Arab violence: Root causes and red herrings

If difficult socioeconomic conditions in the haredi community have not produced the rampant crime that afflicts Arab society, why should poverty be assumed to be the culprit among Israel’s Arab citizens?

Israeli Arabs protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings in their communities, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northen Israel. Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Israeli Arabs protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings in their communities, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northen Israel. Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

“The homicide rate in Israel generally is low by international standards, but what has emerged in Israel’s Arab streets is an alternate universe of lawlessness, where residents can no longer leave their homes without fearing for their lives.” New York Review of Books, Dec. 4, 2019

“An Arab citizen of Israel is far more likely to get killed by a fellow Arab than by the Israeli police, and more Arabs have been killed by Arabs in Israel so far this year than have been killed by Israeli security forces in confrontations in the occupied West Bank. … The killing—not by Israeli soldiers but by Arab criminals—account for about 70 percent of all Israeli homicides, though Arabs represent just over 20 percent of the population.”  The New York Times, Oct. 2, 2021

The soaring Arab-on-Arab crime rate is becoming a major focus of media attention in Israel—and beyond. Indeed, in recent weeks, there is some mention of it on virtually every news broadcast, as well as frequent debates, across the full spectrum of current-affairs programs, diagnosing the purported causes and prescribing putative remedies for the violence pervading the Arab sector within the pre-1967 frontiers.

The rampant lawlessness in Arab towns and villages across Israel has been long known and long ignored, or at least long tolerated, for a variety of reasons. However, its recently accelerated rate of proliferation has created a perception that the wave of criminality could soon spill over into Jewish neighborhoods, particularly in the wake of the May 2021 rioting by Arab Israelis, in which Jews were assaulted—some, killed—and their homes and businesses vandalized, pillaged and torched.

Life for many Arab Israelis is becoming increasingly—almost intolerably—perilous. Even innocent bystanders, uninvolved in any criminal dispute, have become hapless “collateral damage,” being hit by stray bullets from nearby gunfights.

The number of homicides within the Arab community has spiraled in recent years—38 in 2016; 44 in 2017; 35 in 2018; 36 in 2019, about 97 in 2020 more than 100 so far this year. In contrast to this more than 250 percent increase in the Arab sector, the number of homicides among the Jewish population has remained relatively stable—typically under 40 per annum.

Arab-on-Arab crime underreported?

Nationwide, Arab-on-Arab homicides make up just more than 70 percent of the total homicides for the country, despite the fact that Arabs comprise little more than 20 percent of the population.

Indeed, an Arab citizen of Israel is far more likely to get killed by a fellow Arab than by the Israeli police, and more Arabs have been killed by Arabs in Israel so far this year than have been killed by Israeli security forces dealing with terror-related events in Judea-Samaria, which receive much greater attention.

In some areas, the statistics are even more perturbing. For example, in the north, 50 percent of the 1.3 million inhabitants are Arab Israelis. Yet according to police reports, 99 percent of the murders, 99 percent of the shootings, 65 percent of the arsons and 80 percent of the robberies are perpetrated by members of the Arab population.

As chilling as these statistics are, there is reason to believe that Arab-on-Arab crime is still underreported. Thus, according to Knesset Member Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist United Arab List—which is currently a member of the ruling coalition in Israel—violence extends far beyond the murders that make headlines in the mainstream media.

#Arab Lives Matter campaign

MK Abbas claimed, “Homicides are just one parameter in the violence: Attempts to gun down mayors, threats, extortion, blackmail, domestic violence, use of weapons in disputes.”

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising to learn that a Neaman Institute study on the proliferation of crime in Arab towns found that: For 80.3 percent of Arab Israeli citizens, “the most worrying phenomenon … is violence”; and “more than a third of Arab citizens (35.8 percent) feel personal insecurity in their communities because of violence”—almost 300 percent more than for Jewish Israelis.

The sense of despair and danger generated an “#Arab Lives Matter” campaign—in an evident attempt to mimic the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement in the United States. But there are two crucial differences between the two cases.

Firstly, unlike the BLM initiative in the United States, Israel’s Arab leaders are calling for increased—not decreased—police presence. Secondly, unlike the BLM case, in which the protest was against the use of lethal force against blacks by non-black (mainly, but not exclusively, white) police officers, in Israel, the opposite is true. The Arab protest is against the killing of Arabs at the hands of their own ethnic kinfolk, other Arabs, involved either in criminal activities or personal/family disputes.

Making matters more malignant?

The generally accepted diagnosis is that the primal cause for the pervasive violence in Arab-Israeli society is the relatively low socioeconomic conditions that prevail in it. Accordingly, the widely accepted prescription to remedy this malign malady is to throw money at it.

For example, in 2015 the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government initiated a move to invest heavily in Arab society in Israel. To this end, it adopted a five-year, multibillion-dollar plan, the “Economic Development Plan for Arab society in Israel for the years 2016-2020,” designated  Government Resolution 922 (GR 922). It called for increased resource allocation and investment in the Arab sector, with particular emphasis on education, public transport, infrastructure, housing, employment and public safety. It entailed an investment of almost $3 billion in Arab communities. In 2020, it was extended for a sixth year—adding an additional $0.5 billion for 2021.

But, almost paradoxically, the abundance of cash in the coffers of Arab communities seems to have created an increased incentive for intensified criminal activity.

According to one Arab lawyer, Rida Jabr, “Municipality heads were always targeted by criminal organizations. But since 922, as more money has been spent on local authorities, the local authorities have become a larger prize.”

Indeed, at least 15 Arab mayors were reportedly targeted by gunfire in 2019. Others had their cars set ablaze, Molotov cocktails thrown at their houses or had family members threatened. Thus, it seems that the sudden influx of cash has attracted the attention of organized-crime groups, which have attempted to muscle in on contracts for various development projects.

