For Israeli Arab voters, surging violent crime overshadows all else

For Israeli Arab voters, surging violent crime overshadows all else

Heidi Levine

Siam Ades, mother of Mohammed Ades, mourns as she embraces a poster of her son at the family’s home in the Israeli Arab city of Jaljulya, March 10, 2021. Mohammed, on the right in the poster, was gunned down the night before while sitting with his friend, Mustafa Hamid, also shown, who was badly wounded. The attack renewed the outcry over violence in Israel’s Arab community.

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March 12, 2021

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When Israeli Arabs go to the polls this month in national elections, the most pressing issue they want addressed by leaders is neither the peace process nor the economy. In the last four years, the homicide rate in Israeli Arab communities has jumped 50%, vaulting violent crime – and the muted police response to it – to voters’ top concern by far.

Heavily armed crime organizations are blamed for the violence. But overall, experts say, the rise in crime is a product of several factors, including a decadeslong lack of investment in Arab communities that has led to disproportionately high levels of poverty and unemployment. Arab leaders are demanding that more national police resources be devoted to investigating the crime on their streets.

Why We Wrote This

Even as Arab voters increasingly embrace their voice in Israeli democracy, their current top concern, violent crime, is one at least partially rooted in decades of inequities.

Ola Najmi-Yousef, a mother in Nazareth, says crime has gotten so bad there she has moved her children from bedrooms facing the street, fearing stray bullets. She directs a program that seeks safer Arab neighborhoods, in part by strengthening ties and communication between local Arab leadership and state officials, including the police.

“I see what is going on as parts of a puzzle. It’s not the communities or the police or government alone; everyone has to work together,” she says.

Umm el-Fahm, Israel

When Amir Jabareen heard a volley of gunshots ring out close to his home last spring, he knew he would have to wait several minutes before venturing out.

That would give time for whoever the gunman was to leave the scene and for Mr. Jabareen, an engineering student, to safely check out what happened.

This is what living in the midst of an epidemic of unchecked violent street crime has taught Arab citizens of Israel like Mr. Jabareen, who lives in Umm el-Fahm, an Arab city of some 56,000 astride the Green Line in north-central Israel.

Why We Wrote This

Even as Arab voters increasingly embrace their voice in Israeli democracy, their current top concern, violent crime, is one at least partially rooted in decades of inequities.

In the last four years, the homicide rate in Israeli Arab communities has jumped 50%, vaulting violent crime – and the national police force’s muted response to it – to Arab voters’ top concern by far in national elections this month.

Heavily armed crime organizations are blamed for the violence, but overall, experts say, the rise in crime is a product of several factors, some of which are rooted in a fundamental inequality of access to resources and opportunity that Israeli Arabs have long known.

According to a December survey of Arab voters conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation, 51.9% said violent crime was the most important issue for them. Dealing with poverty was a distant second at 13.4%, ahead of concerns over other equity issues. Other surveys have found it also ranks far above the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In Umm el-Fahm, Mr. Jabareen was among the first people to reach the victim, a man sprawled on the steps that led to his home. An ambulance came in minutes, but the police, he says, took an hour and a half to arrive at the scene and only returned two days later to take photos and collect spent shells.


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“It felt like there was no interest in doing even the bare minimum. It basically confirms what we keep seeing, that they [the police] are not really interested in solving cases,” Mr. Jabareen says, standing across the street from the crime scene, too shaken nearly a year later to step any closer.

Sought-after voters

As Israel’s deadlocked political system hurtles into its fourth election in two years, the votes of Israel’s Arab minority have become more sought-after than ever before. But as parties across the political spectrum seek their support, Arab voters are asking them what they will do to stop the violence.

They say authorities have purposely neglected their communities for decades, and are demanding not only an increased police presence, but also more aggressive detective work to solve crimes.

Arab leaders say that could help establish faith between Arab citizens and the state after years of distrust, whose origins date to the founding of Israel and the view of the Arab minority as a fifth column.

