2021-10-02 16:37:32 Violent Crime Spikes Among Arabs in Israel as Officials Admit Neglect

Violent Crime Spikes Among Arabs in Israel as Officials Admit Neglect

TAIBEH, Israel (JTA) — Alaa Sarsour, 25, showered, dressed, and walked the short distance to his friend’s pre-wedding henna party in a cobblestone alley festooned with ribbons in the old heart of Taibeh, an Arab town in central Israel, after a day of construction work.

Suddenly, in the middle of the celebration, a barrage of bullets pierced the cool night air, striking Mr. Sarsour and five other guests. According to relatives, Mr. Sarsour died in his brother’s lap, the victim of a simmering feud between the gunman — a friend of the groom who had been at the party moments before — and a member of Mr. Sarsour’s family.

Last week’s shooting was one of at least 16 homicides in Israel’s Arab communities last month, and one of nearly 100 this year.

The killings, committed by Arab criminals rather than Israeli soldiers, account for roughly 70% of all Israeli homicides, despite Arabs constituting slightly more than 20% of the population. The escalation of violence has shocked the country and brought to light what the government admits has been decades of neglect of crime in Arab communities.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has called the violence a “national blight” and has appointed a new ministerial task force to address the issue, which will meet on Sunday.

Omer Bar-Lev, Israel’s minister of public security, who oversees the country’s police force, criticized “the prevailing assumption that as long as they are killing each other, that’s their problem.”

An “Arab Lives Matter” campaign has sprung up in response to the increase in killings. However, unlike the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, Arab leaders are pleading with police to intervene.

At a demonstration last week, Ayman Odeh, the leader of an Arab alliance in Israel’s Parliament, demanded, “Can the Israel police really not overcome a bunch of criminal gangs?” “Of course it can, but to put it simply, it considers us to be its backyard.”

According to police, the number of homicides in the Arab community has risen in recent years, from 58 in 2013, to around 97 in 2020, and at least 98 so far this year. An Arab citizen of Israel is far more likely to be killed by another Arab than by Israeli police, and more Arabs have been killed by Arabs in Israel this year than by Israeli security forces in confrontations in the occupied West Bank, which receive far more attention.

Fewer than a quarter of the cases have been solved, critics say, a symptom of both police indifference and Arab distrust of the police.

Only 5% of the more than 3,300 shootings in Arab communities in 2019 resulted in indictments, according to police, due to difficulties in gathering evidence and locating suspects and witnesses.

Mr. Bar-Lev, the minister of public security, blamed decades of government neglect for the problems of Arab communities in an impassioned Twitter thread the morning after the Taibeh wedding shooting, and declared combating crime in those communities the central mission of his ministry and the police.

Arab leaders, experts, and government officials blame the rise of well-armed Arab crime organizations involved in loan sharking and protection rackets, which are brutally enforced by ranks of unemployed, aimless youths eager to be foot soldiers for easy money.

Personal grudges, minor land disputes between neighbors, and even minor slights between schoolchildren add to the numbers, sometimes escalating into lethal clan vendettas. In cases of domestic violence and so-called “honor killings,” guns have also been used against women.

Because Arab communities are rife with illegal weapons, disagreements can quickly turn lethal.

Estimates of illegal guns in Arab communities range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, despite the fact that Israel’s Arab population is less than two million. “Nobody really knows how to quantify it,” says Tomer Lotan, the Ministry of Public Security’s director-general.

Arab politicians and activists have called for government intervention in large-scale protests. Last year, mothers of victims marched from Haifa to Jerusalem, and in recent weeks, they have protested near Mr. Bar-home. Lev’s

“Every day, they make promises and plans, including him,” Watfa Jabali, 52, a Taibeh shopkeeper and activist who lost a son to gun violence, said. “And then there’s another murder, and another, and another.”

As the number of victims has grown, the killings have become more heinous.

Anas al-Wahwah, 18, an outstanding student and youth volunteer with the Israeli ambulance service, was shot at close range a month ago in the center of Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab town in central Israel, while waiting for his mother in a car.

Some question the authorities’ intentions, believing that they have deliberately allowed violence to run rampant in order to weaken Israel’s Arab minority, which largely identifies as Palestinian.