The efforts of criminal elements to profit from government funds—whether by winning tenders for new infrastructure or construction projects, or extortion of municipal personnel—should serve as a stern caveat for the current coalition, which has pledged between $15-18 billion to the Ra’am Party (Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List), its Islamist partner in the present government.

‘Police part of Israeli oppression’

While a case can be made for the claim that, for an extended period, the Arab sector has not been high on the list of priorities for the Israel Police, with only three police stations being built in Arab towns from 1948 to 2015, this reflected long-held preferences of the Arab leadership, both on the local and countrywide levels.

Thus, according to one study of policing in Israel: “Arab citizens didn’t want police there because they perceived them as oppressive, and police didn’t feel the need to be there because the community was policing itself.”

Despite the fact that Israel Police Deputy Commissioner Jamal Hakrush is a Muslim Arab, Arab leaders have discouraged young Israeli Muslims from enlisting in the police—as Christian Arabs and Druze do. In contrast to the ingrained Arab resistance to police presence in Arab towns, Hakrush maintains that “[y]ou simply can’t have law enforcement in the Arab sector without police stations.”

Perversely, Arab lawmakers who bewail police inaction oppose setting up police stations in Arab towns. Thus, Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, asserted: “More police stations are not necessary.” Another  Joint List parliamentarian (2015-2021), Yousef Jabareen, declared, “We see the police as part of the oppression mechanism in Israel.”

However, he also bemoaned that “the fact that the police [are] not doing [their] responsibility is another tool of oppression,” thus—incongruously—claiming that both police action and police inaction reflect “Israeli oppression.”

‘You won’t get out of here alive’

The work of the police in the Arab sector is further hampered by a history of a lack of cooperation from the Arab population. For example, witnesses refuse to talk to police, avoid calling the police to provide information and even tamper with evidence, such as surveillance footage, thus impeding investigations. According to the State Comptroller’s report, 44 percent of Arab citizens who were victims of crime did not even file police reports.

In addition to a lack of cooperation, police officers sometimes encounter violence when responding to calls or attempting arrests in Arab towns. Indeed, this month, police were assaulted by private security guards in Kfar Kassem, after responding to a report of a violent incident inside the town hall.  Moreover, an internal police report describes several other instances in which officers routinely found themselves in danger from organized anti-police violence in Arab towns—from angry mobs to gunfire on police stations, including in cases when they were responding to calls for help from local residents.

For example, in responding to a call in the town of Umm el-Fahm, police faced a mob shouting “You won’t get out of here alive.” Likewise, in the largely Arab-populated Wadi Ara (Iron Valley) area, an officer shot responding to a call from a resident was saved only by his bulletproof vest.

The socio-economic argument: Root cause or red herring?

A recurring grievance from Arab Israelis is that for decades they have faced systemic discrimination in housing, employment and education since the founding of the state. According to this claim, the lack of opportunities to earn a dignified living has made the Arab community fertile ground for the growth of organized crime.

While it is difficult to deny that there may be some truth in this allegation, it provides, at best, an extremely incomplete picture of reality.

Firstly, there is an apparent overstatement of the level of poverty that prevails in Israel in general, and in the Arab sector in particular. Thus, Nehemia Shtrasler, senior economic editor at the far-left daily Haaretz, wrote that World Bank research shows that Israel’s underground economy is one of the largest in the Western world, estimated at 23 percent of GDP.

Citing senior government sources, he pointed out that there is significant underreporting of income in the Arab communities, with actual poverty much lower than official figures suggest. Indeed, in 2018, according to Israel’s Central  Bureau of Statistics, the household expenditures of an Arab-Israeli family are systematically higher than those of a Jewish non-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) family with the same number of children due to unreported income.

Secondly, this inevitably means diminished tax revenue for Arab municipalities and a commensurately low level of services and amenities for the Arab residents.

Thirdly, despite accusations that they are subject to prejudice and suspicion from their Jewish counterparts, which diminish their chances for advancement and employment, Arab Israelis attend Israeli universities and other academic institutions in significant numbers, with a particularly steep rise in the last decade.

Likewise, they have a similarly marked presence in certain professions and industries, such as medicine, pharmaceutics and construction. Arab Israelis hold high-ranking positions in the judiciary—including the Supreme Court, in the diplomatic service, the police and the army.

It should be recalled that all this is despite the fact the 77 percent of the Arab population opposes the very foundational rationale for the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, frequently express—both in words and in actions—support for Israel’s most virulent enemies and vote, virtually en bloc, for parties that deny the Jewish character of Israel.

A poor explanatory variable

Accordingly, the socioeconomic predicament of Arab-Israeli society is a poor explanation for the widespread violence that pervades it. After all, haredi Jewish society is also afflicted with similarly low socioeconomic conditions. Both occupy the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in Israel, with official levels of poverty that are almost identical.

However, in both societies, it is their own cultural mores—large families, a single breadwinner—rather than systematic discrimination that accounts for much of the depressed economic levels in each.

Yet among the haredim, one does not encounter anything approaching the intra-communal violence or the amassing of deadly weapons that one finds among Israeli Arabs.

Accordingly, if difficult socioeconomic conditions in the haredi community are not caused by structural bias against it, nor have they produced the same rampant crime, why should this be assumed to be the case among the Arab Israelis?

So, while it is true that the violent crime wave in Arab-Israeli society cannot be ignored and requires greater and more muscular intervention by state authorities, it is a problem that is unlikely to be adequately addressed without some profound soul-searching by Arab Israelis themselves, and greater identification with the state in which they live and with the institutions whose protection they seek.

In the absence of such change, the current criminal surge could easily morph into inter-ethnic conflict and civil war.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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