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The Gun Violence Epidemic Plaguing Arab-Israeli Society

Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo
A relative showing a photo of Ahmed Manaa with his children at the family home after Manaa was killed, along with a brother, in a recent shootout in Majd al-Krum, northern Israel, October 7, 2019

Moad Rayan, a twenty-five-year-old Arab citizen of Israel, had planned to study engineering in England—but it was not to be. On February 1, 2009, he drove with a friend to his local supermarket in Kafr Bara, a town about fifteen miles east of Tel Aviv, and as he waited in the car outside, another car pulled up and two masked men got out, drawing their guns. They sprayed him with bullets and drove off. “Until today, no one knows why,” his father, Kamel, told me recently. Since Moad’s murder, the police have not found any suspects. “It’s not just my son,” said Kamel. “Nearly 80 percent of the murders in the Arab community are unsolved.”

Following his son’s murder, Kamel founded Aman, the Arab Center for Safe Society in Israel, which monitors crime and murder in the Arab community and advocates for changes in the way the Israeli authorities respond to Arab-on-Arab violence. According to data his group has collected, a disturbing number of Arab citizens have been killed by other Arab citizens: some 1,400 since 2000.

This problem became a crisis long ago, says Kamel. Since the Israeli elections in September, though, it’s become a national emergency. Even before the election, a poll conducted among Arab Israelis found that their most important issue, far above every other, was the gun violence plaguing Arab society. Then, in the span of nine hours on September 20, four Arabs were killed by members of their own community, including a pregnant woman attending her cousin’s wedding with her husband and toddler, who watched her die. Dozens of shootings have followed since. With eighty-six people killed so far, 2019 is already the deadliest on record for Israel’s Arab community.

According to Yousef Jabareen, a Knesset member (MK) from the Joint List of Arab political parties, Israel’s Arabs are in the midst of “a civil war.” The homicide rate in Israel generally is quite low by international standards (less than a third of the United States’, for example), but what has emerged in Israel’s Arab streets is an alternate universe of lawlessness, where residents can no longer leave their homes without fearing for their lives. It is a crisis that illuminates the limits to Arab citizenship in the Jewish State.

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“We are a good family in every way,” said Kamel, earnestly listing his son the doctor, his other son the lawyer, his daughter the pharmacist. “But ten years ago my son left the house and came home in a coffin. This can happen to anyone in the Arab community.”

A recent poll by the Abraham Initiatives, an Arab-Israeli nonprofit working for greater equality, illustrates these disparate worlds. According to the survey, 36 percent of Arab citizens feel unsafe in their communities, compared to 13 percent of Jews. Eleven percent of Arab respondents said they or their acquaintances had been harmed by firearms or other weapons; just 1 percent of Jewish respondents said the same. 

The primary discrepancy here is access to guns. It’s fairly difficult to obtain a gun permit in Israel, yet illegal weapons are rampant within the Arab population. According to the same poll, 91 percent of Arabs believe obtaining a firearm in Israel is easy, compared to 34 percent of Jews. A 2018 report by the state comptroller found that the majority of illegal weapons in Israel were in Arab communities. Most are either manufactured by Palestinians in the West Bank, smuggled from Jordan, or stolen from Israel military bases.

The wave of murders plaguing the Arab community has now become a frequent topic of evening news reports in Israel and front-page headlines, even as the country dangles in a limbo of political paralysis after a second inconclusive election. This attention is largely because, for the first time, Arab politicians are making the crisis their top priority.

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Arabs demonstrating against gun violence and organized crime in their communities, Majd al-Krum, northern Israel, October 3, 2019

“This is our number one emergency issue,” said Knesset member Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, which is now waging a national campaign calling for more law enforcement in Arab towns and cities. Since the beginning of October, Joint List members and Arab civil society leaders have led weekly protests attended by tens of thousands throughout the country. They’ve staged a hunger strike, and built a protest tent in front of the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.

