Arab-Israelis need equality, not incitement

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: What is behind the rise in violence in the Arab sector, and who is to blame, politically?

 JOURNALISTS AND residents protest crime and violence, following the murder of Israeli-Arab journalist Nidal Aghbariya, at the entrance of the northern town of Umm el-Fahm on September 5. Aghbariya was killed in a criminal shooting.  (photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)
JOURNALISTS AND residents protest crime and violence, following the murder of Israeli-Arab journalist Nidal Aghbariya, at the entrance of the northern town of Umm el-Fahm on September 5. Aghbariya was killed in a criminal shooting.
(photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

This past week was horrible for the Israeli-Arab sector. On Sunday, 44-year-old independent journalist Nidal Aghbariya was shot dead in his car in Umm el-Fahm, reportedly due to a family member’s financial problems.

On Monday night, 34-year-old mother Manar Hajaj and her 14-year-old twins Khudra and Maryam were sprayed with bullets while exiting their car in Lod after returning from a supermarket. Manar and Khudra died, and Maryam was seriously wounded. The cold-blooded murder was probably connected to Manar’s ex-husband, a criminal known to the Israel Police, who does not reside in Israel.

Not long afterward, a resident of Taiba who was lightly wounded after being shot in the leg was kidnapped by several armed men from an ambulance transferring him to a hospital.

Seventy-five Israeli-Arabs have lost their lives so far during 2022, nine of whom were women, in circumstances related to violence and crime, according to NGO Abraham Initiatives.

Crime in Israel's Arab sector has become a major issue

It is clear to everyone, on all sides of the political spectrum, that crime in the Arab sector has ballooned into monstrous proportions, and that the current government’s yearlong police operation, which involved thousands of officers, a new police branch, hundreds of arrests and weapons seizures and many millions of shekels confiscated, only scratched the surface.

MK BEZALEL SMOTRICH speaks during a Knesset plenary session on August 24. (credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)MK BEZALEL SMOTRICH speaks during a Knesset plenary session on August 24. (credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)

But the recent slew of violence also elicited a rare response from far-right Religious Zionist Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich, in which he laid out his philosophy regarding the problem’s root causes.

“The roots of crime in Arab society are rooted in a long-standing mentality of disbelief in the State of Israel, in its right of existence as a Jewish and Zionist state, and consequently in its authority. It’s a very simple principle: when there is no source of authority, there is no obligation to obey. And when there is no obligation to obey, there is anarchy, and man devours his fellow man,” Smotrich wrote in a statement.

“In this sense, criminal crime in Arab society is fundamentally nationalist. It stems from nationalist disbelief in the State of Israel and its laws. At this moment, this nationalist crime is directed against the Arab society itself, and it itself is the main victim.

“Pointing the finger of blame at the police for not solving the extreme events connected to the culture of crime and violence in Arab society is incorrect and illogical. It is impossible to build a rule of law based on the police alone. The rule of law is based on culture and education to respect the state and obey its laws, with the police entering the picture, as mentioned, only on the margins,” Smotrich continued.

"In this sense, criminal crime in Arab society is fundamentally nationalist. It stems from nationalist disbelief in the State of Israel and its laws. At this moment, this nationalist crime is directed against the Arab society itself, and it itself is the main victim."

Bezalel Smotrich

“If the Arab society desires life, it must understand that the guarantee of a life with personal security is the orderly rule of law, and this can only exist on the basis of recognition of the State of Israel and its authority, and education to this regard from a young age. If the Arab society desires life, it must stop the nationalist identification with our enemies in Judea and Samaria and Gaza, it must stop educating about hatred for the Jews and the state, and the desire to destroy it – at home, in mosques and in schools. It is impossible to openly or secretly strive to destroy the State of Israel and expect your children to respect the state and obey its laws. This is a fundamental internal contradiction.

“And that is why Israeli-Arabs who want their families to be able to live in peace and security should vote specifically for us – for Jews who will fight with all their strength the waves of nationalism that wash over the streets of Arab and mixed cities – eradicate them [the waves of nationalism] and develop loyalty to the State of Israel and its laws.

“When the Arabs flock to the polling stations and vote for the Religious Zionist Party, they will stop being murdered in the streets like flies, and start living in security,” Smotrich concluded.

