Leaders of local councils in Arab communities throughout the country want police to quell crime and violence in their towns and villages. This plea has been repeated consistently over the last three years, at meetings between Arab local council heads and Israeli officials.
In January, members of the Forum of Arab Local Councils led by Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghanem sought a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin to air their grievances which include the need to remove criminal elements disrupting community life and causing fear and unease among Arab citizens.
Rivlin heard the same story during visits to Arab communities and he also heard it at the Iftar dinner he hosted in June.
The outcome was a joint meeting on Wednesday at the President’s Residence with members of the forum and senior police from around the country.
Of 46 invitations sent to Arab local council heads, fewer than a dozen recipients arrived, being significantly outnumbered by the men and women in blue.
Rivlin admitted that he was disappointed.
The president hoped the event would be the beginning of a major turning point in relations between Israel’s Arab citizens and police, but that hope was not realized to the extent he presumed it would be.
There was a much larger representation of members of the Forum at the Iftar dinner.
Of the council heads who did attend the meeting, it was obvious they were already on excellent terms with Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, who went around the room greeting people and kissed nearly all the council heads on both cheeks, receiving broad smiles in return.
In his opening statement Rivlin said the meeting had been planned and scheduled in accordance with a request that had come from the Arab Forum. Its purpose was to see what could be done to guarantee the safety and security of Israel’s Arab citizens.
He said it was a pity that so many of the invitees had opted not to attend as there had been a previous agreement to work together.
Throughout his address, Rivlin repeated his favorite mantra several times: “We were not doomed to live together; we were destined to live together.”
He says this frequently in relation to Israel and the Palestinians as well as in relation to Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.
“We are meeting during tense and critical times, and we are all being tested – Jews and Arabs alike,” he said. “We have no other way than to live together.”
In addition to expressing his disappointment at the low attendance, Rivlin also voiced his disappointment at the low key condemnation, if any, by Israeli Arab leaders of the terrorist attack on the Temple Mount in which two Druse policemen were killed.
Putting that aside he said “We must be clever and join forces to demonstrate both Jewish and Arab leadership and responsibility.”
This is no longer a question but a necessity, said Rivlin. “Whether we like it or not, we are going to live together.”
Following recent riots in Kafr Kassem, Rivlin, in June, held a meeting in his office with Alsheich and Kafr Kassem Mayor Adel Badir to discuss how to restore calm, continue to promote law enforcement throughout Israel’s Arab society and to bring an end to crime infested activities.
Despite Arab contentions that police don’t really care about the mushrooming of crime in Arab towns and villages, Rivlin was confident police and community leaders could work together in combating violence and ensuring the safety of Arab citizens.
Since taking office in July 2014, Rivlin said he had repeatedly heard about organized crime in Arab towns and villages.
According to Rivlin, in 2016 alone, 57 Arab citizens were killed by other Arabs with 11 of the dead being women. The murder or manslaughter death toll this year is so far 42.
“Israel is obligated to guarantee the safety of every citizen,” declared Rivlin, adding that police are doing their utmost to confiscate illegal weapons which are being used by criminal elements.
The president emphasized the importance of education in the effort to reduce crime. Fifty percent of the Arab population is under the age of 20, he said.
“We must raise a new generation that feels safe, which can realize its dreams, which can have confidence in state and government institutions and which can have a better quality of life,” Rivlin emphasized.
Despite the absence of most Arab local council heads, Alsheich said he still felt optimistic about the possibility of working together and cooperating on many projects. Such cooperation is vital to Arab interests, he said.
The police have two main tasks, said Alsheich. One is to apprehend criminals and the other is to prevent crime. In fact 80% of the effort goes into the latter, he said.
“We need to use every available resource,” said Alsheich who hoped to see many more Arab citizens join the Police Force and to realize that they were part of a national mission.
Some young Arabs actually do, he said, citing a young religious Muslim school girl who asked to be photographed with him so she could encourage other young Muslims to join the police force. When she’s old enough to join, she wrote on her Facebook page, “I’ll wear my uniform to the local grocer’s store.”
Alsheich also guaranteed that Muslim policewomen who cover their heads for religious reasons would be permitted to continue to do so.
“Just as we would never ask a haredi policeman to cut off his peyote [side curls], we would never ask a Muslim woman to remove her head covering,” said Alsheich.
A survey by the Abraham Fund indicates that more than 70% of Israeli Arabs want a police presence where they live, said Alsheich.
Ignoring the absence of so many of his colleagues, Ghanem said the meeting was one of great importance and that he was gratified to see so many senior police officers.
Arab society is not naturally violent he said. The violence and the crime have been the outcome of the circumstances in which so many Arabs live. Some 53.3% live below the poverty line, he said, 14% of the men are unemployed and 50,000 homes are in danger of being destroyed.
Ghanem said it was imperative for the police to trace and remove all illegal weapons, and claimed that police know the identities of the sellers and the buyers, so it should not be too difficult to find the weapons.
A similar situation exists with trafficking of drugs, he said.