For Arab-Israeli citizens, a high level of violence has long been a fact of life. Though they make up 20 percent of the population, they represented 61 percent of all murder and manslaughter victims in 2018. According to the state comptroller’s report, 95 percent of all shooting suspects from 2014 to 2016 were Arabs, and half of all Israeli women killed in 2018 were Arab (most of them victims of so-called honor killings by family members). The murder rate in the Arab sector was 2.5 times higher than that in the general population, and the frequency of shootings was 17.5 times higher.

This crisis cuts to the very core of why Israel’s Arab citizens are demanding more political participation from their leaders. To counter decades of neglect that have left their towns and cities looking like a different world compared to their Jewish counterparts, many say their leaders need to take a seat at the table rather than remaining in permanent opposition. If the Joint List wishes to capitalize on its victory in the latest election, how it tackles this issue will be its greatest test for Arab voters who feel they’ve been ignored by their leaders. As one Joint List voter, Hisham Abu Jabal, told me in September, “I want them to work for us, not for Abu Mazen,” referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “It’s time for them to focus on making life better for us here, and preventing kids from getting into drugs and violence.”

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In a country where Arabs are not only a discriminated-against minority but are often viewed as enemies of the state, one of the most striking and perhaps counterintuitive elements of this crisis is the demand within the community for more policing. “The Arab leadership is asking for the police to go in and confiscate these weapons,” said Odeh. “We need the police to take action. Unfortunately, the police are racist against the Arab population.”

In over a dozen interviews conducted for this story, a common feeling emerged: Arab citizens say that the police aren’t working for them, but against them. “The police have dealt with our community as something to be controlled instead of someone to protect,” said Arab Knesset member Aida Tuma-Suleman. “They think their role is to deal with our community as a security matter instead of dealing with us as citizens who need to be given services. This has to change.”

This murder wave, Arab leaders say, would neither exist nor persist if the victims were Jewish. According to Odeh, in instances of shootings in Arab municipalities, the police opened cases just 5 percent of the time. A Ha’aretz investigation found that police had solved 31 percent of murders of Arabs this year, compared to 58 percent involving Jews. As a result, Arab citizens have developed such a cynical view of the Israeli authorities that they’ve come to believe the state is perfectly comfortable with the current situation. “If you ask any Arab, he will say that if the police wanted to stop these murders, they would,” said Kamel. “They are forcing us to think that they want Arabs to kill each other.”

Arab politicians echo that theory. “I can’t understand how one of the strongest high-tech security states cannot do enough to protect Arab citizens,” said Knesset member Jabareen. “When we see that over the years the police [force] is not acting and the criminals are enjoying their freedom in our towns and villages, we come to the conclusion that the police is willing to see this go on in our community as long as the attackers and the victims are Arabs.” Maintaining this crisis is in Israel’s interest, he argued. “It prevents us from focusing on the more ideological issues of struggling against the government and the occupation.”

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According to police and government officials, the problem is more complicated than Arab leaders depict. The lower rate of indictments in cases of Arab homicides, they say, is due to a historic lack of cooperation from the Arab community.

“That gap is because of the resistance we face in the Arab sector,” said Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. “When witnesses refuse to speak to police, refuse to call police to provide intelligence, and even tamper with evidence like surveillance footage, that makes it very difficult to solve crimes.” According to the state comptroller’s report, 44 percent of Arab citizens who were victims of crime did not file police reports.

In addition to a lack of cooperation, police officers sometimes encounter violence when responding to calls or attempting arrests in Arab towns. A recent internal police report listed several such occasions, including a case in September when police responding to a call in the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm faced protesters shouting, “You won’t get out of here alive.” In 2018, in the town of Wadi Ara, in the Haifa District, an officer was shot after responding to a call from a resident, surviving thanks to his bullet-proof vest.

