When Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett toured southern Israel last week, it was ostensibly for the purpose of observing the fight against crime in Arab communities. A quick look at his schedule revealed that he was not going to visit any Arab cities or villages or meet anyone in the relevant areas. Criticism was quick to follow.
The stop he made near Rahat, Israel’s only Bedouin city, in order to overlook the city, was perhaps indicative of the policy Bennett’s government has adopted. Bennett did not enter Rahat.
The prime minister really disappointed and frustrated us. By not entering, he treated us like we are an exterritorial city
“The prime minister really disappointed and frustrated us,” said Fayez Abu Sahiban, the mayor of Rahat, “By not entering, he treated us like we are an exterritorial city. This is very dangerous. In one minute, he took us back to square one.”
Abu Sahiban is a member of Ra’am, the Arab, Islamist party that made history by joining Bennett’s coalition earlier this year. The party received 3.79% of the vote in the 2021 election; it represents only a fraction of Israel’s Arab community, which comprises about 20% of Israel’s total population.
The new government approved a five-year plan called “Takadum” (progress) that allocated billions of dollars to tackle a wide range of issues facing the country’s Arab sector.
“After many years of neglect in which crime reached intolerable proportions, we decided: We are going from defense to offense,” Bennett announced during the visit.
“We hope that the government will live up to its commitments,” Abu Sahiban told The Media Line, “The five-year plan is good for Arab society.”
But when Bennett decided to skip visiting Arab cities, many saw it as a signal of different intentions.
Bennett chose to project security to Jews and not to Arabs. The whole approach to tackling crime and violence in Arab society has only come after it started spilling over into Jewish areas, not because they want to help Arabs feel safe
“It means that there is really no change,” said Maisam Jaljuli, co-chair of Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab nonprofit organization aimed at promoting equality and partnership. “This shows an unwillingness to listen, even though they say they want to solve the problem.”
The national budget, which was passed in parliament last month, includes massive funding for a variety of needs in the Arab community. Bennett and other cabinet ministers have repeatedly said fighting violence is a top priority.
In the months that have passed since the government was formed, there has been little change and a lot of disappointment. Bennett’s bird’s-eye-view visit of the South was to many a slap in the face and an indication of how the government plans to tackle the problem – without Arab participation.
“Bennett chose to project security to Jews and not to Arabs,” said Jaljuli, “The whole approach to tackling crime and violence in Arab society has only come after it started spilling over into Jewish areas, not because they want to help Arabs feel safe.”
In May, when Israel fought a war against Hamas in Gaza, internal violence between Jewish and Arab citizens erupted. Many were surprised, but to those aware of the issues facing Arab Israelis, it was not a big shock.
Arab citizens of Israel face widespread discrimination. They have formal equality – such as the right to vote and be elected to parliament – but their daily lives are considerably different from those of the Jewish majority.
Arab cities and villages are markedly neglected, with lagging infrastructure and run-down schools. Arab Israelis have a lower participation rate in the workforce, fewer opportunities, and lower salaries on average than Jewish Israelis. They are a significant presence in some professions, such as medicine and academia, but underrepresented in many fields, such as high-tech, and often feel alienated from national politics and the mainstream media.
Relatively high rates of unemployment are a recipe for growing violence.
The new Israeli government, which took office in June of this year, made history with the first participation by an independent Arab party in the ruling coalition. There was hope that things would change.
But for now, crime and violence are soaring. This has been inadequately dealt with for years.
According to data collected by the Abraham Initiatives, a nongovernmental organization that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence, 119 Arab Israelis have been killed in violence since the beginning of 2021.
Last month, the Israel Police revealed a yearlong massive undercover operation that resulted in the confiscation of dozens of weapons and the detention of over 70 illegal arms dealers in Arab cities in the country’s North. It was undoubtedly a dramatic event by a police force that had a reputation for largely neglecting to enforce the law in Arab communities, but it made only a minor dent in the overall problem.
Mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel are undergoing a gentrification trend: Real estate prices have skyrocketed and made homeownership for Arabs, especially the younger generation, unattainable. Jewish-majority cities are even more expensive and many neighborhoods are practically off-limits to Arab residents. The resulting housing crisis is a primary catalyst for violence, especially in southern Israel.
“This is our biggest challenge,” said Abu Sahiban. “It is an acute and very difficult problem that causes 90% of the violence in my city. I have people living in two-story tin shacks or more than 20 people living in a 100-square-meter home!”
Illegal construction is rampant in Arab population centers, after years in which the regional and national authorities failed to approve construction plans or allocate lots for housing. Many illegally built houses use only inadequate, makeshift connections to the country’s electric grid and water system. Crowded homes cause friction, which can lead to sometimes-lethal domestic violence. Altercations with authorities that come to enforce property laws are another source of friction.
The coalition has stalled a contentious bill that would allow illegally built houses to be properly connected to water and electricity. Despite Arab representation in the government, resistance within the coalition will likely torpedo the bill, which is critical to many Arab households.
Another pressing issue is the widespread use of gray-market loans in order to afford housing. This also often leads to crime and violence. There are fewer banks in Arab population centers. A recent interministerial committee plan to offer state-sponsored guarantees on loans for Arabs faces stiff opposition by the Finance Ministry. Without such guarantees, Arabs are less likely to apply for mortgages and banks are less inclined to grant them.
When Bennett spoke about taking the offensive, he mainly referred to beefing up police forces and extending the power of law-enforcement authorities.
“The current government only talks about using force … but they don’t delve into the issues. They are only dealing with the surface and how things look,” said Jaljuli. “In the short run, using more force might stop part of the violence, but pressing issues such as education, infrastructure, poverty, and social services need to be dealt with and solutions need to be found together.”
“We are being treated as enemies, not partners,” she lamented.
The problems are known to all; so are some of the solutions.
“The government has still not made the decision to really deal with the issues,” said Jaljuli. “Everyone understands the problems and recognizes the discrimination; there simply is no will.”
Abu Sahiban hopes Bennett will return to Rahat and see the city from the inside. He is not giving up, still wanting to give the prime minister a chance and hoping for a better future.
“We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said.