Criminals caused millions of dollars in damages to Israeli farmers over the course of 2022, preliminary data from the HaShomer HaChadash organization shows.
Stolen tractors, entire wheat fields set on fire and theft of crops and produce are just some of the many agricultural crimes plaguing Israel’s farmers.
Overall, there were 186 agricultural crimes reported by HaShomer HaChadash last year, which is slated to publish its latest report in the coming weeks. Of those, 108 filed an official complaint with police. In total, the incidents account for an estimated $3.78 million in damages.
Most of the crimes took place in the Negev, Galilee and Jordan Valley regions.
“In Israel, farmers are suffering from at least $25,000 damage each on average every year,” Yoel Zilberman, founder and CEO of HaShomer HaChadash, told The Media Line. “It means that someone comes and steals what they grow. Many times, it’s ATV trucks and other types of equipment that are getting stolen.”
The stated goal of the HaShomer HaChadash organization is to safeguard Israel’s lands and raise awareness about agricultural crime. Beyond a belief in Zionist ideals, Zilberman says that the organization is apolitical and includes Jewish, Christian and Muslim volunteers from all walks of life among its ranks.
According to Israel’s Border Police and data published by the State Comptroller’s Office in 2017, most agricultural crimes are perpetrated by organized crime groups, with many originating in the Palestinian Authority.
“In many places, the idea is to push the farmer to abandon their land,” Zilberman said. “Some are [doing so] from a mafia point of view, others for nationalistic reasons. It’s something that farmers all over the Negev and Galilee are suffering from.”
HaShomer HaChadash’s 2021 Crime Report, which was published earlier last year, showed that farmers experienced 6.6 criminal incidents each on average over that year. The survey included 412 respondents from all over the country, both Jewish and Arab.
The most common crime was petty theft, followed by vandalism. The cattle, sheep and goat industry suffered the most damage in 2021, amounting to 23 crimes per farmer annually on average.
“The farmers in Israel are a small group of people who are in charge of the country’s food security,” Zilberman said. “It doesn’t matter – Jewish, Muslim or Christian – they are feeding the people of Israel. In many [cases], those whose crops are getting damaged are not Jews, they are Arabs. There are at least 25,000 Palestinians that come to work in Israel in agriculture every year.”
Roughly 39% of farmers did not report criminal incidents to the police, the report said, noting that many respondents cited a lack of trust or confidence in the authorities to effectively resolve the issue.
Border Police Commander Eli Gozlan, who is involved in intelligence and investigations, told The Media Line that 2022 saw a decrease in “reported crimes” overall.
“This year we’ve seen a 23% decrease in reported incidents,” Gozlan said. “Underreporting is a very complicated issue.”
The issue of agricultural crimes going unreported is not unique to Israel and also occurs in other countries, Gozlan noted. One of the reasons for this is that it is exceedingly difficult to nab the perpetrators of such crimes and cases are therefore closed fairly quickly without resolution.
Because of this, farmers are generally more reluctant to lodge a complaint with police.
“We are trying very hard to strengthen farmers’ trust in us,” Gozlan said, adding that he thinks that the process of investigating agricultural crimes is cumbersome and lengthy and that those found guilty should be forced to pay fines quickly.
One of the primary challenges is that the Border Police simply does not have enough officers to cover such a wide territory.
“In the past year and a half or two, we’ve increased our manpower and established units in rural areas made up of volunteers and reserves in order to respond to farmers,” Gozlan said. “At the same time, it’s not enough because we’re unable to reach every place. Rural areas make up 85% of Israel’s land. To be able to get to these places we need significantly more police officers, means and capabilities. So, what we have is not enough.”
Zilberman echoed those sentiments and noted that the HaShomer HaChadash is lobbying the government to double the police force as well as boost recruitment efforts. The organization also is pushing for lawmakers to increase investments in the agricultural sector and educate the public about the importance of farming for Israel’s national security.