“When the Arabs flock to the polling stations and vote for the Religious Zionist Party, they will stop being murdered in the streets like flies, and start living in security.”

Bezalel Smotrich

These are only part of Smotrich’s long statement, but lay out his essential argument: At the very core of the matter, Israeli-Arabs have themselves to blame. They oppose Israel’s authority to enforce the law, because of anti-Zionist nationalist sentiment, and therefore suffer from lawlessness and a lack of personal safety.

The problem is that this view, which is shared by many on Israel’s hard Right, is based on false premises and racist undertones, and is not supported by facts.

What's the real reason for the violence in Israel's Arab sector?

The reality on the ground in Arabs cities and towns is that while some of Israel’s Arabs’ aversion to Israel’s Jewish character has lasted since the founding of Zionism, excessive crime became a problem only in the past 10 years. The majority of crime in the Arab street, just like with other poor and minority groups all over the world, stems from unchecked criminal gangs, discriminatory education and housing policies, under-policing coupled with unchecked police aggression, poverty, unemployment and ineffective political representation. And in Israel’s case, it also stems from the Jewish majority’s inability to differentiate between terrorist organizations operating from the West Bank and Gaza, and Israeli-Arab citizens who, in a democracy, deserve equal rights, respect and opportunity.

These points were put forward by the director of strategy at the Givat Haviva organization, Mohammad Darawshe, in a discussion with The Jerusalem Post.

GIVAT HAVIVA is the largest institution in Israel that works for shared society. It was established in 1949, and in 1963 it established a Jewish-Arab center for peace. It mostly runs educational programs that focus on getting Arab citizens into hi-tech and improving their Hebrew, operates five community mediation centers that try to handle the issue of violence, and runs a number of Jewish-Arab partnerships between towns and industrial zones, joint sports activities and joint Jewish-Arab classrooms, exchanging teachers between Jewish and Arab schools.

Darawshe served in the past as campaign manager for the Arab Democratic Party (Mada) and later for the United Arab List (Ra’am). He has an MA and specializes in peace and conflict studies.

“I think [Smotrich] is basically using this harsh problem in our community to incite against us. The language of this post is incitement, and not of someone who really cares about our community or solving the matter of crime. If we want to look for the real reasons, we should focus on them, but this is trying to escape responsibility, and bashing Arab citizens and culture is being done for the sake of serving political ideologies and is not real concern for dealing with the issues,” Darawshe said.

“Crime in the Arab community is not an Arab phenomenon, it is a new phenomenon that has been developing for the past five to 10 years,” Darawshe said. “Crime was very high in the Jewish community when there was no crime in the Arab community, and it migrated to the Arab community after the police cracked down on the Jewish crime activity.”

There is a clear historical reason for this. In 2015, the Israel Police launched the largest bust of criminal organizations in its history, following over a decade of investigative work. In the early 2000s, crime wars caused casualties in the Jewish sector, with the peak being the explosion of a car bomb on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv in 2003. No one accused the Jewish criminals of being motivated by nationalist sentiment; it was clear that these were simply violent criminals. Israel effectively cracked down on them, but other gangs arose in their place in a new breeding ground – Arab society.

“We clearly now know that it is not culturally based but convenience based, and based on the presence or lack of presence of the police. When the police were neglecting [Jewish-Israeli crime] in Netanya, it thrived there, and when it neglected crime in development towns like Migdal Ha’emek and Afula, crime thrived there as well. And when the government decided to crack down on crime, it succeeded very well.

Criminals looked for new territory in which the police were less active and perhaps less interested in acting, and found it in the Arab sector.

Israel’s Arab community has always suffered from two problems, Darawshe said. The first is under-policing, even on issues of petty crime. The police would never show up on time, if at all.

“Cases would often be closed due to ‘lack of public interest.’ But I am the public here... the police don’t handle it because for them there is no public interest. I don’t know what public they are talking about – perhaps there is no interest to the Jewish public, and therefore the police exempt themselves from the responsibility of handling domestic crime in the Arab community.”

The second problem is the opposite – over-policing – meaning, an excessive use of force during political demonstrations. Then the police come in large numbers, and this results sometimes even in casualties.

“When they want, they know how to come, and they know how to handle what they want to handle.”

