No magic wand to stop Israeli Arabs killing each other
Arab Israelis are clamoring for police action to stop the wave of deadly crime in their cities and villages. They have a solid case. Conflicting numbers are flying around, but it’s safe to say that about 100 Israeli Arabs have been murdered by fellow Arabs so far this year. That accounts for much more than half the murders in Israel, though Arabs make up only 20 percent of the population.
Are the police to blame for letting this get out of hand? Not entirely. Is the solution a matter of more police presence? Yes, to some extent, but it’s not a magic wand.
Let’s start by noting that I am no fan of Israel’s police. Working as a radio reporter for four decades in Israel, I was beaten, tear gassed, detained, and shoved around by police many times, though I never broke the law or disobeyed an order. In the American Midwest of the ‘50s, I was taught that “the policeman is your friend.” I brought up my own kids in Israel in the ‘70s and ‘80s telling them, “The policeman is not your friend. Stay away.”
Critics note that police solve more crimes against Jews than they solve crimes against Arabs. One statistic says in the first half of the year, police solved 22 percent of murders in the Arab sector and 71 percent of murders against Jewish Israelis. There are other statistics, but they always favor crime solving in the Jewish sector.
Why is that? Let’s go back two decades.
“It’s not safe to go in there,” a police officer told me while stopping me at a roadblock in Israel’s north. It was October 2000, and Israeli Arabs were rioting. Badly trained or trigger-happy (or both) police had opened fire on demonstrators, killing 13. “There” was Oom al-Fahm, one of the largest Arab towns in Israel. I was a radio reporter. The guy was a cop. He was telling me that it wasn’t safe for him to go in there, either.
That series of riots marked a turning point. Israeli police were no longer accepted in Arab cities and villages. So they stayed out.
What does 20 years of absence do to police work? It means destruction of intelligence networks.
Let’s go back 20 more years, to 1980.
A middle-aged Palestinian wearing a red-and-white checked kaffiyeh headdress and a flowing white galabiyeh gown strode into my guard post at the military headquarters in the West Bank city of Hebron. Before I could say a word, he pulled a pistol out of the folds of his garment, plopped it on my table, smiled, and strode confidently into the building.
I was on reserve Israeli army duty, guarding the ugly British-era building that served as the office of the military governor and the prison. It also served the Shin-Bet, as it was known then—the ISA security service in the West Bank. Their visitor was an intelligence agent, recruited to rat out bad guys among his fellow Palestinians.
By then Israel had controlled the West Bank for 13 years. That was enough time for the Shin-Bet to set up a network of informants. Its effectiveness can still be seen—it took only a few days to track down the last two Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from the Gilboa lockup after they crossed into the West Bank.
In Israel, if the police are to re-establish their presence in Arab cities and villages, they will need the cooperation of the people there.
So it’s a good sign that Israeli Arab leaders are clamoring for police presence, after two decades of rejecting it. We could do without the crocodile tears about how the police are ineffective in the Arab sector, because to a large extent the Arabs themselves are to blame for that.
It’s time for Israeli Arab leaders to project responsibility onto their own people, alongside justified complaints about inaction, inattention, and underfunding on the part of the government.
Police are set to open new stations in Arab communities, and that means rebuilding their intelligence networks. That’s a step toward bringing the crime wave under control.
It’s not enough for Israeli Arabs to sit back and wait for the police to act. They must make changes as well. Finally the truth is emerging—that Israeli Arab criminal gangs do very good business in their own backyards. Israeli Arab citizens have become used to hiring the violent gangs to settle disputes, collect bills, harass neighbors, whatever. That has to stop.
Above all, we need to realize that it will be a long time—years—until visible progress is made, even if the police have help from the army and the ISA. The criminal gangs are well entrenched, the police intelligence networks are decimated, and the people are afraid and complicit at the same time.
An important first step has been taken—there’s an Israeli Arab political party in the coalition government. It’s a way for their constituents to share responsibility for security—theirs in particular and the country’s in general.
Everyone can build on that.