Criminal violence escalates among Arab communities in Israel

Violence is escalating among Arab communities in Israel, with no prospect for Israeli authorities stepping in to keep the peace.

al-monitor Israeli Arabs protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings among their communities, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northern Israel on Oct. 3, 2019.  Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images.
Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab


Topics covered

jews, knesset, joint list, arabs, reconciliation, elections, violence

Jan 26, 2021

Ahmad Abu Njem, an activist who was trying to set up a committee to bring about reconciliation between violent warring groups in his hometown of Jaffa, became the victim of a shooting by an unknown source. He was killed and a relative was injured on Jan. 24 when the assailant shot them at close range and then escaped. This crime brings the number of Palestinian citizens in Israel who were killed so far during 2021 — as a result of violent crimes within the Green Line — to six.  

From 2000-2020, the number of crime-related deaths reached 1,518. The year 2020 itself witnessed a record 106 such deaths — 12 more than 2019, which held the previous record with 94 mortalities. In the 20 years since the turn of the millennium, only 64 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli security forces during various attempts to put down protests.

Speaking at a special Knesset session of the committee to combat violence in the Arab community in Israel last September, Knesset member Osama Saadi said Israeli police treat the killings of Arabs by Arabs differently than the killing of Jews by Arabs. “When there was a suspected shooting by an Arab against Israeli police, they were able to find the shooter within 24 hours,” he told the committee, which is headed by Knesset member Mansour Abbas from the predominantly Arab unified Joint List.

Abbas — who heads the Unified Arab Party, which is one of four components of the Joint List — has broken rank with the List by hinting that he is willing to cooperate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in return for a more serious effort by the Israeli government and police to try and end this criminal plague that is dangerously escalating.

Knesset member Abbas Mansour has in recent weeks stunned his Joint List colleagues by suggesting that Arab Knesset members abandon their traditional rejection of any cooperation with the political right in favor of a pragmatic approach that seeks more government funds and attention to their communities’ needs regardless of who’s in power. Abbas told The Times of Israel that “going to elections would set back critical, tangible legislative achievements for Arab Israelis, such as a long-awaited government plan to fight organized crime in Arab communities.”

Around 100 cars blocked one of Israel’s main thoroughfares on Dec. 21 when Palestinian citizens of Israel protested the Israeli government’s failure to do anything to stem the violence and organized crime in their cities and towns. “We cannot stay idly by as long as blood continues to be shed in our communities,” said Joint List Knesset member Yousef Jabareen.

Offer Zalzberg, the Middle East program director at the Herbert Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation, told Al-Monitor that in order to curb the prevalence of illegal firearms and gang criminality among Israel's Arab population, the government of Israel should shift from long-standing neglect to proactive enforcement. “Effective enforcement would require major budgetary increase for such expanded police action and public backing from Israel's Arab leaders, particularly in cases of direct clashes between police and gang criminals, despite the nationally laden context.”

Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish member in the Joint List, said to demonstrators on Jan. 2 in a video that has been widely shared that the crime spreading in Arab communities in Israel is a weapon of control in the hands of those in power in at least two ways: “First, it is a way of control by means of the government telling Arabs that their lives are in its hands — i.e., the Jewish state — and if you want to live you have to go by our dictates and you have to keep your mouth shut. Second, they allow the spread of crime because they know there is real anger and they want people to release their anger internally so they tear each other apart instead of channeling their anger in the correct direction against the ruling power, which is racist, arrogant and unjust. The Israeli government tries to crush the Arab community and force them to accept its corrupt rule instead of dealing with them with respect."

Yousef Jabarain, a member of the Knesset, tweeted and complained that criminal violence occurred shortly after he attended a demonstration against violence and crime: “Hundreds of police were present to put down the demonstration and they disappeared when the violence for which we were demonstrating occurred.”

It is unclear why criminal homicide is on the increase. Some suggest it reflects the absence of a clear identity and social cohesion, while others blame Israel for ignoring the Arab communities in Israel and refraining from the crackdown on criminals in the Arab areas who possess weapons that are often bought on the black market or from reserve Israeli soldiers.

There is a clear correlation between Israel’s general policies toward its own Arab citizens and the rise of violent, unchecked crime in Arab communities. It is not clear whether Arab political parties or the public, in general, will be able to extract enough concessions from the Israeli government to stem this violence without making some kind of tradeoff in which they will be obliged to support corrupt Israeli politicians who have little interest in the lives of their own Arab citizens.

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