Nevertheless, Israeli officials readily admit that the state has historically failed to protect Arab citizens. “Since the establishment of Israel there were gaps in the quality of police services that were given,” said Minister Erdan. Deputy Police Commissioner Jamal Hakrush, the first Arab Muslim to hold the second-highest rank in the force, conceded: “We are still not doing enough. But we can’t expect things that haven’t happened in seventy years to happen in a year or two. We need more police in Arab towns and cities.”

Until 2015, just three police stations had been built in Arab municipalities since Israel’s establishment in 1948. With 90 percent of Israeli Arabs living in Arab municipalities, this meant that almost no police stations served their communities. Until recently—and for some, even now—Arab citizens preferred it that way. In their eyes, the police represented an arm of state security, rather than a form of protection, and thus they have opposed the presence of Israeli police in their towns. A majority of Israel’s Arab citizens identify as Palestinian, and 77 percent do not believe Israel has the right to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, according to a September 2019 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. These sentiments fostered an isolation from state bodies that is only now beginning to dissipate.

“Arab citizens didn’t want police there because they perceived them as oppressive, and police didn’t feel the need to be there because the community was policing itself,” said Guy Ben Porat, author of the new book Policing Citizens: Minority Policy in Israel, which unpacks the fractious relationship between Israel’s police and Arab population. Until about twenty years ago, Arab society was much more traditional and violence was well below the level it is at now, said Porat, who chairs the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University. But those traditional structures have since fallen apart. “Now you have chaos in these towns,” he said, “and police aren’t there and don’t have the trust they need to get in there.”

As the situation spins out of control, Israeli Arabs’ historic opposition to a police presence is slowly starting to melt. According to Hakrush, many of the same Arab leaders who previously rejected efforts to open police stations in their cities are now asking for them. “You simply can’t have law enforcement in the Arab sector without police stations,” said Hakrush, noting that where police stations have recently opened, the crime rate has fallen.

Still, opposition remains, including from Arab lawmakers who are calling for better law enforcement. More police stations are not necessary, Odeh told me. The police, he argues, should simply carry out a comprehensive sweep to confiscate the tens of thousands of illegal weapons being held in Arab homes. Others seem to want to choose which laws the police should enforce. According to Jabareen, many Arab residents resent any new police presence in their streets because they feel officers are more focused on traffic violations than crime prevention. “Once they handle the more serious issues of concern, the community will be more willing to understand the parking tickets,” said Jabareen. “They cannot start with parking tickets while crime is increasing.”

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Since becoming public security minister in 2015, Erdan, who is a leading member of acting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, has made improving law enforcement in the Arab sector a top priority. He has allocated an unprecedented $250 million to strengthening police services in Arab towns, more than tripling the number of police stations. Eight more are scheduled to open in the coming year. In response to the current crisis, he has deployed 600 additional officers to Arab towns, and ordered Lahav 433, as Israel’s equivalent of the FBI is known, to make tackling crime in the Arab sector its primary concern. According to police figures, nearly 4,000 illegal weapons have been confiscated in 2019, and more than 2,500 suspects have been arrested for trafficking in illegal weapons.

In addition, the campaign of political pressure is beginning to pay off. In late October, Netanyahu announced the creation of a new committee tasked with producing a comprehensive plan within ninety days to combat crime and violence in Arab communities. It will have to reckon with the evidence that opposition and distrust in the Arab population remain a formidable obstacle to the state. For example, part of Erdan’s plan was to install surveillance cameras in Arab towns to assist in police investigations. According to the state comptroller’s report, of the fifty-nine Arab towns due to implement surveillance systems, just twelve had actually installed them.

It’s not only lack of trust, but also fear for their safety that prevents many Arabs from cooperating with police, said Ben Porat. After all, most of these murders are related to family feuds, clan turf wars, and organized crime. “Many Arabs say they don’t want to cooperate with police because they don’t know what will happen to them after,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle that is very difficult to solve.”

