Ahmad Hijazi, a 22-year-old nursing student, was killed in the crossfire during a gun battle between police and suspected criminals in northern Israel last week.
Hijazi, who is from Tamra in the Lower Galilee, was studying for an exam with his friend and neighbor Dr. Mohamed Armoush when they heard the sound of bullets and went outside. Armoush told Nas Radio, a local radio station broadcast from Nazareth, that they were both caught in what he described as a “battlefield.”
Hijazi was killed. Armoush was wounded by a bullet in his lower right leg.
In the wake of Hijazi’s death, thousands of angry protesters have been demonstrating throughout Arab towns and cities against rampant crime, accusing the police of failing to put an end to the skyrocketing murder rate and out of control criminal gangs.
In recent years, there has been a steep rise in crime and violence in Arab communities.
According to the police, 113 murders took place in Arab communities in Israel in 2020, making it the deadliest year yet.
So far in 2021, 17 Arab citizens of Israel have been murdered, an 18% increase over the same period last year.
In 2018, 71 Arabs, including 15 women, were murdered, accounting for 61% of homicide victims in a country where the community accounts for about 21% of the population.
In 2019, 71% of the 125 homicide victims in Israel were Arabs.
Many Arab citizens blame the steep spike in violence on the failures of the police.
Sheikh Kamel Rayan, head of the Aman Center, an Arab organization that works to combat violence and crime, served as mayor of Kafr Bara for 18 years. He says that in 2015, 58 Arabs were killed across the country. “In five years it has risen more than 100%; the rise is a terrifying and frightening sign.
“Our community is in a profound internal crisis,” Rayan told The Media Line.
Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, told The Media Line the surge in violence and crime in the Arab community in recent years is the “result of systematic, ongoing discrimination and neglect by all of Israel’s governments, including the current one.”
The Abraham Initiatives is a Jewish-Arab NGO that promotes integration and equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.
A lack of sound social and economic planning contributed to the current situation, Be’eri-Sulitzeanu says.
“It’s not only neglect in policing, but also in housing and infrastructure facilities, access to funding and loans, education, job opportunities and of course enforcement. The fact is that the government was never really present in Arab towns, and police preferred to stay out and not to intervene,” he says.
A government plan to end the violence introduced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last January met with harsh criticism from community leaders who say it fell short of delivering what they need.
The plan calls for pumping up to NIS 100 million ($30 million) into Arab villages and towns, an increase in patrols and in police stations, and recruiting more Arab officers.
It would also involve stepping up collaboration between police and the local authorities.
“The mountain gave birth to a mouse,” says Rayan in describing the plan. He put the onus squarely on the prime minister. “We directly and frankly accuse Netanyahu of being the most responsible for these crimes.”
Deputy Commissioner Jamal Hakroosh, a police liaison with the Arab public who also handles Arab recruitment for the force, concedes that things are dire.
“We admit that the current situation is not good, and we admit that the results are not as they should be,” he says.
“Today, the priorities are the Arab sector and bringing safety and security to the Arab citizen,” Hakroosh told The Media Line.
The plan unveiled by the prime minster calls for the deployment of existing police units, which means they can immediately be dispatched to where they are needed.
“The plan relies on several units with which we pursue criminals who are behind the violence in the Arab sector,” Hakroosh says.
“In the past, we were weak in Arab communities, but these units that we will bring to the Arab sector will be at the expense of others’ safety,” he says.
The Israel Police has around 30,000 officers. Hakroosh says they must do a better job gathering intelligence. “We have to get information about potential criminal activities before they happen.”
Be’eri-Sulitzeanu says a study by his NGO back in 2019 found that 60.5% of Arab citizens reported a sense of personal insecurity in their hometowns as a result of violence, up from 35% in 2018. By comparison, only 12.8% of Jews reported such a feeling in 2019.
He says his organization called for a comprehensive plan that includes all the relevant government offices, including the police and the ministry of public security.
Be’eri-Sulitzeanu says more police stations are not enough.
“A greater police presence is no doubt an important component, but it has to be accompanied by a total change in the culture and attitude of the Israeli police,” he says.
If the government does not pay proper attention to the youth, they will join the “other side,” Be’eri-Sulitzeanu says.
“There’s a lack of cultural and recreational facilities in Arab towns, and the young hang out in the streets waiting for the organized crime soldiers to recruit them for their armies.”
In a recent meeting with the mayors of Arab cities and towns, Netanyahu told them, “We are taking on a national mission. I know how much you and your citizens, our Arab citizens, suffer from violence, from murder, from extortion, from the black market. From mafia organization, from ‘protection,’ from illegal weapons, from municipal tenders and the threat of violence, and many other issues that would be difficult to list here and now.