Darawshe used as an example an incident that occurred just last Sunday, when some 150 police officers appeared in Arrabe in order to arrest a man on the day of his wedding for tax evasion. The man escaped, and the police then arrested the bride in her wedding gown, on accusations that she knew where he was and therefore was aiding an escapee.

“A hundred and fifty police officers had the courage and audacity to come crash a wedding in order to find a man wanted for tax evasion. When they want, they know to be there, but when they don’t want to, they know how to neglect.”

In matters that the Jewish sector cares about, such as tax evasion, the police act forcefully, but not when it comes to basic law and order.

“We don’t see the police services, we only see its fist, when they come to crush our community,” he said.

Over- and under-policing are the most immediate reasons for a lack of personal safety, but the roots of the problem are far deeper, Darawshe explained. Israel’s justice system also fails when it comes to the Arab sector. When violence and crime remain within Arab communities, the system requests that the communities organize a “sulha”, or public reconciliation, which in other words means that they should solve the problem themselves. When the violence spills over into the Jewish sector, the system is overly harsh. The message is that justice has different standards, depending on which community one belongs to.

Furthermore, Darawshe described a vicious cycle that incentivizes young Israeli-Arabs to join crime gangs. It begins with education. An average Arab-Israeli kid receives 70% of the funding that a Jewish Israeli receives, despite both educational systems being state provided, Darawshe said. This means less teaching hours and worse conditions for education, which lead to enhanced unemployment and poverty.

Forty-seven percent of residents of Arab municipalities live under the poverty line and therefore are exempt from paying municipal taxes. This leads to poorer and weaker municipal systems, which then do not have the means to invest in students, and so forth.

Arabs make up 11% of the Israeli workforce, despite being 21% of Israel’s population, and 40% of 18-25-year-olds are unemployed and are not students. This is exactly the age when youngsters begin to spend more on developing independent lifestyles, and if families cannot provide financial help, young people are incentivized to turn to crime and make money, Darawshe explained. Seventy percent of shooters and casualties of the crime gangs are members of that age group.

There are three main steps that need to be taken in order for the tide to begin to turn, Darawshe said.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is to crack down on crime families, which are responsible for 70%-75% of murders in the Arab community.

“You need an organization to fight organized crime, and this can only be government and police and, from my point of view, if needed, the military, Shin Bet and Mossad, and if they need to bring in the CIA and Palestinian and Jordanian police, so be it. Organized crime needs organized force which cannot be substituted by personal or civilian initiatives.”

If civilians take up arms against the crime gangs, it will just feed the chaos – and vigilante groups will just become another crime group taking law into its own hands, Darawshe said.

“It needs to be force – both legal and physical force. And if some of them need to be shot dead, so be it. I’d rather the killers be killed than innocent people,” he said.

The current government, to its credit, began to fight the crime gangs, but it isn’t nearly enough. The police prides itself on bringing down the murder rates by about 10%, but that is not a reason to celebrate, he said.

“I’m willing to tolerate a similar percentage [of crime] as in the Jewish community. You cannot eradicate crime completely, but you can fight organized crime. States and governments need to be the ones to handle this,” he repeated.

The second step is creating new communal mechanisms of problem-solving.

“In the past, traditional families in a patriarchic system used to be the way this was handled, but because of modernization this system was trashed in the Arab community, and no significant activity was created, mostly because of the weakness of political leadership, whether municipal or national,” he said. The issue of political representation will be discussed shortly.

The third step is increasing economic resources in Arab towns and villages. Violence between neighbors often erupts because living conditions are not tenable.

“Most Arab towns and villages are overcrowded. The way to solve this is to create zoning plans for Arab towns and villages, where you organize the housing. Right now, most of the housing is not organized, because most of the people build illegally and compete for the same parking place, which they should not have to compete for. Why? Because they cannot receive construction permits.

“The Arabs citizens are 21% of the population, but our municipalities have jurisdiction over 3% of the land in the country. How can 21% live on 3% only? And half of that 3% is not organized in zoning plans. So only 1.5% of the land is open for Arab citizens to build on. What people do is add a second or third floor to an existing house with a permit, and then those four apartments need to use the same one entrance or one parking lot. Without solving the social-economic aspects, we cannot develop long-term solutions to treat violence,” he said.

