Israeli-Arab murder rates are higher than ever – what can be done?

ISRAELI-ARAB AFFAIRS: With murders in the Arab sector never higher, Israeli leaders are scrambling to prove themselves able to address the challenge, but they face a multiheaded hydra of problems.

 MEMBERS OF the Arab community protest against the violence in their community, outside of the Knesset last month. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MEMBERS OF the Arab community protest against the violence in their community, outside of the Knesset last month.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Ayman Zoabi, from the village of Sulam, was shot to death in Nazareth on Wednesday night. Khaled Halabi was murdered in Khawaled on Monday. Omar Evali, 21, was shot in Ibillin on Sunday night.

These men are three of the 92 people who have been murdered in Israel’s Arab communities in the first half of 2023 – almost three times as many as the number killed in the same period in 2022, according to the Abraham Initiatives.

The murders all occurred during the same week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting with a group of Arab MKs and Arab local council representatives to discuss ways to combat the escalating violence in the Arab community. At the end of the meeting, Netanyahu agreed to the establishment of a ministerial committee, which he would chair, to fight the growing epidemic.

Such murders are not just the result of lawlessness and domestic violence in the sector, but, according to experts, largely the work of crime organizations that have established authorities parallel to the Israeli government in Arab towns.

With murders in Israeli-Arab communities never higher, Israeli leaders are scrambling to prove themselves able to address the challenge, but they face a multiheaded hydra of problems, in political division, the proliferation of illegal weapons, and police incapacity.

Police recently opened an investigation into a shooting incident in Jasr e-Zarka Febrary 3, 2023. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Police recently opened an investigation into a shooting incident in Jasr e-Zarka Febrary 3, 2023. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

“The issue of violence and crime in Arab society is a very bloody and difficult phenomenon.”

Tomer Lotan

A history of violence

Violence in Israel’s Arab communities is not a new problem. The plague has afflicted the sector for almost two decades, said Tomer Lotan, former director-general of the Public Security Ministry, who worked for the previous government on the problem.

“The issue of violence and crime in Arab society is a very bloody and difficult phenomenon,” said Lotan.

Lotan said that before 2010, the communities were seeing around 30-40 murders a year, which rose to 50-60 in the early 2010s, and had been steadily rising ever since.

In 2017 and 2018, murders rose to 75 and 74, respectively. In 2019, they rose to 94, and continued to climb from 109 in 2020 to a peak of 126 in 2021. The year 2022 saw a decrease to 106 murders, but 2023 is shaping up to be the deadliest period in at least a decade, with 92 deaths in just the first six months of the year. Several have been killed this week alone. Halabi was the third killed in a 24-hour window at the beginning of the week.

According to the Abraham Initiatives’ 2022 figures, almost half of the victims were 30 years old and younger. Around 89% of those killed were men, and almost all were shot. 79.4% of the cases were not solved.

The murders are an indicator of a wider problem, said Lotan, part of a broader systemic issue.

Gangland, Israel

Halabi was known to police, and his brother Galeb was suspected of murder. Halabi’s and Evali’s cases are being investigated by law enforcement as reprisals between clans and criminal organizations.

“The problem of criminal organizations, which in the beginning were locally based, have expanded to regional levels, and today they are found in almost all Arab towns in the State of Israel,” said Dr. Muhammed Khalaily, a University of Haifa lecturer and a researcher on Arab society at the Israel Democracy Institute. “When you enter an Arab town, you’re entering an extraterritorial region.”

Khalaily described these criminal organizations to be like local governments, complete with their own courthouses. Lotan said that they had soldiers and financial arms.

These organizations have developed to fill the power vacuum created by the lack of governance, Khalaily explained, as well as the collapse of traditional Arab social structures and norms that governed families, hamulas and tribes.

Part of the crime families’ power comes from belief in these organizations as arbitrators in disputes, rather than the police. However they also fill gaps in the financial system and economy.

“Bank services in Arab society – and part of it is due to discrimination, which is well documented – don’t serve the community,” said Khalaily.

Many Israeli-Arab families are unable to secure loans, lines of credit, or take out mortgages, said Lotan. Khalaily explained that the gangs have established financial systems in which locals can get banking services. There is a massive black and gray market that the population is part of out of necessity. These financial transactions bind the populace to the criminal organizations, as it becomes indebted to them.

Arab youth have few employment opportunities, said Khalaily, without sufficient access to education, land, or financial services for entrepreneurship. They can sell their physical labor in cities for long hours for NIS 8,000-9,000 a month, or they can work for criminal organizations. Not only are they well paid, but they are afforded respect in society and meaning in life, said Lotan. Khalaily said these youth become the soldiers, the protection racketeers, the loan sharks – and the victims of gang violence.

With miniature states, there are disputes over territory, wars of expansion and clashes of ego. In a state of lawlessness, families engage in cycles of revenge killings.

Past attempts to stop the killing

Past governments have failed to address the problem of violence and crime in the Arab sector, said Khalaily. Until now, governments have only paid lip service by holding meetings or assembling committees.