“The Arab public wants to feel safe just like every other citizen of Israel, and they are right to demand this,” he said.
Several mayors boycotted the meeting, while critics accuse Netanyahu of using it as a political ploy just weeks before the national election in March.
Wael Awwad, a Palestinian journalist from Nazareth, told The Media Line the prime minister’s plan is “naive.”
“I mean, you have a fatal disease, and you treat it with headache medicine?” he says.
Awwad argues that increasing the number of police units patrolling the streets is not enough.
“The main thing is to change the police’s approach to dealing with Arab citizens of Israel, not just the issue of increasing the budget and opening a new police station. The biggest example is that there is a main police station in Nazareth, but the violence persists,” he says.
Powerful Arab criminal groups proliferate in Arab towns and cities, demanding protection money. Hakroosh says dealing with these gangs is a priority.
“The issue of extortion in the Arab street must be confronted with special units. The most important thing is to pursue them through economic crime units,” he says.
Many local leaders say weapons are readily available for the right price in their communities.
There are an astonishing 400,000 illegal weapons in Israel, according to government data released last year.
Former Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, currently the ambassador to the US and the UN, estimated that 70% of the illegal weapons were stolen from Israeli army depots or the police.
Rayan, who lost his son in a violent incident, says the sources of these illegal weapons are known. “Unfortunately, some of the weapons come from the army, and the other part from the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Hakroosh agrees, saying the police “must do extensive work to search for weapons and prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Israeli army, or from the West Bank and across the borders to the hands of criminals.”
Awwad says the spike in crime and violence is part of decades of systemic discrimination in housing, job opportunities and education.
“There are many issues leading to tension within Arab communities. There is a scarcity of land available for housing, and when it’s found it’s expensive beyond reach. There is a lack of good jobs. People have to drive for hours to get to work or their universities. All these pressures lead to explosions,” he says.
They question the police’s commitment to fight crime in Arab communities like they do in Jewish ones.
The number of homicides of Jewish Israelis has remained relatively constant since 2016: 38 that year; 44 in 2017; 35 in 2018; and 36 in 2019, according to the Israel Police.
Dr. Walid Haddad, a criminologist who teaches at Western Galilee College in Acre, served for 15 years in Israeli law enforcement as a national inspector in the Public Security Ministry before entering academia. He told The Media Line that the state does not arrest criminals who have illegal weapons, “even if it identifies them, because these criminals provide the police with information.”
Haddad alleges that the police distinguish between “security weapons,” that is ones used against the police, and “criminal weapons,” and this has led to the weapons’ proliferation.
Hakroosh calls this assertion “nonsense.”
Haddad argues that the police were able to “eliminate organized crime” in the Jewish community at the beginning of the 2000s and used all means to achieve this result, including giving sufficient budgets.
“In order to achieve this result in the Jewish communities, the state employed all the technologies it had to eliminate these gangs. It infiltrated criminal organizations.”
In the early 2000s, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered security forces to crack down on crime throughout Jewish cities.
Rayan says the upsurge in crime in Arab community began in October 2000, during which police in several northern Arab cities responded with deadly force to violent protests against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians at the start of the Second Intifada, killing 13 people (12 Arab citizens and one resident of Gaza).
“If we look at the data before the year 2000, the crime rate was low, and civil peace reigned. But then the State of Israel wanted to take direct revenge on the Palestinian Arab minority inside Israel for its position of solidarity with our Palestinian people in the occupied territories,” he alleges.
Rayan says that since then, the numbers of victims have been increasing, creating a major trust gap between Arab citizens and the police.
The Or Commission, formed to investigate the events, found that the police had used excessive force against demonstrators.
Trust in the police among Arab Israelis remains extremely low, at around 19%, according to a 2019 study by the Abraham Initiatives.
Member of Knesset Aida Touma-Suleiman from the Joint List told The Media Line that Arab citizens “do not trust the police” because for a long time it has “ignored the violence” taking place. She also says that the police were able to eliminate criminal gangs in the Jewish sector.
Hakroosh is aware of the lack of trust; he says this will change when violence decreases.
“Now, cooperation with the Arab community is not at the level we want. But I do not accuse the Arab citizen of not being cooperative. Cooperation is about results. As long as there are no results, cooperation will be weak,” he says.
But he would not commit to when things will turn around.
“I cannot promise a timetable of when we will bring safety and security to the Arab street. I want the results yesterday, but it takes time and effort. We will act in the fastest time possible. When citizens feel and see results, then we are doing our jobs,” Hakroosh says.
“When the police are able to solve 80 out of 100 crimes and arrest the criminals, it can be said that we are making progress,” says Awwad.