In one case this year, a man arrested for illegal weapon possession told a court he bought the gun only because a relative was suspected of murder, and the police had warned him that the victim’s family was threatening to take revenge on his family. Hours after the police released him from detention – minus the illegal gun – two masked men armed with Kalashnikovs broke into his home and shot him, badly wounding him.

As for domestic violence, in Lod alone 60 of the 80 women who have reported being threatened by spouses or other relatives are Arabs, according to data presented at a meeting of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women last month.

One Arab woman told the committee about how her estranged husband had shot up the door of her home. “Three cameras documented it all, but nobody did anything,” she said. She took her children to a shelter for battered women, and three months later discovered that the police had closed the case for a lack of evidence.

“When I go to the police, they call social services, and when I go to social services to ask for help, they tell me, ‘Go to the police,’” she said. “If I had a different name ... maybe they’d treat me differently?”

Arabs make up 21 percent of Israel’s population, but the police’s latest figures sent to the Knesset show that Arabs are involved in 59 percent of all murders, 47 percent of robberies, 32 percent of other property crimes and 27 percent of drug crimes.

Jabareen Mohammed Abu Elias, vice principal of the Umm al-Fahm high school, said he has noticed a change for the worse.

Four years ago, his school was awarded a prize because it had no dropouts, but today “many youngsters drop out,” he said. Moreover, young men increasingly own guns “for self-defense and also as a status symbol.”

Youngsters with problems won’t go to the police because they profile the young men and treat them violently. “They’re living in a place that’s starting to be run like Colombia .... If a 17-year-old boy goofs off near the police, they’ll immediately respond with violence.”

In Jewish schools, Abu Elias added, there are programs aimed at reducing violence. But these programs don’t operate in Arab schools, he said, and if he wants the material translated into Arabic, he has to find someone to do it.

MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List), who lives in Umm al-Fahm, initially welcomed the plan to beef up policing in Arab communities, but the implementation has been uneven, he said. The police are concerned mainly with preventing terrorism and pay little attention to other types of crime.

Umm al-Fahm’s acting mayor, Mahajna Bilal Daher, agreed. “Every night there’s gunfire here,” he said. “Sometimes I call the commander of the nearby police station so he can hear the sounds of the shots over the telephone, but even that doesn’t bring patrol cars and searches.”

Yet when a bullet struck a Jewish car on nearby Route 65 a few months ago, leading police to suspect a terror attack, “Within minutes there was a helicopter over the city and dozens of cops came to search the area,” he said. ”The situation in the city is deteriorating, and people have had it.”

As a result, many residents have gone back to using sulhas, which don’t involve the police. Mustafa Abu Shakra says he has arranged hundreds of such sulhas; for instance, when some residents wanted to stop others from shooting near a wedding hall something the police had failed to stop. “Today, residents go to the police only in maybe 10 percent of cases,” he said.

The police said cops in Tira were working closely with the local government to fight crime and protect the residents. The police aren’t aware of any vigilante organization in the town, “aside from one anonymous manifesto,” a spokesperson said.

Regarding the woman threatened by her husband, the spokesperson said all complaints are investigated thoroughly. The woman’s case was reviewed after the Knesset committee meeting, and the decision to close it was deemed justified.

“The Israel Police continue to implement their plan to improve police services and make them more accessible in these towns and in dozens of other towns throughout the country,” the spokesperson added.

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