Editor's Notes: Enough with the murder on Arab streets

Ayman Odeh (C) prays at the funeral of the brothers killed this week in Majd el-Kurum. (photo credit: JOINT ARAB LIST)
Ayman Odeh (C) prays at the funeral of the brothers killed this week in Majd el-Kurum.
(photo credit: JOINT ARAB LIST)
Majd el-Kurum looked like a ghost town on Thursday. The main street in the Upper Galilee village was empty of the throngs of shoppers usually hustling in and out of its many stores ahead of the weekend. Instead, a few cats played with some garbage as a bicycle brushed by carrying two young boys, one pedaling, the other dangling from the front bar.
The village was on strike to protest the murder two days earlier of brothers Ahmed and Khalil Mana, shot in the middle of the day outside their home. Why were they killed? According to some of the villagers I spoke with on Thursday, they owed the suspected shooter – a known village resident – a few thousand shekels.
The double homicide sparked national outrage and brought the death toll of Israeli-Arab murders since the beginning of the year to 71, putting 2019 on track to break previous records – in 2018, 75 people were killed in the Arab sector, and 72 in 2017. Since Tuesday, demonstrations have been held in Arab communities in the North, and in solidarity, the 13 newly elected members of the Joint List boycotted the Knesset inauguration on Thursday afternoon.
One of the few people out on the street on Thursday morning was Mahmoud, the 30-year-old owner of a small vegetable store. Most of his customers come from the village but also from the Jewish city of Karmiel right across Road 85, the highway that slices the North from the Mediterranean to the Kinneret. The two towns have co-existed for decades. But now, after the murder, Mahmoud is certain that his Jewish customers will stop coming.
What needs to happen, I asked, for the situation to change?
Mahmoud told me about a nighttime robbery that took place at a store in Karmiel a few months ago. The robber came from Majd el-Kurum, and by noon the next day he was already in police custody.
“On the other hand, look at what happened on Tuesday,” he continued. “The two brothers were shot, it took almost an hour for an ambulance to come, and five hours for the police to come, and still today [Thursday], the shooter has not yet been arrested.”
Because the shooting took place in the middle of the day, everyone, Mahmoud said, knows who he is. “The police also do but so far they haven’t done anything,” he claimed.
Down the block is Jabal Jafar’s small kiosk, which he has run for the last 40 years. While the sign on the door said closed, Jafar kept his store open. Even people on strike need fresh milk and cigarettes.
He pointed across the street at a new five-story building with an Israeli flag fluttering from the roof. It is the new police station, one of seven the government has opened in Arab villages over the last two years as part of an effort to stop the surge in violence.
“Where are the police?” he asked. “They know where the guns are and they know who the criminals are. Why aren’t they doing anything?”
After 71 murders – Arab murders usually constitute 60% of annual homicides in Israel – Jafar’s question is being asked by many Israelis, Jews and Arabs.
There is no clear answer. Even Arab leaders recognize that change is needed in their community. There is a problem with the education system; a lack of frameworks for post-high school kids; high unemployment and poverty; a culture that tolerates violence; and a society that sometimes dismisses the rule of law, even basic driving rules like wearing a seat belt.
To this add the disenfranchisement many Israeli-Arabs feel about the state, a sentiment that is not new and has been boiling inside the community for decades.
Recent examples include legislation like the Nation-State Law that downgraded Arabic, as well as statements like “Arabs are coming out to vote in droves” by politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu makes it clear he doesn’t want us here, so why would he have the police do their job to fight crime in our community?” Jafar asked.
While his question is valid, it seems that there might be an opportunity for change. Two weeks ago, Ayman Odeh’s Joint List recommended Benny Gantz to the president as the man best suited to form the next government. It was the first time an Arab party had done so in 25 years. Odeh added that he is willing to sit in a future coalition if his list of conditions is met, including a police crackdown on crime.
When it comes to fighting crime, the police are trying, but even senior officers admit that more needs to be done. In 2016, the police established a special administration to improve police services throughout the Arab sector. Appointed to head the administration was Jamal Hakroush, who made history as the first Arab Muslim to attain the high rank of deputy commissioner.
I CAUGHT up with Hakroush on Wednesday, a day after the double homicide in Majd el-Kurum.
“I am deeply troubled,” he said. “I am the head of the administration and I am a senior police officer, but I am also an Arab citizen of this country. And what is happening hurts me twice: as an Arab because of what is happening to my community, and as a police officer since what we are doing is not achieving the results we want to see.”
As an example, he listed the number of Arabs arrested (almost 3,000) since the beginning of the year for possessing illegal weapons, as well as the number of weapons confiscated (almost 4,000) from Israeli-Arab homes. The problem, he admitted, is that when you combine those numbers with the establishment of seven new police stations in Arab villages over the last two years, you still end up with an increase in the number of murders.
“The quantities are not the answer,” Hakroush explained. “It is the ease with which people use the weapons and the lack of respect for the value of human life. We need to be able to say unequivocally that the value of human life is greater than anything else, and we are simply not there yet.”
When he received his promotion, the police went on a PR blitz explaining that Hakroush would be reaching out to the Arab community, working to increase cooperation with the police, and recruiting Israeli-Arab into its ranks.
Three years later, he said that a cultural revolution needs to take place within the Arab community.
“People need to learn to respect the rule of law as opposed to the rule of the hamulot,” he said of the custom to adhere to the rules of the clans, the dominating force in any Arab village. “The concept of ‘Family Honor’ needs to be erased. Honor and murder can never go together.”
Civil rights activists Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa-based Mossawa Advocacy Center, agrees with Hakroush, but believes that ultimately the state wants Arab violence. That way, he claims, Israeli-Arabs will not have the appetite to voice nationalistic aspirations.
“Netanyahu wants us out of the political discourse,” he said.
Farah would like to see the government establish an inter-ministerial committee that tackles the violence holistically, in education, culture, on the roads, in businesses and more.
He gave as an example a law that the Knesset passed a few years ago limiting the use of cash in business transactions. The law was passed as part of an effort to combat money laundering, but it didn’t take into account that Israeli-Arabs work mostly in cash due to the difficulty they encounter getting mortgages or small business loans.
“The law simply increased the use of the black market among Arabs,” he said. “It increased the cycle of crime and violence.”
So, I asked Farah, is there a political decision to not fight crime in the Arab sector?
His answer was clear.
“When the police wanted to fight organized crime in Netanya, they went in and broke it up,” he said. “They know how to use force, and they know how to stop protests. What they are lacking now is political will.”
Ola Najami-Yousef, director of the Safe Community Initiative at Abraham Initiatives, completely agrees. More police is a step in the right direction, she told me, but it will not be enough.
Najami-Yousef lives in Nazareth. About 18 months ago, she said, a pharmacy down the block from her house was robbed. The butcher next door tried to help the sales clerks and called the police. Ever since, she said, shots are fired at the butcher shop almost every single day at the same time.
“We don’t have to look at a clock to know that it is 5 p.m.,” she explained. “All we have to do is wait for the gunfire. My children know that between 4 and 5 o’clock there is no going out to the balcony.”
Do the police know about this, I asked?
Of course, she said. “We call and report it but they don’t do anything because they don’t care.”
The solution, she said, is like what the government did to help solve the problems facing the Ethiopian immigrant community in Israel.
“Police enforcement is not enough on its own, just like education will not be enough on its own,” Najami-Yousef said. “We need a systematic approach that will require the entire government to get involved and to be at the table.”
Israel’s Arabs, Najami-Yousef concluded, are not going anywhere. “We will continue to be here,” she said. “We have to find a way to live together.”
She couldn’t be more right.