Without Jobs or Education, Israel's Young Arabs Turn to Crime

The crime rate in Arab communities has jumped 50% in the past five years, while the homicide rate among Arabs is seven times the rate among Jews, data shows

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Israel's Arabs protesting against femicide in Arraba, November 2020.
Israel's Arabs protesting against femicide in Arraba, November 2020. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Mansour Abbas, chairman of the Knesset Special Committee on Eradicating Crime in Arab Society, went from relative anonymity to being a media star in October after he called for cooperation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in return for his aid in addressing violence in Israel’s Arab communities.

Since then, opinions about the chairman of the United Arab List and lawmaker for the Joint List electoral alliance have been firmly split. One side thinks he is nothing more than Netanyahu’s latest useful idiot, who will be used and then discarded. The other contends that he is the first Arab lawmaker to understand the rules of the political game and use his voting power to squeeze concessions from the prime minister, just like the ultra-Orthodox.

So far, Abbas has gotten Netanyahu to appear before his committee and publicly express the need to reduce crime in the Arab community. It’s a small achievement, but we hope that Abbas understands that there’s much, much more to do to tackle the complicated problem of crime in the Arab community.

A team of ministry directors general headed by Ronen Peretz, the acting director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, studied the issue and submitted its findings to the committee. The report makes for depressing reading: crime rate in Arab communities has jumped 50% in the past five years, and the rate of criminal convictions for Arabs is double that of Jews. The homicide rate among Arabs is seven times the rate among Jews. In 2019, nearly 100 Arabs were murdered. This year is on track to approach that number, which includes last month’s shocking murder of a woman by her ex-husband in the middle of the street.

Arabs dominate Israel’s serious crime statistics. Despite accounting for just 21% of the population, they commit 93% of shooting incidents, 64% of murders, 47% of robberies, 61% of arson incidents and 56% of all cases involving unlicensed guns.

Israeli Arab crime has some unusually prominent characteristics, such as the widespread use of unlicensed weapons and the presence of crime families that control the Arab street.

One explanation for the latter is the Israel Police’s success in cracking down on Jewish organized crime over the last decade. Almost all the major groups have disbanded and their leaders jailed, which has created a vacuum for Arabs to fill. The police haven’t pursued Arab organized crime as successfully and may not even be really trying.

The vacuum isn’t the only explanation for the phenomenon. Poverty, neglect by government authorities, the weakness of local governments in Arab communities and the lack of access to finance feed it as well. The fact that Arabs have a much harder time getting a mortgage or a credit card encourages them to turn to use cash and gray-market loans, the latter often controlled by criminals.

Tragically, the government’s attempts to help exacerbate the problem. The big budgets that have been allocated to Arab communities under a cabinet resolution that was first approved in late 2015 have turned government contracts issued by Arab local authorities into a treasure trove for organized crime groups. They win the bidding through bribery, extortion and even violence. In the first six months of the year, of the 13 local officials who were given police protection due to threats, 12 were Arabs.

An even more tragic characteristic of Arab crime is its age structure. As it is, crime rates everywhere are highest for young men ages 18 to 24. Among Israeli Arabs, that age group constitutes close to a third of all criminal convictions, twice the rate for Jews.

The committee headed up by the PMO attributed the rise in crime by young men mainly to a lack of education, training and work – in short, a drop-out phenomenon. Among Israeli Jews the phenomenon is much smaller, maybe accounting for 5% of Jewish youths.

That is because the path for Jewish Israelis is much clearer: high school, army, higher education or yeshiva, and work. Among Arab youth, no such path exists. They don’t serve in the army or perform civilian national service. Their ability to study at college or university is hindered by the fact that Hebrew is not their first language as well as the low level of teaching in Arab schools. Israel does poorly in technical training and in any case, finding a job is difficult even with a good command of Hebrew.

As a result, 22% of Arab youth are doing nothing after they complete high school. The rate of dropping out of school has fallen a lot among Arabs over the last decades, but at 9% it is still three times the Jewish rate.

They also are far more likely to live in poverty in a country where they feel alienated and face discrimination and few prospects for improving their lives. Faced with this reality, the best-paying work they are offered is from the local organized crime group. The interministerial committee found that 57% of Israeli Arabs in the 18-24 age group convicted for a crime in 2017 were dropouts.

What makes this scary is this is a relatively new phenomenon that is developing fast. Until three years ago, the labor force participation rate of young Arabs was a reasonable 67%. But in 2017 something happened – it’s not clear what – and the rate dropped to less than 60%. This year the coronavirus destroyed job prospects and now the rate is down to 50%, 26 percentage points less than for Jewish youths.

The trend among young Arab men is exactly the opposite of what it is for young Arab women. With women, the government recognized that the employment rate was very low and launched a series of programs that helped double it. In particular, their success was accompanied by rising rates of higher education. But the government has not done the same for their male peers.

The interministerial committee has proposed a wide-ranging program to tackle crime. Its budget was not revealed but it is to be generous. It proposes a long list of enforcement tools, criminal and financial, to fight organized crime, including placing police stations in Arab towns, the establishment of municipal policing, and recruiting more Arab officers to help build trust with the Arab community.

The committee also recommends stricter punishments as well programs to encourage rehabilitation of first-time offenders inside the community rather than serving prison time. To frustrate organized crime’s takeover of government bidding processes, it suggests tougher Interior Ministry supervision and even taking the power to award contracts away from local authorities altogether.

It also proposes measures to help Arab youth with education and job training as well as national service and acquiring better Hebrew. It even suggests steps to give them better access to financial services.

All of this will require not only money but consistent dedication from a range of ministries. Abbas would be an idiot, however, to assume Netanyahu’s kind words in front of his committee will lead to much. He should now be demanding a concrete program blacked up by adequate spending.

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