Ammar Awad/Reuters
A boy carrying a placard in a protest march against what Israeli Arabs citizens say is Israeli police inaction over violent crime in their towns, Majd al-Krum, northern Israel, October 3, 2019

Another police goal has been to increase the number of Muslims in the force. Having officers who share the same language, religion, and culture, Erdan says, will improve the largely Jewish police force’s ability to serve the Arab community. According to police data, the percentage of Arabs in the force is 10 percent, yet that includes few Muslims. The 3,148 Arab officers are mostly Druze and Christians, who have a much warmer relationship with the state. Hakrush, who has served since 1978, is an anomaly. When he was appointed deputy commissioner in 2016, Muslims made up just 1.5 percent of the police force. Today, it’s 3 percent. “Our goal is to get to 7 percent within five years,” he told me. It might not sound lofty, but joining the Israeli police is seen as traitorous to many Muslims, who comprise 85 percent of the Arab population.

“As Arab leaders we will not tell our young people to join the police,” said Ahmad Al-Jaber, a lawyer who heads a committee of local leaders in Umm al-Fahm, with a population of 57,000, the third-largest Arab city in Israel. “Today it’s the police, tomorrow it’s the secret service, next it’s the army,” he added. Military service is mandatory for Israeli Jews, and optional for Arabs; though many Druz and Christians volunteer to serve, almost no Muslims do. “Israeli police should have full responsibility for all citizens,” he said. “Why do they ask us to join the police?”

It’s not just local leaders but Arab Knesset members who voice criticism of the police while demanding more effective law enforcement—and they admit there is a tension between these dueling messages. “We see the police as part of the oppression mechanism in Israel,” said the Joint List MK Jabareen. “Even in the context of violence, the fact that the police is not doing its responsibility is another tool of oppression. However, when it comes to law enforcement, we know we cannot do that ourselves.”

Another example of this schism was a post on Odeh’s Facebook page in the midst of his calls for the police to eradicate crime in his community. On October 1, Odeh posted a picture of himself visiting the grave of the “martyr” Muhammad Jabrin, one of three Arab-Israelis from Umm al-Fahm who waged a terror attack outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 2017. After killing two policemen, they were shot dead by Israeli security forces. In an interview days after Odeh’s visit, Jabareen defended it, saying, “We still don’t know what happened with the three guys from Umm al-Fahm who were killed outside Al-Aqsa.” In his own interviews with Israeli media, Odeh has refused to condemn other terrorists, including Samir Kuntar, a notorious Palestine Liberation Front member (and later Hezbollah operative in Lebanon) who in 1979 committed one of the most shockingly brutal attacks in Israeli history when he smashed the skull of a four-year-old girl on a rock after forcing her to watch him kill her father.

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When Erdan recently blamed a “culture” of violence in Arab society, he provoked a fierce backlash from Arab politicians who labeled him racist. Yet there is acknowledgement of this within the Arab community. Speaking at a conference of Arab mayors in October, the police chief Hakrush said: “In the Jewish community, when someone is murdered, they go to the police, the police speaks to witnesses, there are interrogations and trials. In the Arab sector what’s more common is there is a murder, then there’s a revenge murder, and then another. We see four or five murders before the blood feud ends.” Many heads in the audience nodded in recognition.

As an epicenter of the recent wave of murders, Umm al-Fahm, where eleven of last year’s seventy-two murders in the Arab community took place, has become a symbol of the crisis. Gunfire is heard on a nightly basis. When I met the mayor there in early October, his own twenty-five-year-old cousin had just been shot dead, the victim of a family feud settled in broad daylight on a busy street. “The fact that this family is against revenge is very rare,” said Mayor Samir Mahamid, seated next to the father of the young man. Clutching his prayer beads, the father said he simply wants his son’s killer behind bars. “We do share the responsibility,” said Mahamid, a former school principal. “We need to improve our education, culture, norms. Most of the blame is on us.” Two weeks later, a video went viral of a toddler in Umm al-Fahm playing with a loaded gun while his father playfully filmed. 

