It’s criminal. And it’s tragic. Murders among Israel’s Arab sector last week surpassed the 100 mark since the start of the year. With a homicide figure like that in mid-June, this is going to be a very dark year no matter what happens in the next six months of 2023. The numbers aren’t going to drop. The dead victims aren’t going to magically come back to life. The cycle of attacks and revenge attacks is unlikely to stop even if it can be reduced. Every death avenged brings with it more bloodshed.
The numbers are alarming and the stories are heartbreaking. Families have been destroyed; communities, torn apart. Attacks have taken place in homes, in the streets, in playgrounds, schoolyards and workplaces, in broad daylight and at night. No one feels safe.
This week, Reshet Bet radio devoted the opening minutes of its Sunday midday news program to reading the names of the dead. Part of the tragedy is that although many of the victims are completely innocent – some of them bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time, or incidentally related to the “wrong” family – in other cases, the picture is murkier, as killers are themselves killed to avenge the murder.
The appalling statistics mark a huge jump from last year – and those were bad enough: 109 people were killed in the Arab sector in 2022 and many more were wounded. Only last Thursday, a three-year-old girl and her 30-year-old father were shot and seriously hurt in Kafr Kanna, for example. It’s likely that many attempted homicides aren’t even reported.
The background to the murders is varied: In some cases it stems from organized crime and loan sharks; in others, it is the result of clan warfare; and in too many incidents, it is the result of femicide, with family honor often cited as the warped justification.
Among the particularly shocking cases last week, was the shooting attack at a family-owned car wash in Yafia, near Nazareth, in which five men were gunned down, including a 15-year-old. The mayor described it as “a massacre.” Police believe the shooting is tied to a feud between the Bakri and Hariri crime families that has claimed at least 25 lives in the past two years. The victims’ families said that the attack was over a land dispute and not related to crime rings.
Also last week, Sarit Ahmed, an 18-year-old Druze woman, was murdered, apparently because she was openly lesbian. Although family members swore they did not know who would want to kill her, it soon became known that two of her brothers had served brief prison terms for threatening her.
The Arab community's approach
Many Arab leaders discussing the crime wave note that – unlike among the Jewish majority – most murders within the Arab sector remain unsolved. They often blame a lack of police motivation to act. But there is a problem that they’re more reluctant to acknowledge: People are too scared to cooperate with the police in case it makes them the next target and victim.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting with MKs from Arab parties. Ra’am (the United Arab List) led by Mansour Abbas declined to attend. The MKs from the joint Hadash-Ta’al list met with Netanyahu but had refused to talk to National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. All the Arab MKs are calling for Ben-Gvir to be removed from the ministerial post that oversees the police.
On Sunday, Netanyahu held an emergency meeting with ministers and others and called for the Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Agency) to be brought in to help tackle the violence. A bill to bring in the Shin Bet was rejected in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation due to opposition from Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara and from the Shin Bet itself. The attorney-general is apparently concerned about the legality of using on Israeli citizens the tools it employs to fight terrorism, while the Shin Bet appears to be worried that – apart from diverting manpower from the fight against terror – aspects of its work methods could be detrimentally revealed.
Those who oppose Shin Bet involvement say it runs the risk of appearing to turn the problem into an anti-terrorism issue as opposed to a domestic one, although there is a clear link between the accessibility of arms, crime and terror. Several Arab mayors have asked for Shin Bet assistance, believing that desperate times call for desperate measures. Using the security agency in the civilian sphere is rare but not unprecedented. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Shin Bet was employed to use phone surveillance systems to help track the spread of the virus and warn people in contact with confirmed coronavirus carriers.
Netanyahu has announced the establishment of a steering committee to draw up a multi-pronged plan to tackle what he described as “a scourge.” But the government’s actions need to be backed by cooperation from within the Arab community itself. For years, Arab MKs, mayors and community leaders railed against building police stations in Arab towns and villages and ostracized those who joined the Israel Police or other security forces. Police operating in the Arab sector have come under attack – physical attack – and police stations themselves have been damaged.
The sense of mistrust and the lack of deterrence is pervasive. This has to change. Scenes of Bedouin youth in the Negev driving wildly while shooting in the air should not be taking place. A week ago, journalist Ofra Lax narrowly escaped harm when a bullet fired in the air in Lod missed her by centimeters after it pierced her bedroom window. Agricultural theft and protection rackets have become a plague, affecting Arabs and Jews. No wonder the description “Wild West” is so often heard.
Not only political and social leaders need to speak out. Religious leaders must do so too. Murder is a sin in all religions, including Islam. Imams and other religious figures must use their influence to remind their followers that there is nothing glorious about taking a human life. There needs to be a return to honoring the “sulha” system, traditional mediation and conflict resolution. At the same time, care must be taken that using these communal efforts to end a feud does not mean that perpetrators of serious crimes would avoid facing justice in the civil justice system. Local lore and customs cannot supersede law and order. Incidentally, in the past known bigamists have served as MKs on Arab lists – lawmakers flagrantly violating the law unchallenged.
The crackdown on criminal gangs and protection rackets must come from within the community with backing from a greater police presence and actions. Schools need to address the issue, rather than avoiding discussing the murders. A program needs to be drawn up by educators, psychologists and other specialists – particularly from within the Arab community – educating against revenge killings and honor killings.
At the most basic level, local leaders, religious figures and ordinary caring citizens should let it be known, for example, that they won’t attend weddings where there is celebratory shooting in the air.
The previous government initiated the Safe Route program which proved to be a relatively successful effort to gather the illegally-held weapons, often stolen from IDF bases, which flood the Arab sector but it ended with the new government.
National Security Minister Ben-Gvir’s election campaign focused on returning “governance,” particularly in the Negev and Galilee, and he has repeatedly demanded to set up a National Guard, answerable to him, aimed at fighting crime in the Arab sector. He has a record of problematic statements, but that doesn’t mean all his suggestions for boosting police recruitment, pay and conditions are wrong.
It’s awkward. Focusing on the crime rate in the Israeli Arab sector is often dismissed as being racist. It’s not. On the contrary. The vast majority of Arab Israelis are law-abiding citizens. Their personal safety should be a basic right. It would be racist to ignore the galloping homicide rate among Arabs in a sort of “live and let die” approach.
There is no excuse for murder. It’s time to declare war on violence. That declaration must come also from within the Israeli Arab community, which is suffering from a form of domestic email@example.com