In the shadow of violent crime
Is the growing fear of violence justified or fueled by hysteria?
Israeli police Photo: Thinkstock
On a cold, grey, rainy winter day several months ago, I sat down with senior
officers from Tel Aviv police and asked for a general appraisal of the crime
situation in the Gush Dan metropolitan area.
“It’s quiet now. This is
winter,” one officer told me, as the wind howled outside. “Wait until the
For years now, police have become accustomed to the idea of
summertime crime surges. No known studies have been carried out in Israel to
explain the phenomenon, but the reasons seem obvious enough.
summer nights, more young people are out in the streets, many of them in a state
It’s clear that well-intended alcohol laws restricting
the access of intoxicating beverages at night have done little to stem underage
and public drinking.
According to a poll conducted by the Israel Anti-Drug Authority in 2009, some 19 percent of 11-yearold boys and 8% of 11-year-old
girls said they drank alcohol at least once a week. Only Ukraine had higher
levels of drinking among that age group.
The gap between groups of
drunken youths and serious incidents of violence is small. If the fact that
knife possession is on the rise – in the Tel Aviv police district, for example,
there was a 50% increase in knife possession cases opened in 2011 – is thrown
into the mix, all of the volatile factors are in place for a mushrooming of
random and potentially lethal street violence.
According to Prof. Richard
Isralowitz, who heads Ben-Gurion University’s Regional Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Resources (RADAR) Center, “More young people drink alcohol than use other drugs
or smoke tobacco, and underage drinking is costing Israel millions of shekels in
losses stemming from violent behavior, criminal activity and traffic fatalities
that threaten the well-being of Israel and its people.”
Nevertheless, few police
reporters can recall a period in recent years as intense as the past two weeks.
From the brutal stabbing to death of father-of-two Gadi Vichman in Beersheba by
a youth because Vichman wanted to keep the noise down so he could put his child
to sleep to the cold-blooded, coordinated homicide of 17-year-old Orgil Mauti by
three youths in Rehovot (each attacker brandished his own knife and stabbed
Mauti separately) to nightmarish rapes in the heart of Tel Aviv, the Israeli
public has been inundated with stories of awful violent crime.
severe crime waves wash over the country, the police’s stance is too nuanced to
be effectively transmitted in an atmosphere of fear. The police’s response is
therefore often dismissed by many as a stuttering reply by an ineffective
The truth, however, is not so simple. With its limited budget of
under NIS 8 billion a year and its static officer-to-civilian ratio (despite the
growing population), the Israel Police has prioritized its main goal as catching
the murderers and rapists behind the incidents rather than preventing them from
Police brass do not believe they can flood the streets
indefinitely with officers under the current limited budget and have therefore
aimed to create a semblance of deterrence by bringing the perpetrators of
serious violent crime to justice. To that end, it is impossible to deny police
credit – in every major serious crime that has occurred in the country over the
past two weeks, arrests of main suspects have quickly followed.
arrests do not make up for errors such as the embarrassing failure by a
policewoman and a municipal inspector to arrive at the scene of noisy, drunken
youths in Beersheba, despite being directed to the disturbance before Vichman’s
murder, and then lying about having attended the scene by saying that “nothing
unusual was found.”
Additionally, a look at the murder rate for this year shows
an unmistakable drop in this most severe of offenses; Police recorded 50
homicides between January and May 2011, compared to 37 murders in the same
period in 2012. This does not comfort the public, however. So who is right: the
public or the figures? The unanimous reply from decision-makers in the domestic
security sphere, including Police Insp.-Gen.
Yochanan Danino and Public
Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, is that the public is right. Personal
security is first and foremost a feeling, they say, and if the feeling is
lacking, the figures are irrelevant.
Aharonovitch articulated this
approach during a walking tour of south Tel Aviv, when he said, “I don’t care
about a drop in criminal acts. The public’s sense of security is number
Security officials are acutely aware that if the public feels there
is a problem, even if fear is fed through media reports that inflate every act
of violent crime to the status of a national emergency, it means that ordinary
people are responding to a real atmosphere of violence.
decision-makers know that this problematic atmosphere is very real and is made
possible by a relatively new culture of alcohol, knives and the readiness to
enter into a fight over the most minor of causes.
The same can be said
about the public’s reaction to crimes committed recently by African migrants,
including the alleged rape of a young woman. The concern of ordinary citizens
over the soaring number of African migrants in south Tel Aviv neighborhoods is
not necessarily linked to a fear of violence, but rather is driven by the rapid
transformation of established working class Israeli communities into
predominantly African areas.
On the other hand, statements such as the
one made by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who argued that most of the migrants
were involved in crime, are contradicted by the facts. A survey carried out by
the Knesset last year found that crime rates among African migrants were in fact
lower than those of the general population.
Once again, however, such
figures do not mean that public concern is misplaced. When whole neighborhoods
are transformed overnight and the government offers no answers, incidents such
as rapes – even if they are relatively uncommon – will be enough to drive fears
up even further.
In the meantime, senior police officers have been
calling on the government for years to take steps to truly mitigate violent
crime. These include a major increase in the police’s budget accompanied by
investment in the spheres of education, social work and poor urban
Otherwise, police brass warn, they will continue doing what
they do best: Catching violent offenders after the attacks but not being able to
prevent the crimes before they occur.