Analysis |

Israel's Government Can Solve the Arab Crime Epidemic – or Become One of Its Victims

For decades, Israeli governments ignored 'Arab-on-Arab' violence and allowed it to grow. The current government will have to deal with the problem seriously, if only to save itself from collapsing

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A demonstration in Tel Aviv against violence in the Arab sector.
A demonstration in Tel Aviv against violence in the Arab sector.Credit: Hadas Parush
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Two nights before Sukkot, 200 police officers entered Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood in full riot gear and provided security for engineers dismantling a massive sukkah protruding from a fourth-floor apartment in the ultra-Orthodox stronghold. Dozens of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, men attacked the police, throwing stones and used diapers at them and rolling flaming trash cans in their path.

Needless to say, the police operation was being carried out to remove a dangerous structure that risked the lives of its own ultra-Orthodox occupants and Haredi passersby.

Two nights later, a gunman entered a wedding party in Taibeh in central Israel and opened fire. One man was killed and four people were wounded, making it 88 homicides in the Arab-Israeli community this year. As I wrote this there were two more violent deaths. As Haaretz’s Josh Breiner reported Sunday, senior police officers are finally admitting, at least in private, that they’ve lost control of the violence in Arab towns and neighborhoods. That’s assuming they ever had control.

I’ve mentioned the events in Mea She’arim and Taibeh together because they share a key element: Being a citizen of one of Israel’s autonomies, the Arab one and the ultra-Orthodox one, puts your life at risk.

This is the case whether it’s from a drive-by shooting, an “honor killing,” unauthorized structures collapsing at overcrowded religious events, and as we’ve seen over the 18 months of the pandemic, widespread flouting of social-distancing rules that led to COVID-19 deaths among Haredi and Arab Israelis in disproportionate numbers.

What all these death factors have in common is a lack of law enforcement due to political and social reasons. As anyone who has spent any time during the week-long Sukkot holiday in Jerusalem’s Haredi areas knows, that massive sukkah, perched precariously on poles, has been there every year for as long as anyone can remember. It hardly seems coincidental that this year the police finally got around to dealing with it.

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

Saving Haredi lives

Whether there was an order to do so from the highest levels is immaterial. This is a government without ultra-Orthodox parties. This is the government that formed a commission of inquiry to investigate the trampling deaths of 45 men and boys at the Lag Ba’omer pilgrimage on Mount Meron last spring.

The previous government refused to set up a commission to investigate Israel’s biggest civilian tragedy, which happened on its watch. It also refused to send the police to Haredi neighborhoods to enforce social distancing and school closures when the first three waves of COVID-19 came crashing down.

This government isn’t dependent on Haredi parties and is therefore trying to save Haredi lives. Will this government, the first ever dependent on an Arab party, do the same for Arab lives?

The lack of law enforcement in the two autonomies exists for opposite reasons. In the Haredi case, it’s the communal leadership, the rabbis and politicians, who oppose policing. With the Arab Israelis, leaders at both the national and local levels have demanded that the police establish a presence in their towns, something that hasn’t happened because of generations of neglect.

In the wake of the shooting at the wedding in Taibeh, our colleagues from the wonderful Haaretz 21 project launched an #ArabLivesMatter hashtag on social media in Hebrew, Arabic and English. But despite the similarity to the Black Lives Matter campaign in the United States, in Israel the anger isn’t about police violence against members of a minority community but a protest against the lack of policing.

This campaign isn’t easily palatable for the right, which views Arab Israelis as a fifth column under eternal suspicion, and there have been some ugly responses on social media. But neither is it intuitive for the left, which tends to see Arab Israelis solely through the prism of their Palestinian identity.

Police officers arrive at the crime scene in the Arab town of Reineh in northern Israel, December 3, 2020. Credit: Israel Police

A political threat

It’s ironic that this outcry is taking place shortly after the Gilboa jailbreak in which four of the six escaping Palestinian prisoners were captured thanks to tips to the police from Palestinian-Israeli citizens. This doesn’t lend itself easily to simple and shallow narratives of “Palestinian solidarity.” Those narratives, whatever side of the political divide they’re coming from, are rather immaterial when a community is crying out for the government just to do something.

This of course is far from the first wave of violence in the Arab-Israeli community. But the others were easier for previous governments to ignore. After all, it’s Arab-on-Arab violence, and these voters weren’t their constituency anyway. This time, it’s a political threat. If the police and other security services aren’t finally seen to be making a concerted effort to curb the violence, and if the deaths continue to mount, the United Arab List party won’t be able to remain in the Bennett-Lapid government, which will fall.

But it’s a political opportunity as well. This is one significant change that this government can push through by changing police policy and priorities, redirecting resources, and using the capabilities of other agencies, chiefly the Shin Bet security service, to fight criminal violence in the Arab community. The Shin Bet has so far resisted this, insisting that these efforts would divert the agency from its core anti-terror mission.

Some Arab-Israeli politicians have claimed that the Shin Bet is reluctant because it uses members of Arab crime groups as informants. Naftali Bennett has already tried to get the Shin Bet to change its policy but has been stymied by the outgoing chief of the agency, Nadav Argaman. Now Bennett has the chance to make sure that Argaman’s successor gets the message. It’s a matter of human lives and political survival.

This government can’t get much done in terms of radical policy changes. It’s political makeup is too diverse for that. But a new approach on Israel’s autonomies is something it can do, and must, if it wants to remain in power for more than just a few months. Israel’s autonomies aren’t just deadly to those who live in them, they’re the greatest threats to the country’s future. This government has an opportunity to reconnect them to Israel.

Coronavirus vaccinations in the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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