Is Israel really a safe country?

An examination of police statistics, comparison with other countries, and local opinions show how secure Israelis truly are.

 IN JERUSALEM: ‘Here I feel safer when walking around outside.’ (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
IN JERUSALEM: ‘Here I feel safer when walking around outside.’
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Walking down the streets of Jerusalem, one could be inclined to feel uneasy, with police officers on almost every corner and armed security guards at every government office or bank. But should this make us feel uneasy?

It is somewhat “common knowledge” that Israel is unsafe, at least when asking tourists or expats visiting Israel, but most Israelis don’t necessarily share that sentiment.

So is Israel safe or not?

Examining police statistics could help answer this question. One particular statistic that police departments use worldwide is crime per 1,000 citizens, which helps make clearer comparisons between regions or countries with sometimes massive differences in population.

In 2020, Israel had a standing rate of 30.4 crimes recorded per 1,000 citizens, including anything from petty theft to outright murder. That might sound like a lot, but how does it compare to other Western countries?

 Israel crime rate comparison, using official statistics from the countries mentioned. (credit: Roman Meitav) Israel crime rate comparison, using official statistics from the countries mentioned. (credit: Roman Meitav)

In England, for example, the same statistic from 2020 was 77.5 crimes per 1,000 citizens, and Germany had 63.8. Compared with countries such as these that are not thought to be as dangerous, Israel seems to actually be much safer.

Overall crime rates, however, may not accurately convey a projected feeling of safety. A rise in white-collar crime or computer offenses, for example, will likely have no real effect on how safe one feels on the street.

What is the murder rate in Israel?

A HIGH murder rate could be a better, more specific indication of how safe a country is. In Israel, the rate of murder/homicide in 2019 was 1.47 per 100,000 civilians. The US had a rate of 5.07, more than triple the amount.

European countries have much lower rates, however, with England standing at 1.12 murders per 100,000, Germany with 0.75, and Spain with 0.71. So when compared with European countries, Israel’s rate is more than double in some cases, which could indeed be a cause for concern.

For comparison, South American countries have numbers that could put Israeli statistics in perspective. Mexico had a whopping 26.6 murders per 100,000 citizens in 2019, followed closely by Brazil with 23.6.

Although the calculated number of murders per capita is indeed higher in Israel than in some European countries, this could be affected by several unique factors, such as a high murder rate in the Arab-Israeli sector and terror attacks, an issue European countries don’t have to deal with as much.

In 2019, seven people were murdered as a result of what the Defense Ministry defined as “terrorist attacks,” which would bring down the per-100,000 statistic by a mere 0.06 if excluded, hardly making a noticeable difference.

MURDER IN Israel is heavily represented by Arab society. According to police data, since the beginning of the year, 62 people have been murdered in Arab society countrywide. The police have solved only 12 murder cases in the sector so far this year.

Manar Hajjaj, 34, and one of her twin daughters, 14-year-old Hadra, were recently murdered in their car in Lod, in the latest crime-related Arab-sector killings.

They were shot dead under the residential building where they lived after returning from shopping at the supermarket, according to police reports. The girl’s twin sister, Miriam, was taken to Shamir Medical Center in moderate condition.

In another murder case, Nidal Aghbariya, an Arab journalist who ran the Bldtna news site, was shot in his car in Umm al-Fahm just a day earlier.

Although the situation looks grim, the police claim that the high number of murders in Arab society has decreased compared to the same time last year, when it stood at 67.

But the NGO Avraham Initiatives, which tracks cases of violence and murder in Arab society, claims that the actual number of murder victims so far in 2022 is 75. If this is true, it shows an alarming 12% increase from last year.

When compared to non-Arab victims, murders in Arab society make up about three-fourths of all murders in recent years, a very high percentage ranging between 73% and 78%, numbers calculated based on reports by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

The police attribute this decrease in the number of murders in the sector when compared to last year – from 67 to 62, according to their data – to Operation Safe Route, which set out to combat the high crime rate in Arab society. 

Police have achieved impressive achievements so far. They have foiled at least 39 assassination attempts in the Arab sector alone since the operation began, police spokesman Eli Levi told the Magazine, along with the seizure of 65,000 various firearms, munitions and armaments.

A total of 2,787 arrests have been made so far in Arab society alone as part of the police’s greater goal of combating crime, which until now has been left neglected in Arab communities, directly influencing the high murder rate, a statistic one can hope will decrease as the operation goes on.

Why do people feel safe in Israel?

IF ISRAEL has such a relatively high crime rate compared to European countries, why do people still feel safe on its streets – and, in some cases, safer than they felt before?

“Here I feel safer when walking around outside,” Katia, a Jerusalem resident who immigrated to Israel from the US several years ago, said. 

“Back in California, I would never walk around alone at night – it seemed unthinkable and felt really unsafe. Here in Jerusalem, though, I feel comfortable even walking home after a night out or getting into a taxi, without constantly worrying that something will happen to me.”

“Back in California, I would never walk around alone at night – it seemed unthinkable and felt really unsafe. Here in Jerusalem, though, I feel comfortable even walking home after a night out or getting into a taxi, without constantly worrying that something will happen to me.”

Katia

Another point that helps people feel safer, even if it takes some getting used to, is the heightened presence of security personnel in major cities.

In Jerusalem, for example, a city with many battle scars from terrorist attacks, one can’t walk more than a few minutes before spotting a police officer, Border Police officer, soldier, or armed security guard, especially in places with a high concentration of people like the light rail or the downtown bar area.

Border Police officers regularly patrol the downtown area day and night; riot police are stationed near nightlife areas when most people go out on the town in the evening; and there is a heightened police presence throughout the city during the morning and evening rush hours.

Some people may find so many armed security personnel intimidating at first, especially if one is coming from a country where this heightened security isn’t standard. But once you get used to this, it does have the intended effect of making people feel safer.

“When I first got to Jerusalem, the number of armed people freaked me out – I kept thinking that something had happened, it made me feel uneasy,” according to Peter, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem exchange student from Australia.

“We really don’t have anything like this in Australia – not even in major cities – so it definitely caught me off guard,” he said. “After living here for some time, though, I think I’ll feel odd when I go back home and there aren’t armed cops and security cameras everywhere. I’ve grown used to it; I think I’ll feel less safe otherwise.”

THE SECURITY situation in Israel is indeed complex, but as a country that has dealt with years of terrorist attacks – especially ones caused by “lone wolves” about whom there is almost no prior intelligence – security forces have adapted to meet the threat head-on.

In Jerusalem, a wave of “knife terror” occurred in 2015, a period that tested the collective mettle of Jerusalem security forces. But as a precaution against future events, the entire city’s security system received a boost: More forces overall were stationed around the city, security cameras were installed and the police presence was better felt.

A combination of adept security forces and the fact that murders are very sectorial in Israel explains what so many local Israelis feel – that despite everything, Israel feels like a safe place to be in. ■

The writer is The Jerusalem Post’s police affairs correspondent and former member of various Israeli security forces. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.