Five hundred and eleven Israeli Arabs were killed in Israel between 2018-2022, according to statistics provided by the Knesset's National Security Committee last month. In the current year alone, the number of Israeli Arabs murdered has reached 102.
Astoundingly, this means that within the first six months of 2023, nearly 20% of the total fatalities from the five-year period of 2018-2022 have already occurred.
That is why there is an outcry. That is why KAN Reshet Bet dramatically devoted the first four minutes of its noon newsreel on Sunday to simply reading the victims' names. That is why there is a push now led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to let the Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency) get more involved in fighting crime in the Arab sector.
Addressing the rampant murders in the Arab sector, Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting that he "insists on bringing in the ISA immediately" to confront the problem. "Only this way will we be able to reverse the trend quickly and provide a response to Israel's Arab citizens who are hoping for the restoration of law and order in their lives," he said.
Netanyahu, however, should be careful about raising false expectations. As he surely knows well, there are no quick fixes.
There are no quick fixes in bringing down crime in the Arab sector, just as there are no quick fixes in stopping terrorism or even bringing down the cost of living. Problems of this proportion are not solved with one magic wand or a single silver bullet. Rather, it will take a series of steps—a holistic program—to bring crime in the Arab sector down to, say, where it was in 2006 when there were "only" 64 murders in the Arab sector the entire year.
As the violence spiraled out of control in 2021, the Bennett-Lapid government placed bringing down crime in the Arab sector as one of its top priorities. It budgeted some NIS 2.5 billion for the task and drew up a holistic approach to tackle the issue.
The plan, called Safe Track and under the responsibility of the then deputy public security minister Yoav Segalovitz, included steps aimed at dismantling organized crime, targeting the sources of funds for organized crime, cracking down on arms smuggling, strengthening governance in the Arab sector, and building trust and increasing cooperation with Arab local authorities.
Segalovitz said in an interview after interview that this would take time and that success could not be judged by a stopwatch. Nevertheless, the program showed some promising signs, and by the end of 2022, the murder rates in the Arab sector had dropped by some 13%.
That trend has since reversed itself, and since the new government was sworn in — with Itamar Ben-Gvir, someone the Arab leadership will not cooperate with because of previous provocative actions and racist comments, as national security minister —the numbers have soared. As a result, this government, rather than adopting what was working, albeit slowly, under the last government, is now looking for a quick-fix solution.
Bring in the Shin Bet, the thinking goes, and the problem disappears.
Using a tool for fighting Israel's enemies against Israeli citizens
Bringing the Shin Bet into the picture can be one element, but it needs to be done extremely carefully because the tools used to fight the enemies of the state—which is the Shin Bet's raison d'être—should not be the same used against Israeli citizens.
Israel has long been a laboratory for balancing security considerations against civil liberties, at times—for the sake of national security—sacrificing certain civil rights to ensure national security. It has always been a careful balancing act, and using an organization to fight crime whose primary function is intelligence gathering and counterterrorism must be weighed carefully for the ramifications this has on individual civil liberties.
Should the same surveillance and interrogation methods the Shin Bet is permitted to use to combat those intent on blowing up Israelis in the streets be used against Arab organized crime families waging war in Lod, Nazareth, and Umm el-Fahm?
An indication of how bad things have become is that certain Arab mayors favor turning the fight over to the Shin Bet. At the same time, and somewhat counterintuitively, several voices have been anonymously raised inside the Shin Bet as opposed to their getting involved in fighting the gangland violence. Why is this counterintuitive? Because generally, bureaucracies jump at the opportunity of expanding their reach.
Opposition to the move inside the Shin Bet stems from concern that this will divert the Shin Bet from its primary purpose, which is counterterrorism, and it will expose some Shin Bet methods and technology, which is something the organization is loath to do.
That there is suddenly a wave of calls for the Shin Bet to get involved is a recognition that the police are not up to the job. That, however, is not entirely fair since the job is massive and the soaring crime results from numerous factors the police can't control, and not only those—such as arms smuggling—which it needs to fight much more effectively. Among these other factors are high levels of poverty in the Arab sector, rampant unemployment, changes the Arab family is undergoing, a lack of government investment in Arab communities, societal apathy, and reluctance among Arabs to cooperate with the police—all issues that need long-term solutions and problems that cannot be solved immediately.
But one step that can be taken immediately is to call up border police reserves to patrol particularly hard-hit spots in the Arab community. At a time when one murder follows the next in chilling rapidity, the presence of border police on the street would provide a sense of security and might provide deterrence.
The skyrocketting murder rate in the Arab sector shows that, at present, there is no deterrence, and the crime families appear to have no compunction about killing, partly because they do not fear paying the price. And this lack of fear has good cause.
Yediot Ahronot reported Sunday that only 12 of the more than 100 murder cases in the Arab sector this year have been solved. Moreover, last month the Knesset was told that only 29% of the murders in the Arab sector were solved between 2018-2022, as opposed to 69% of murders where the victim was a Jew.
Another step that could be taken immediately in fighting the wave of murders is to begin rebuilding the police force. As former deputy police commissioner Zohar Dvir said in a Kan Bet interview on Sunday, while Israel's population has about doubled in the last 50 years, the size of the police force has only increased by some 20%.
Netanyahu, at Sunday's cabinet meeting, boasted that governments he has led added 10 police stations in the Arab sector. That is good, but the problem is that there are not enough people to operate those—and other—police stations around the country.
The police are facing a severe manpower shortage—more are leaving the force than are entering. One reason is the salaries: the starting salary of a police officer is around NIS 7,000 per month—not the type of pay that will entice recruits into what is a thankless job with horrible hours.
Rather than building a new organization—the National Guard—which Ben-Gvir has made a top priority, the country would be better served at this time by using those resources to bolster an institution already in place but in desperate need of funding and manpower: the police.