“This is not an indicator for Arab civilians only. It is an indicator of how things work in poor societies. Getting our citizens out of poverty is the way to do it; getting organized zoning plans is the government’s responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to find jobs for its citizens? It is the responsibility of the government, not of the local community. Israel knows how to bring companies from around the world and give them incentives to build in developing areas, such as Kiryat Gat. Israel does this because it wants to develop Kiryat Gat.

“This has been done in Jewish towns since the state was created, but not a single factory ever received incentive to operate in an Arab town. The situation today is that in order to receive an incentive from the government, Arab businessmen build their factory in Jewish towns, pay their taxes to Jewish municipalities and employ Jewish workers,” Darawshe said.

The fragmentation of the Arab political parties could lead to an all-time low voter turnout, which translates into less political power. Why are voters so disaffected? And how can this be changed?

As fit for a strategist, here, too, Darawshe provided three main reasons:

The first is disbelief and anger at the Arab political leadership for failing to play the Israeli political game effectively enough, Darawshe said. A poll by KAN’s Arab-language radio station this week found that 57% of the Arab public wants its politicians to join a coalition. However, out of the 10 current MKs from the Arab parties, only four (of Ra’am) believe in this – only 40%.

 “The political leadership is not in line with the public mood. The public mood says yes, go and become influential. Even 47% of those who said they do not want to vote want Arab parties in the coalition, and 64% of the voters of the Joint List, which refuses to be in the coalition, want it to join the coalition, and MKs Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Sami Abou Shahadeh say no. This is what causes the anger. You don’t want to play their game that the public wants you to play, which is full participation and influence? Then we will not vote for you.”

This means that the Joint List needs to change its language and use more “conciliatory, integrative language, and [show] willingness and readiness to be part of the decision-making apparatus in Israel,” Darawshe claimed.

The second reason for low Arab turnout is that until about 12-13 years ago, nearly 30% of Arab voters used to vote for center-left political parties such as Labor and Meretz, but now it is down to approximately 8%, which is pretty much limited to the Druze population, Darawshe said. Why? Because these parties neglected their responsibilities to the Arab community. They show up once every four years to collect votes, and then they disappear. In addition, the Arab political leaders that were appointed to the Jewish parties are mediocre and far from the mainstream, such as MK Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin and MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, who dealt with issues that were perhaps important to the Jewish society, like LGBT and women’s rights, but not with the core issues in Arab society.

“Mara’ana-Menuhin didn’t get one extra chair for one Arab classroom. So, is that the Arab representation they want in the Labor party?

“They look for iconic people that may look nice in Jewish eyes, but they do not have a connection to the core issues of the Arab world,” Darawshe claimed.

The left-wing Jewish parties are therefore punished by Arab voters who feel neglected. These voters do not vote for the Arab parties, which they feel are too radical, and therefore end up staying home, Darawshe said.

The third reason for the low Arab vote is perhaps the deepest, and the antithesis of Smotrich’s philosophy – despair over the Israeli government’s willingness to see them as equals.

“The last five years produced two things. One is the Nation-State Law, which says that this is the state of the Jewish people and not of all its citizens, which basically reduces the status of citizenship to participating in elections... which should have been balanced with legislating a parallel law called the Equality Law, which did not pass during [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s period or during [Yair] Lapid and [Naftali] Bennett’s period. No one is going to protect Arab citizens... and this leaves [Arab] citizens with the feeling that their vote does not matter.”

The necessary change is a “change of language of the Jewish political leaders of our citizens. Because in order for them to vote, they need to believe that their vote matters, and that their citizenship matters. The Arab parties do not want to be in the coalition, the Jewish parties are legislating [Jewish] nationalist programs, and the quality of life has not changed in the past years; on the contrary, in terms of violence, things are getting worse.”

To conclude: Some percentages of Israeli-Arabs do not accept Israel as a Jewish state. But the connection Smotrich made between this and violent crime is wrong. Aversion to Zionism among Israel’s largest minority, which certainly is a significant problem, does not mean that it is not susceptible to criminal violence. There is a large area in the middle, where innocent, law-abiding, and, yes, Arab citizens are gunned down simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Blaming an entire sector that is yearning for protection for its own suffering is not a solution; it is part of the problem.