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Organised crime, police crisis fuel Arab murder epidemic in Israel

Sep 6, 2023 | Ahron Shapiro

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A leadership body representing Israel’s Arab communities called a “state of emergency” and a general strike on September 5 to protest intra-Arab violent crime, murders and assassinations, which have soared to unprecedented levels this year.

As of August 31, the number of Arabs killed by internal violence within Israel’s Arab sector had reached 163.  This compares to just 70 killed by the same date last year – a rise of 133%, and is considerably higher than the total of 111 killed in all of 2022. Meanwhile, Ha’aretz reported that the murder rate among Jews has also increased sharply, climbing by 50% this year. The paper also notes the fact that the police have a much better success rate in identifying and arresting suspects in murder cases in Jewish communities compared to Arab communities: 66% compared to 10%.

 

National Security Minister criticised for abandoning helpful program

Israel’s current National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party – who is serving in his first ministerial post – was harshly criticised by his predecessor, former police minister Omer Bar-Lev, in a statement on August 23. Bar-Lev pointed out that under his administration, the Arab murder rate had declined by around 17% from 2021 to 2022.

As the Jerusalem Post’s Michael Starr reported in June in a feature article on the soaring Arab violent crime rate, the key to Bar-Lev’s success in reducing the number of murders was a program called Safe Track:

Under Safe Track, hundreds of main players and operatives in the Arab criminal underworld were identified – and with the cooperation of different organizations, if they couldn’t be pinned with murder, they would be caught on tax fraud or other crimes. Lotan said it led to hundreds of indictments and to many criminals leaving the country.

The government also invested heavily in law enforcement infrastructure, which grew the police force in the relevant localities, set up cameras and established connections with the municipalities and local groups.

The Bennett government also issued several new laws to allow for easier search for illegal weapons, biometric cameras, laws against protection rackets and on weapon modification

Bar-Lev slammed Ben-Gvir for scrapping this program, which he says had been yielding positive results.

 

Lack of trust, lack of tools

Starr’s article quoted from Dr. Muhammed Khalaily, a University of Haifa lecturer and a researcher on Arab society at the Israel Democracy Institute, who said that part of the problem was both that there is a lack of trust in the Government to solve problems in the Arab community, and that the police often lack to tools to turn the tide due to a lack of police presence in the Arab towns.

“Khalaily said that for many Arab community members, if they have a problem with their neighbor, it isn’t the police that they go to solve it, but the gangs,” Starr wrote. “The police are not a present authority.”

 

Organised crime the chief cause

Most experts agree that the main reason for the shootings is the dominance of organised crime syndicates spreading across the country. On July 17, Ha’aretz reporter Deiaa Haj Yahia wrote a feature on the depth of organised crime’s involvement in many Arab cities, where crime gangs take advantage of local governments to get lucrative government contracts and embezzle money intended for social services.

Israeli Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich came under fire in August for saying he would suspend Government funding to Arab municipalities temporarily as a result of this phenomenon. After having talks with local Arab leaders and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar, Smotrich agreed to disburse funds, but in a more supervised way, utilising a so-called “traffic light” scheme, the Times of Israel reported:

[Under the plan] Arab municipalities will be ranked in a three-tier system: “Green” ones would receive funding with no conditions, “yellow” ones would receive funding with supervision, and “red ones” would see their funds frozen pending a solution that will ensure that the funds will not end up in the hands of criminal organizations. The ranking will be decided by the Interior Ministry, the police and the Shin Bet.

Unfortunately, the existence of organised crime fuelling violence in Arab cities is nothing new, though the pace and level of the violence is. In December 2020, the Times of Israel published a feature on the soaring Arab murder rate at that time – which was less than half the murder rate we are seeing today.

 

Situation expected to worsen before it gets better

On August 25, Yediot Ahronot (Hebrew) journalist Chen Artzi Tzrur revealed internal testing data showing the quality of recruits for core positions in the police, such as surveillance and crime investigations, has been dropping since 2021, and is currently at a low point. In the same article, Tzrur noted that earlier this year, Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai decided to shorten the police officer course from 28 weeks to only seven weeks due to the manpower shortage, with the rest of the training to be carried out in the field.

The commander of the police’s division for combatting crime in the Arab sector resigned in June due to his poor performance.

Meanwhile, a chronic police understaffing problem, driven by a large number of resignations, dismissals and officers opting for retirement, makes it harder for the police to get a handle on the situation. However, according to the Israeli news site Walla, at least that trend is slowing:

Hundreds of Israel Police officers have left their jobs since January 2023, with 598 resigning, 109 being fired, and 420 retiring according to a freedom of information report submitted by Walla.

To put that figure into perspective, throughout all of 2022, a total of 1,050 police officers resigned, 750 retired, and 141 were fired. In 2021, 631 officers resigned. In 2020, just 321 resigned.

However, out of the 598 officers who resigned this year, some of them are students, but the vast majority of them (514) are full-time cops. Compared to 2022, this makes a 15% decline in the number of police officers resigning.

In a sign of the seriousness with which the Israeli Government is addressing the problem of violence in Arab communities, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar met with the heads of local Arab authorities on August 27 and asked to establish a communication channel with the heads of the authorities. He also promised that the Shin Bet would work to prevent the involvement of criminal organisations in the local authority elections, the Jerusalem Post reported.

On August 23, Ben-Gvir called for the use of Administrative Detention – a controversial measure usually used only against members of terror organisations which allows the detention of dangerous suspects without charge based on an order from a Judge – against members of Arab-Israeli organised crime gangs. At this stage, it looks unlikely to be used, and in any case, such a move against Israeli citizens involved in crime, not terrorist violence, would likely be challenged in Israel’s High Court.

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