The issue of illegal firearms in the Arab sector will be one of the central problems facing law enforcement in the coming years and will require a massive intelligence effort by police, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said during a heated Knesset committee hearing on Wednesday.
Illegal firearms in the Arab sector have long been among the main issues facing Israeli Arabs. During the meeting, one Arab MK after another decried what they said is a lack of interest in gun violence as long as it is kept inside the Arab community.
“When these weapons are turned internally toward our communities, no one hears a word, but when they are used on Jews, the entire country wakes up,” said MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List).
He added that since 2000, there have been 1,100 fatalities from gun violence in the Arab sector and that “this grandiose number is hard to grasp, even if it was half of this, it would be terrible.”
The meeting held by the Knesset Environment and Internal Affairs Committee was called this week after Nashat Milhem, an Arab from Arara, allegedly carried out a deadly shooting attack in Tel Aviv
using a licensed submachine gun owned by his father.
MK Osama Sa’adi (Joint List) repeated Tibi’s allegation, saying, “We always warned that once this weaponry is turned outwards, just once, to Tel Aviv, there will be an uproar, and it’s a shame that this voice was only heard after this terrible attack in Tel Aviv.”
MK Taleb Abu Arar (Joint List) put forth an allegation regularly leveled at police – that the Arab public is crying out to them for help in dealing with gun violence, to no avail.
“When it comes to daily issues that we need help with, the state has no problem giving us autonomy and independence,” Abu Arar said. “Please come and take the guns, using whatever acceptable means there are to do so,” he added.
Leaders in the Arab sector regularly accuse the police of not caring about crime that is contained within their communities, even as they make up a disproportionately large percentage of the victims and perpetrators of homicides and other violent crimes. In figures from 2012, Israeli Arabs – who make up around 20% of the population – were involved in 67% of homicides and 70% of attempted homicides, and made up about 40% of homicide victims.
Police and their supporters often lament what they say is insufficient cooperation from the Arab sector, including a code of silence and reluctance to cooperate with police and inform on other Israeli Arabs.
Police also cite the violence and rioting that often greets them when they carry out weapons and drug raids in Arab communities.
There is also a disproportionately low number of Israeli Arabs that enlist in the police, which law enforcement officials have long said prevents better communication and ties between the community and the police force.
MK David Bitan (Likud) accused the Arab MKs of hypocrisy, saying, “We aren’t to blame for the fact that when police want to go into an Arab village, they have to come in armored vehicles. We aren’t to blame for the weapons and the illegal construction and we aren’t to blame for the fact that the Arab sector has become the Wild West.”
MK Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid), formerly the head of the Eshkol Regional Council on the Gaza border, said that southern Israel “has become the Wild South” and asked, “When was the last time the police went into Bir Hadaj?” referencing a southern Beduin village known for being a hotbed of the drug trade and illegal firearms.
Jelin also said police and the IDF must do more to prevent the smuggling of military weaponry onto the black market. He gave as an example the IDF mortar shells that rained down on southern Israel during Operation Protective Edge, which were smuggled into Gaza after they were stolen in Israel.
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, said the relationship between Arabs and the police in Israel is similar to that of minority communities and police in countries around the world, wherein “there is a conflict between the minority and the state, and the police are the arm of the government they see.”
Odeh said that nonetheless, the Arab community does turn to police with the desire to rid their streets of firearm violence, but added, “We place the blame on the police because we believe if they want to accomplish something, they can.”
He also criticized the recent easing of gun ownership restrictions – a measure meant to help deal with the recent terrorist attacks – saying it will lead to more murders and more guns on the streets.
Yaakov Peri, Yesh Atid MK and former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), described the issue of firearm violence as part of a wider failure of the state to deal with the Arab community’s problems.
“It’s a mistake to separate the problem of illegal weaponry from the other problems facing the Arab community, which include a shortage of police and police stations. This is not a problem caused by this prime minister; It’s been every prime minister. Every government has neglected the Arab sector,” Peri said.
“In many of the Arab villages, there is no law and order and [there is] high unemployment,” and such issues are greatly diminished when there is more state involvement in the communities, he added.
Yael German (Yesh Atid) echoed this, saying: “This debate isn’t just about guns; It’s about discrimination and feelings of inequality.”
She cited figures presented in the meeting: “65.8% of families [in the Arab sector] live in poverty; Arabs make ups 49% of prisoners in Israel. We can blame them, but I blame our society.”
Asst.-Ch. Meni Yitzhaki, head of the Police Investigations and Intelligence Branch, said, “We know that we need to focus a great deal on firearms and ammunition in the Arab sector,” but cautioned against downplaying the difficulties inherent within such a challenge.
“Every single raid to collect weapons is an operation of its own. No one leaves their guns in the entrance to their house, next to the car keys. This is not like picking mushrooms after the rain.”
Col. Erez Raban, head of the Military Police, said that while theft of IDF weapons is a problem, it’s one that has decreased in recent years.
According to figures he presented, in 2010, 113 guns were stolen from the IDF; In 2011, 55, in 2012, 89, in 2013, 61, and in 2014, 92.
The figures did not include the large number of grenades and explosive bricks stolen from the IDF, which are frequently used by criminals.
Also on Wednesday, the Knesset Plenum voted 46 to 37 against a proposal by MK Esawi Frej (Meretz) to launch a parliamentary inquiry into the problem of illegal firearms in the Arab sector.