Yet Lotan noted that in 2020, Netanyahu’s government did produce an important paper that identified the problems that formed the underlying basis of the issue, such as illegal weapons, police presence, economic issues and social issues. The Netanyahu government had also developed, under former public security minister Amir Ohana, the Israel Police Seif Unit, which functions as a body of experts, advisers and developers of methodology. The branch was later opened in the Bennett administration.

Khalaily said that during Naftali Bennett’s and Yair Lapid’s administrations, with former national security minister Omer Bar Lev, former Lobby to Combat Violence in Arab Society chairman MK Yoav Segalovich and Lotan, there was great will to make a change, but they were limited.

However Lotan pointed to a 16% decrease in murders from 2021 to 2022, which he said was the first decline in the trend in several years. Violence in the Arab sector had been one of the top three priorities for Bennett, said Lotan.

The administration developed the “plan for combating the issue of violence in the Arab community.” The first part of this was an increase in police operations, which saw dozens of highly successful captures of weapons, drugs, and criminals.

Key to the increase in police activity was Safe Track, which Lotan said was led by former police officer Segalovich, which developed a working system between different government bodies. 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 modifications.

A NIS 30 billion five-year investment plan into the Arab sector was also included in the national budget. Lotan said that the success was cut short by the end of the government in 2022.

Lack of trust

Hadash-Ta’al issued a 12-point plan on Monday and asked to meet with Netanyahu. Netanyahu agreed as a first step to establish a special committee and a project coordinator on the issue.

“We need to put politics aside, remove partitions and work together to eradicate this criminal scourge,” said Netanyahu.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir also held a situational report with Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai and district commanders. He, like Netanyahu, announced on Monday that he would appoint a new project manager on the matter.

“I also intend to allocate enormous resources to this end by bringing police officers to the field, raising police salaries and establishing the National Guard,” said Ben-Gvir.

Despite this announcement, the minister was shunned by the Arab parties, which demanded that he not involve himself in the matter.

Khalaily said that trust is important to solving the problem – belief by the Arab communities in the government as a relevant and present authority, which could offer them an alternative to the gangs.

Many of the provisions of the Arab party plan were about establishing trust, starting with a government declaration of intent on the problem, the establishment of a dedicated committee on the issue headed by Netanyahu, and appointment of an official to coordinate with Arab local leaders and analyze current programs.

Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh said prior to the meeting on Monday that “in order to defeat the criminal organizations, trust is needed, and we have no trust in Ben-Gvir the racist.”

During the Monday meeting, the Arab representatives also raised the issue of reports that Shabtai had reportedly said in April that it was in the Arabs’ nature to kill each other – an indication that trust in the police is also an issue.

The police problem

Khalaily said that the police have two problems: They lack the tools to meet their missions, and they don’t have the will. This was a problem facing the previous government as well.

Lotan said that Ben-Gvir was creating chaos in the police and its ability to act on the crime issue. On Tuesday, when the head of the Seif Unit retired from service. Ben-Gvir attacked the move, saying that the superintendent was not successful in his mission long before he had taken office.

Also on Tuesday, Shabtai told the Knesset State Control Committee that the police lacked enough manpower to deal with another mass riot situation like during Operation Guardian of the Walls.

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. The police are not a present authority.

Going after guns

In the wake of the week’s killings, police raided multiple sites, arresting 13 suspects, taking two Carlo-type submachine guns, an AR-15 rifle, two pistols, three airsoft pistols, silencers and ammunition.

In March, a bill to give the police the ability to search houses for illegal weapons based on their suspicions was submitted by Otzma Yehudit and passed. The Northern District Police claimed on Monday that they had seized 340 weapons since the year began.

However the inability to clamp down on the illegal weapons trade was made abundantly clear with the theft of almost 30,000 rifle rounds from the Tze’elim Ground Forces training base in the Negev, though the cartridges were soon retrieved. Hadash-Ta’al called on the government, in one of its 12 demands, for the police and IDF to stop the flow of black-market arms.

Khalaily said that a great deal of weapons was being stolen or sold by IDF soldiers and police, as well as the Palestinian Authority security forces. Other sources were homemade weapons like Carlos, and smuggling from Israel’s neighbors.

“How can the IDF find workshops making weapons in Syria but can’t stop those making or selling weapons in Israel?” asked Khalaily.

Khalaily noted that weapons are only part of the problem, and the war approach taken by the government wouldn’t work alone.

Creating a future for Arab youth

“No government, not even the “change” [Bennett/Lapid] government, has addressed the fundamental issues,” said Khalaily.

These are the economic, housing and financial problems that grip the Arab community and are the basis for the authority of the crime organizations.

As part of their demands, the Arab parties called for a fund to forgive NIS 3 billion in black-market debts, the enhancement of banking services and mortgage approvals, and to quash the gray market.

Of great importance, said Khalaily, is to create a sense of belonging between the people, their towns, and community. The Arab parties called to create reform through rehabilitation programs for youth, and protection of municipal politicians from criminal organizations.

“A person who feels that he belongs to a place, to a community, won’t harm it,” said Khalaily.