“It cannot be ignored that in Arab society there are phenomena that don’t exist in our society,” Erdan told me. And those elements, he said, cannot be fought from the outside for obvious reasons. To Arab Knesset members, he pleaded, “If you really care about the human beings you represent, you have to help us fight this phenomenon.”

Arab politicians insist the main factor behind crime and violence in their community is police negligence, in particular the failure to tackle organized crime. Some local activists paint a different picture. “If, five years ago, 75 percent of the murders were carried out by organized crime families, today 75 percent is by normal people,” say Kamel Rayan of the Aman Center. “Without cooperation with the police, we will not be able to resolve this crisis of violence.” But Rayan, too, rejects the notion that the problem is cultural—at least, in the sense that violence is somehow intrinsic to Arab-Israeli society. To demonstrate his point, he cited the murder rates of Palestinian populations outside Israel.

“The world standard is that for every million citizens, if forty are murdered in a year, that is an emergency,” he told me. “In the West Bank, it’s ten. In Gaza, eleven. In Jordan, eighteen. Among Israeli Jews, eighteen. For us [Israeli Arabs], it’s forty-six.” Arab-Israeli society has passed the red line, he concluded, but talking about the issue as if it were a law of nature is unacceptable. “If the minister responsible for our security believes this, then who will solve this problem?”

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Given the history of mistrust, changing the dynamic between the police and the Arab population could indeed take years. For that reason, everyone involved says the solution cannot rely on the police alone. Arab leaders, Israeli officials, and experts agree that a holistic approach is needed to bridge the historic rifts that separate Arab and Jewish society.

“The Arab population receives far less funding from the government,” commented Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya, of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Half of Arab families live in poverty today, and where there is poverty, there is more violence and crime.” By way of example, she noted that, although they represent 20 percent of Israel’s population, Arab municipalities have jurisdiction over just 2.5 percent of Israeli land. This alone breeds disputes over land allocation between neighbors and families.

It would certainly take a comprehensive package of spending on education, infrastructure, and employment to allay the crisis of crime and violence in the Arab sector. But one very important thing is missing before any such program could be implemented: Israel has lacked a working government for nearly a year. “So long as we don’t have a government or a prime minister, we can’t have a specific plan or a timeline,” Hakrush told the crowd of Arab leaders at the mayors’ conference, responding to demands to know the police’s plan. 

For the police force to improve its relationship with the Arab community and give its people the protection they need, Erdan says, Arab leaders need to tone down their anti-police rhetoric and encourage, rather than oppose, cooperation. “I tried to explain to them that policing is not a machine. Police are human beings and the most important thing for the police is the trust of the public,” Erdan told me, a day after he had held a meeting with Arab Knesset members. “If they [the Arab MKs] continue to incite the public against the police, it will be impossible to succeed, this cycle will continue, and it will cost us in human lives.”

The process of repairing decades of neglect will take time, he said, and cannot succeed without trust. But trust is still in short supply—on both sides. “A policeman recently told me, ‘First I am a Jew, and second I am a police officer,’” said Kamel Rayan, the grieving father of Moad. “This means a lot, because the Arab-Israeli conflict is at play, and he sees us as part of the conflict.”

For that reason, Arab politicians remain skeptical. “If the police suspected for a moment that these weapons would be used in what they call ‘security matters’ [that is, terrorist attacks on Jewish Israeli citizens]—as if our security is not important—they would have managed to collect these weapons,” said MK Tuma-Suleman.

That sounds like cynicism but many Arab-Israelis do, in fact, fear that this crisis will eventually spread beyond their towns—and only then will the police act to take guns off Arab streets. “Right now, the Arabs are using these weapons to kill each other, but it’s only a matter of time before the guns are turned on Jews,” said Rayan. After a sigh and a long pause, he said, “I want no one to feel the way I feel.”