Arab citizens cite statistics they say prove systemic disregard for their safety. Of the 74 murders that took place in the Arab sector in 2020 by November, only 22% resulted in indictments, compared with a 53% indictment rate in Jewish homicide cases, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

By the end of the year, the number of Arab citizens murdered was approximately twice that of Jews, even though Arabs make up just 20% of the population, according to The Abraham Initiatives, an organization that promotes equality among Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

On Tuesday, a 15-year-old named Mohammed Ades was killed and his 12-year-old friend seriously wounded when they were gunned down just 100 feet from a police station in Jaljulya, an Arab town in central Israel.

Aida Touma-Suleiman, a lawmaker from the Joint List, the largest Arab party, called the shooting “heartbreaking” and made it clear whom she holds accountable: “The blood is on the criminals, but the blame is also on the government and police who have neglected our children.”

Heidi Levine

Thousands of residents of the mostly Arab city of Umm el-Fahm, Israel, took to the streets to protest police brutality as well as gun violence in the Arab community, March 5, 2021. Residents of nearby towns and Israeli Jews joined the protests, as did representatives from political parties. A wave of violent crime in Arab-majority areas of Israel is a top concern of Arab voters.

Government funds

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who now is courting the same Arab voters he derided as a threat in past elections, promised last week that the government will put $45 million into combating violence in Arab neighborhoods and cities. Most Arab leaders, including Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint List, dismissed it as both overdue and insufficient.

One criticism is that most of the funding is earmarked for the construction and renovation of police stations in Arab areas.

Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, argues that what Arab neighborhoods and towns need more than additional police stations are “police who can investigate crimes and show results.”

“Just as the state knows how to provide for the needs of the Jewish population, it has to do the same for the Arab population,” Dr. Haddad Haj-Yahya says, pointing out how successfully the Israeli police tackled organized crime in Jewish cities in the 1990s.

“In the streets, there is a feeling of fear,” she says, “because now shootings are happening even in broad daylight; the criminals know the towns have become like the Wild West, so they can do what they want.”

Contributing factors

The crime surge is traced to a combination of problems. A decadeslong lack of investment has led to disproportionately high levels of poverty and unemployment in the Arab sector, especially among young men, which have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arab citizens face discrimination getting credit or bank loans, Dr. Haddad Haj-Yahya says, and a growing number, especially this past year, have been borrowing money on the black market, which is run by organized crime rackets. Defaulting on a loan can be fatal. Bystanders also are sometimes getting killed in the crossfire between warring criminal gangs.

All of this is playing out as Arab society is experiencing a breakdown of traditional leadership that once had the authority to mediate feuds, between families or individuals.

Compounding the crisis: Few Arab citizens – just 19%, according to a survey by The Abraham Initiatives – trust the police.

Police say it’s hard to secure the cooperation of Arab citizens who fear becoming targets of crime gangs themselves. Collecting the plethora of illegal weapons that is helping to fuel the violence is also met with resistance on the ground, police say.

Building bridges

Ola Najmi-Yousef, an Arab mother in Nazareth, says crime has gotten so bad there that she has moved her children from bedrooms facing the street, fearing stray bullets.

Ms. Najmi-Yousef directs a program called Safe Communities run by The Abraham Initiatives. Its mission is to build safer Arab neighborhoods as well as trust, in part by strengthening ties and communication between local Arab leadership and state officials, including the police.

Among its initiatives is a financial literacy course for youth, self-defense courses for women, and roundtable discussions between Arab mayors and police officials.

“I see what is going on as parts of a puzzle. It’s not the communities or the police or government alone; everyone has to work together,” she says.

Sireen Jabareen, a university student from Umm el-Fahm, started a regional protest movement with a group of friends in response to the violence. Every Friday for the past six weeks they have staged large demonstrations that have sometimes swelled into the thousands, calling for a muscular crackdown on the violence.

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“We just feel unsafe,” she says, explaining that she had witnessed three shootings herself in the past two years.

“Our message to the authorities and the police is simply to do what they need to do to make people feel like they can live safely,” she says. “It’s the most basic thing in the world; really it’s a basic human right.”

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