Attitudes toward crime in Arab sector changing among Jews, Arabs - Analysis

The Twitter hashtag #Arab_Lives_Matter trended following a bloody two-day period of violence in the Arab sector.

 Murder scene in Rama where Education Ministry adviser Sahar Ismael was shot dead on Sunday, August 15, 2021.  (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE SPOKESMAN)
Murder scene in Rama where Education Ministry adviser Sahar Ismael was shot dead on Sunday, August 15, 2021.

“In the first 100 days in office I have done more than has been done in the last decades in dealing with crime in the Arab sector,” Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev wrote on Twitter on Tuesday evening.

Bar Lev was responding to the Twitter hashtag #Arab_Lives_Matter that was trending following a bloody two-day period of violence in the Arab sector that saw three Arab men and a volunteer Druze police officer killed.

While Bar Lev might be correct, and while it very well may be the case that he and the new government are dedicating more efforts than their predecessors in trying to fight crime in the Arab sector, the timing of his boast was curious. The best time to time to take credit for doing more than anyone in decades in fighting violence is probably not after four people were just slain.

But that was not what was most jarring about his tweet. What was – because of the sad truth it reflects – was this rather convoluted sentence: “Decades of neglect, disregard and fear of getting into the thick of the problems of the Arab sector, and the prevailing assumption that as long as they kill each other, then it is their problem.”

In other words, Israel’s public security minister was saying that for decades nobody really cared about Arab-on-Arab violence inside Israel, because it was deemed as “their’ problem. His point: this government no longer sees it as “their” problem, but as an Israeli one that necessitates budgets and manpower and focus.

 'Darkenu' activists protest the surge in Arab crime leading in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Tel Aviv during the #Arab_Lives_Matter movement, September 22, 2021 (credit: DARKENU) 'Darkenu' activists protest the surge in Arab crime leading in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Tel Aviv during the #Arab_Lives_Matter movement, September 22, 2021 (credit: DARKENU)

Bar Lev wrote that the “order of the world will not be overturned within 100 days,” and that anyone who believes that a decade of neglect can be solved in 100 days is living in fantasyland.

One of the most important parts of solving a problem is to diagnose it correctly, and Bar Lev’s diagnosis that for years Israelis viewed violence in the Arab sector as an Arab problem that did not impact them was as spot-on as it was sad.

Just like much of white America pays little attention to crime plaguing minority neighborhoods in the inner cities because it does not affect them, so too Israeli Jews have not gotten too worked up over the years by murders in places like Taiba and Rahat because it doesn’t impact them directly.

In 2020, there were 141 murders in Israel, with 97 of them (69%) taking place in the Arab sector – which makes up just over 20% of the population. This is a steep increase from 2014, when there were 88 murders in the country, 58% of which took place in the Arab sector. So far this year 89 Arab Israelis have been killed.

As the murder rate in the Arab sector has steadily risen, and as it far outstrips the crime rate in the Jewish sector, the media has gradually awakened to this being a societal plague that needs to be dealt with.

Headlines like “Enough,” and long discussions on radio shows devoted to the core causes of violence in the Arab sector now regularly accompany stories of murders in Arab towns and villages, be it gang warfare or so-called honor killings. And this media attention is a relatively new phenomenon.

Though one would like to think that this is because of a recognition that every life has value, there is a “pragmatic” element at play here as well: the understanding that if the Arab cities are awash in illegal arms, if there are rampant gangland murders in the Arab sector, it is just a matter of time before that spills over into the Jewish sector as well.

The violence that rocked the mixed Jewish-Arab cities during the summer’s fighting in Gaza served as a wake-up call on the need to go after illegal arms on the Arab street.

Much was written and discussed last year with the outbreak of corona, about the inability of the state to extend its authority on matters of health to the haredi and Arab sectors. This, it was argued, demonstrated the weakness of the state. But that was child’s play compared with the state being unable or unwilling – or both – to extend its authority and provide basic security to large swaths of the population.

As Taiba Mayor Sha’a Mansour Massarwa said in a Kan Bet interview on Wednesday, when the state loses its authority and deterrence over an entire sector of the population, that constitutes failure.

A major change that has gradually taken place, one reflected in Bar Lev’s tweet, is the realization that turning a blind eye to the violence because it is happening “over there” is no longer a solution, and that the state has a responsibility to provide basic security for all its citizens. While that may seem like a no-brainer, it actually reflects a gradual and important attitudinal shift.

This change of attitude has been reflected in a pledge by the current government to tackle the problem, pouring budgets and devoting manpower to it.

Last month Prime Minister Naftali Bennett inaugurated a new police unit whose job definition was to “restore safety” in the Arab sector, and his government plans to allocate NIS 2.4 billion over five years to fight crime there. Bennett said it was “intolerable” that Arab society accounts for 60% of the nation’s crime.

But law enforcement is only part of the problem – crime in the Arab street needs to be tackled holistically. In addition to greater law enforcement, in addition to using the state’s vast security and intelligence capabilities to go after the illegal arms and fight the gangs, an equally determined effort needs to be undertaken to battle unemployment, and to create opportunities for Israeli-Arab youth so that when they finish school, they are not lured into crime because of a lack of opportunity.

Changes in attitudes are also taking place in the Arab sector. While Israeli-Arab leaders previously deflected any responsibility for crime within Arab society, there is now a growing awareness that rather than blame the state for the level of violence in their communities, they should actually cooperate with the state’s institutions to help combat it.

Massarwa backed something that had long been taboo: working with all the arms of the state – including the General Security Services (Shin Bet) – to combat the problem.

“I am in favor of using all the means to bring about an end to the bloodletting, including the Shabak,” he said. “The sector is bleeding already now for many years... it is impossible to continue like this.”

Fadi Maklada, one of the organizers of the #Arab_Lives_Matter protest that took off over the last few days on social media, said in another radio interview that the Arab leadership has to make the fight against crime on the Arab street possible, and not erect obstacles, as it did in the past by opposing the establishment of new police stations in Arab communities. 

“We need to take some unpopular steps that go against the base,” he said, “because people are dying every day.”