Editor's Notes: Arab lives matter, too - comment

Arab lives matter, too, and unless Itamar Ben-Gvir comes to accept that, he needs to make way for someone who will.

 Relatives and friends take part in the funeral of Abdelrahman Kashua, director general of the Arab city of Tira in Israel, who was fatally shot as criminal violence surges in Arab communities, in Tira, Israel, August 23, 2023. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Relatives and friends take part in the funeral of Abdelrahman Kashua, director general of the Arab city of Tira in Israel, who was fatally shot as criminal violence surges in Arab communities, in Tira, Israel, August 23, 2023.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

Mohammed Abu Huwash was at his family’s home in the predominantly Bedouin city of Rahat in southern Israel one night in April when four armed men forced their way in and opened fire. Mohammed was hit and was pronounced dead by medics who arrived at the scene a short time later. He was 10 years old.

It later emerged that Mohammed’s family had been embroiled in a bitter dispute with another clan in the city, which escalated a day before the killing, when a truck belonging to one of the families hit several cars belonging to the other. Attempts to broker a peaceful resolution to the conflict failed and the situation devolved into stone-throwing and exchanges of gunfire. The police intervened, breaking up the fighting, but members of the opposing clan returned a few hours later and burst into Mohammed’s home in a hail of bullets, killing him and moderately wounding a 17-year-old relative.

Mohammed was the 47th member of Israel’s Arab community killed in an act of violence since the start of the year. According to the Abraham Initiatives, a Lod-based NGO that promotes equality and coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens and tracks violence in the Arab community, the murder rate in the community has more than doubled since the beginning of 2023.

The murder rate among Israeli Arabs continues to skyrocket

Some 111 Arab Israelis were murdered in the first half of the year, compared to 47 in the equivalent period in 2022. Nine out of 10 victims (89%) were killed by gunfire and nearly two thirds (64%) were under the age of 30. Only one in every 10 cases (10%) has been solved by police.

Over the past two months, the murder rate has continued to skyrocket. The quadruple murder in Abu Snan this past Tuesday brought the total number of violent deaths in the Arab community since the start of the year to 158, an average of more than one murder every two days and well above the total of 116 for all of 2022.

 Israeli police at the scene where 4 people were shot dead in Abu Snan, August 22, 2023. (credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Israeli police at the scene where 4 people were shot dead in Abu Snan, August 22, 2023. (credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

It is impossible to trace the killings to one specific cause, which is part of the reason why they have proven so difficult to stop. Hanan Abu Hait, a 24-year-old mother of a five-year-old boy, was shot to death in May while sitting in her car outside her Haifa home as part of what police believe is a feud between two local families. Sarit Ahmad, an 18-year-old girl from the Druze town of Kisra-Sumei, was shot dead after having been threatened for years due to her sexual orientation. Bara’ah Jaber Masarwa, 26, and her two young sons – two-year-old Amir and six-month-old Adam – were stabbed to death in their Taibe home, allegedly by her husband and the boys’ father.

The murder of Tira municipal director-general Abdelrahman Kashua and Abu Snan mayoral candidate Ghazi Sa’ad in two separate shootings earlier this week are viewed as having been political assassinations. Many of the murders have been tied to organized crime and disputes between criminal gangs and others have been classified as acts of revenge.

The issue is not a new one. Mothers for Life, an organization of bereaved mothers and families that seeks to combat violence and crime in Israel’s Arab community, notes that more than 1,500 Arab Israeli children have been orphaned by murders over the past decade and the rate of violent deaths has risen steadily. Of some 750 murders in Israel over the past four years, 70% of victims have been Arab Israelis, more than triple their proportion of Israel’s total population, which is around 21%.

Alarmed by the phenomenon, the previous government embarked on several efforts to curb the violence in the Arab community and allocated NIS 2.5 billion to fund them. The most notable element was an ongoing operation dubbed “Safe Track” and led by then-deputy public security minister Yoav Segalovitz, a former senior police official, which coordinated between the various law enforcement agencies and produced hundreds of raids and dozens of criminal indictments.

