When do criminal gangs cross the line into terrorist organizations? -analysis

A criminal gang from the Arab community in Northern Israel recently assassinated a local council candidate, leaders of the nearby Druze community want it to be considered terrorism.

 Police at the scene of a shooting in Tira. August 22, 2023 (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
Police at the scene of a shooting in Tira. August 22, 2023
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

Arab sector criminal violence crossed a “red line” with the assassination of the Tira municipality director-general, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday — and based on Netanyahu and other political responses, the realm that these gangs may have crossed into is that of terrorism.

Abed Al-Rahman Kashu’s murder was followed closely by the killing of local council presidential candidate Ghazi Saab in Abu Snan on Tuesday night. 

Before the second murder of an Israeli politician in as many days, Netanyahu described Arab Israeli citizens as living under “internal terrorism.”

Netanyahu wasn’t the only leader to describe the recent events as terrorism. Israeli Druze leader Skeikh Mowafaq Tarif said that the murder of Saab was an act of terrorism — like Netanyahu, he also said that it crossed all “red lines.”

Terrorism is a word often employed in political rhetoric to impart the emotional gravity of an incident, but while there is no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism, there are a few generally agreed-upon characteristics.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG with Druze spiritual leader Mowafaq Tarif (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG with Druze spiritual leader Mowafaq Tarif (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Terrorism is described by Reichman University professor Boaz Ganor as the deliberate targeting of civilians with violence by a non-state actor in order to achieve political goals.

The criminal gangs that have risen to power most certainly are using violence against civilians, no doubt having killed many among the number of the 150 people slain in the Arab sector since the year began.

The major challenge to the assertion that Arab Israelis are the targets of terrorism is the motivation of the criminal groups.

The targets, political figures, may suggest political motivation, but it is just as likely that it was financial — They may have been men who would have interfered with their business.

Criminal gangs have infiltrated local councils

Yet Netanyahu and National Unity MK Benny Gantz seem to have indicated in their statements on the recent events that there was concern that the criminal groups were seeking control of local authorities. This could be considered a political enterprise. Indeed, police announced on August 14 that they arrested a local council head from Ramesh who had been part of a crime family.

Until the police investigation into the motivations for the attack will be fruitful, it is difficult to know if the line into terrorism has truly been crossed.

In the meantime, calling these events “internal terrorism,” may be more than just rhetorical flourish — it may be practical. 

By casting the criminal gangs as terrorists, the Israeli government can activate the Shin Bet. Criminals may not be the province of responsibility of the Shin Bet, but terrorists are. Coalition and opposition members have called for the agency to be used to combat the crime wave, and on Wednesday morning it was announced that they would be investigating the Abu Snan assassination.

The line that has been crossed may have been the limits of the government’s patience with the police’s ability to address the problem alone.