As Number of Murders Rises, Police and Israeli Arabs at Odds Over Solutions

Police complain there is no support from community leaders, who fire back: 'it’s convenient for Arabs to be shooting each other.'

An Israeli police officer speaking on the phone with the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah in the background, July 4, 2019.
Emil Salman

“A young man was shot to death in Ramle at the funeral of another young man who had been shot to death in Ramle.”

This is just one sample headline from the media covering the latest instalment of the ongoing crime crisis in Israel's Arab community this year.

Hundreds had attended the funeral of a young man who had been murdered to avenge the killing of a businessman. The revenge hadn’t been expected to be executed at the funeral, but the incident turned the farewell to the dearly beloved into a gunfire-fest and police chase.

>> Read more: A police force of and for all citizens | Opinion ■ An Israeli problem | Haaretz Editorial

Just this past week, seven more Israeli Arabs were shot to death, four in a single day, bringing the total casualty count to 67 for 2019, according to the Aman Arab Center for Safe Society, a figure the police confirmed to Haaretz.

The proportion of Arabs out of all murder victims in Israel has been climbing, from 63 percent over the past two years to nearly 80% so far this year. Arabs constitute only a fifth of Israel’s population.

The police and local Arab leaders trade accusations. The police agree that it’s their responsibility to stop the wave of violence, but accuse the Arab leadership of preventing police stations from being built, and fostering a culture of vendetta. 

Council leaders and politicians feel, on the other hand, that the police are trying to deflect attention from their own helplessness by scapegoating them.

The police did take steps to curb violence in Arab society, setting up a special path three years ago to build police stations in Arab towns and recruit Arab officers. The investigation and intelligence branch is working on special plans for the community. The police claim to solve 60 percent of the murder cases.

Yet at the same time, the police seem confounded. “Revenge is a real problem, I say it without shame,” a top police officer told Haaretz. “People are dying for no reason, over something that began with a kiddie fight that turned into a clash of clans.”

In private conversations, the police blame community and religious leaders, mainly the members of the Joint List. “Why don’t we hear the Arab Knesset members calling for police stations to be built in the Arab cities?” said the same source. “Why don’t the mayors call on the people to turn in their arms? The police can’t be everywhere.”

Acting Police Commissioner Moti Cohen said this week that the police are responsible for public safety, but can’t operate on their own, and that they expect the cooperation of the Arab community itself.

Member of Knesset Ayman Odeh in a protest against Israeli police's failure to protext Arab citizens, Shfaram, Israel, May 20, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Balad party leader Ahmed Tibi said he’s been talking about gun collection for years, and legislated against guns at weddings – yet the public security minister has the gall to blame the Arab lawmakers. “We don’t have a private police force,” Tibi said. “How is it there are more guns in Gaza but less crime and murder? Simply, because the police don’t treat the people like the enemy.”

Yousef Jabareen from fellow Joint List party Hadash adds that the increase in fatal shootings in the Arab community is because of police inaction. He also accused the police of finding it convenient for the Arab community to be preoccupied with its internal affairs.

Indeed the police and public security ministry are planning a drive to have Arabs turn in their guns, without penalty, next month. Although the drive will be publicized, hopes are not running high. Some mayors already refused to cooperate, and everybody has the 2017 fiasco in mind, when exactly three guns were turned in, as well as some other weapons.

How many guns, at least some stolen from army bases, are out there is anybody’s guess. The police seized 3,600 weapons in the last year, which they admit is not that much. Organized crime members also smuggle guns into the communities, but contending with that problem requires intelligence and solid photographic evidence - and people are afraid.

More police cars is not much better than aspirin

Former commissioner Bruno Stein says the usual solution – more cops, more police cars – does not seem effective. The answer may lie in protecting informants, he says, but adds that anybody expecting an Israeli Arab to report on somebody else known to possess an illegal firearm just doesn’t understand the community.

“Attacking the police and associating with criminals is their way to attack the Israeli regime,” he says. The solution cannot be confined to the police but should be designed in conjunction with the finance, transport and culture ministries, he suggested. “More police cars is not much better than aspirin [i.e., a palliative]. We have to show that we’re there, and the truth is that the state isn’t always there.”

“That expression, ‘collecting weapons’ is funny. It doesn’t work like that,” explained former Coastal District commander Hagai Dotan. Say somebody reports a gun in an Arab town. The response will need dozens of security officials to guard the vehicles against vandalism; the gun is always hidden away; rocks are thrown at the forces. “If they want us to collect the guns so badly, why do I have to go into the village with SWAT teams and border police?” he argued.

Protesters demonstrate against police negligence in Tamra in the Western Galilee, May 25, 2019.
No credit

Yet the towns refuse to have their own police stations, assert the police. “Where there are no police, there is crime,” said Jamal Hakroush, head of the administration to improve police services in Arab towns, whose appointment was an attempt to turn over a new leaf with the Arab community. Hakroush’s theory is that if the police are present, murderers will be deterred. “Let the law take revenge for you,” he told Arab leaders.

Mudar Yunes, the head of the Ara-Arara council and chairman of the Arab local councils, said the Iron police station is responsible for six or seven towns and has exactly one police car. Its response time can be half an hour, he noted. “Until a decision in principle is made to tackle the burgeoning violence, the numbers will just keep climbing,” he said.

Could building a police station in Arara reduce violence? “We don’t think police stations inside the villages is the answer,” Yunes said. “There needs to be an orderly plan.”

Last year, government budget cuts deprived the administration from tens of millions of shekels. Hakroush wants to build a police station in the Bedouin town of Tuba-Zangariyye, where the crime rate is among the highest in the Arab community, but its construction has been delayed.

A man passes by graffiti in Arabic reading: 'They are shooting us. Where are you?'
Amir levy

"It’s convenient for the Arabs to be shooting each other."

In the last four years, seven new stations have opened in Arab towns. One was at Jisr al-Zarqa. Everybody showed up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declared it a “celebration for law enforcement.” A band played songs in Arabic and the commissioner at the time, Roni Alsheich, impressed with his command of the language.

But two years later, the party’s over, and the villagers upset. “I wouldn't open a police station here today. I wish I hadn’t done it,” mourned local council leader Amash Morad Fathi. People in both his coalition and the opposition didn’t want it; they figured the police would just suffocate the populace even more, sticking them with fines. “I told them, let’s take the opportunity to curb guns winding up in the hands of the youth,” Fathi said. “I was wrong.”

The violence has only intensified: bullets sprayed at homes, cars burned. “We made absolutely no progress,” he said. “Twelve people were shot in the legs and drug trading goes on. Last week, a 19-year-old, a regular guy from a regular family, came home from a wedding and left the house. He was shot at close range. He died… The police have no leads.” The cops don’t know where any of the guns in the village are, so what good are they, he summed up.

The police claim that the Arab leaders don’t cooperate infuriates Fathi even more. “What else do they want? I brought them into the town,” he said. “We built a station. I constantly beg the police to attend meetings with teens. I encourage the people to call the police and report everything. Yet it’s the wild west. People do whatever they feel like. People are afraid. Where are the police? The problem evidently isn’t them, it’s the government. It’s convenient for the Arabs to be shooting each other.”