The government also opened a new branch of the Israel Police dedicated specifically to combating violent crime in the Arab community by utilizing intelligence to conduct in-depth investigations aimed at preventing criminal activity, establishing new police stations in predominantly Arab towns, and engaging in community outreach. It was headed by Deputy Commissioner Jamal Hakrush, the first Muslim Arab-Israeli police officer to reach that rank.

Finally, the government launched “Stop the Bleeding,” an innovative program developed in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which promoted a community-based approach to stemming the tide of violence and criminal activity in several Arab localities.

Remarkably, the government’s efforts seemed to work. The murder rate in the Arab community dipped in 2022 for the first time in years: 107 Arab Israelis were killed in acts of violence last year, compared to 126 in 2021, 109 in 2020, and 94 in 2019. Community groups applauded the government’s efforts, while stressing that they needed to continue in order to drive the violence down even further.

Enter Itamar Ben-Gvir. The former far-right activist and lawyer for suspected Jewish terrorists, who had campaigned on a platform that centered on restoring law and order and whose Otzma Yehudit party garnered six seats in the last election, demanded the public security portfolio in the coalition negotiations and was granted it over the fervent objections of a slew of critics throughout Israeli society. He renamed his new fiefdom the National Security Ministry and immediately set about rolling back many of the previous government’s policies.

Operation “Safe Track” was discontinued; eight months into the job, Ben-Gvir still has not appointed a deputy to oversee it. The Israel Police’s Department to Fight Crime in the Arab Community – which the police said had improved its engagement with the community and “played a significant role in bolstering the Israeli Arab community’s faith in the police” – was ordered shuttered. The “Stopping the Bleeding” program was shut down, reportedly because Ben-Gvir considers JDC to be a “leftist organization” (he has denied that, claiming that the American Jewish organization simply didn’t file the proper paperwork).

Meanwhile, the death toll in Israel’s Arab community is soaring, families are being shattered by near-daily acts of violence, and many of the country’s Arab citizens are living in fear.

“You had one job” is an expression, generally attached to an image of some kind of blunder, meant to highlight someone’s abject failure to do his or her job: a comically misspelled street sign, for instance, or a vending machine stocked in a way that prevents items from dropping to purchasers.

Ben-Gvir has one job: keeping the people of Israel safe. Not shutting down prisoner-run bakeries in prisons to prevent the prisoners eating homemade pita or limiting their shower time (as he has done), not undermining fellow ministers and endeavoring to release Jewish extremists suspected of murdering innocent Palestinians from custody (as he has also done), not going for strolls on the Temple Mount while grinning for the cameras (as he has done three times since entering office). His one and only job is keeping  the people of Israel – all the people of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike – safe, and he is failing miserably.

To be sure, there are multiple causes behind the violence in the Arab community, and they long predate Ben-Gvir’s tenure. Despite the police’s efforts, the community has little faith in law enforcement, stemming in part from the police’s aggressive response to 2,000 riots in which 12 Arab Israelis were killed and more broadly from a deep disconnect between Israel’s Arab citizenry and state institutions. Arab towns are awash with illegal firearms, some smuggled into Israel and others stolen from security forces. Infrastructure and services in predominantly Arab areas are lacking. Unemployment and poverty rates are comparatively high. Organized crime is rampant.

But while none of these factors can be pinned on Ben-Gvir, he has thus far failed to do what he can to stop the violence and has arguably caused even more damage to the fragile relationship between Israel’s Arab citizenry and the state: shutting down programs that work, pointing fingers at the previous government (under which the violence went down for the first time in years), and making outrageously offensive statements to the effect that the chance of the violence “spilling over” to Israel’s Jewish citizens poses a “greater threat” than the murder of Israeli Arabs – as he did just this past Wednesday, while families were burying their loved ones.

Arab lives matter, too, and unless Ben-Gvir comes to accept that and treat the murder of a boy in Rahat or Taibe as he would the murder of a boy in Karnei Shomron or Petah Tikva, he needs to make way for someone who will.