“It’s all part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Jamal Fattum, a lawyer and social activist from the Arab town of Nahef in northern Israel, said. “We are members of the Palestinian people with national aspirations.”

Mr. Fattum, who has assisted in the organization of protests against violence and government inaction, has at least ten security cameras monitoring his opulent home. But one night in April, his family awoke to gunshots and a boom as their car caught fire. A bullet pierced his thick, wooden front door and lodged high in the wall of his dining room.

Mr. Fattum stated that he had no idea who the masked assailants were or what they were after other than to silence him. The police conducted an investigation but made no arrests.

However, in many cases, the victims refuse to cooperate.

Witnesses and relatives of victims frequently maintain a code of silence, officials and experts say, whether out of distrust of the police, fear of retaliation, or both. Before the police arrive, some crime scenes are cleaned up.

In the case of the wedding party, a suspect was apprehended quickly. However, even though the gunman was unmasked, the groom’s father, Nasser Barabra, stated that there would be no witnesses in court.

Mr. Barabra, a house painter, stated, “We didn’t see anything.” Speaking in his home a day after the family had returned from Mr. Sarsour’s funeral to what they described as a joyless wedding ceremony, he added, “Some people walk around with guns, and some people walk around with fear.”

Female relatives of the victim, who were mourning in a nearby house, claimed they didn’t know the identity of the gunman, who was a neighbor. They were scared, they said, and they didn’t want any more trouble.

Israeli governments have made promises and proposed plans of action in the past. In 2020, a commission comprised of the directors of several ministries and Arab local council representatives investigated the issue and concluded that the informal financial industry that was at the root of so much of the violence arose because Arabs have traditionally relied on a cash-based economy and often lack access to regular banking.

The lack of building permits and space for new housing in Arab cities and towns has resulted in violent land disputes, as well as the inability to obtain mortgages or bank loans, leaving Arab society vulnerable to loan sharks, extortion, and ruthless debt collectors.

According to the state comptroller, the government watchdog, the illegal weapons flooding Arab towns are frequently stolen from the military or smuggled across the border from Jordan. According to comptroller’s reports, improvised weapons are manufactured in the West Bank, and airsoft pellet guns that can be ordered from Amazon have been adapted to fire real bullets.

The military stated that it was collaborating with police and security agencies to reduce weapon theft from its bases, and that it had improved surveillance measures. In 2020, it reported 80 cases of stolen weapons, with 21 cases reported so far this year.

The outbreak of inter-communal mob violence that shook Israel last May also served as a catalyst for more immediate action by the authorities, raising concerns that the weapons could be used against the Jewish public.

According to Mr. Lotan of the Public Security Ministry, the government has a detailed plan ready to implement once the state budget is passed in November. It calls for the recruitment of an additional 1,100 police officers, legislative changes to combat economic crime more effectively, increased use of technology, and an improved witness protection program, all of which are intended to improve access and trust in Arab communities.

Mr. Bennett has proposed enlisting the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, in the campaign, but this has become a source of contention, with many people opposing the use of counterterrorism tactics against civilians.

“You need to be tough against the organizations and the weapons,” Mr. Lotan said, “while also continuing to work on the broad social issues,” which he described as “huge inequality in all spheres.”

It is clear that more policing is not the answer. When the police did act in nearby Tamra, it resulted in tragedy.

According to the town’s mayor, Dr. Suheil Diab, masked gunmen fired at a house in a densely populated residential area one night in February, telling the owner they would return two days later to collect money. A police SWAT team was waiting in ambush when they returned, one of them armed with an M16 assault rifle.

Bullets began to fly. Across the street, Ahmad Hijazi, a nursing student visiting a friend, fled when he heard cries for help and was fatally shot. Muhammad Armoush, the friend’s brother and a doctor, followed him out and was shot in the foot.

One of the gunmen was killed, while another was seriously injured and arrested. A third eluded capture.

Dr. Armoush stated that he saw the police aiming for Mr. Hijazi and himself, apparently suspecting them. Police investigators are still unsure whether Dr. Armoush and Mr. Hijazi were hit by their bullets or those of the criminals.

Dr. Armoush was emotional and exasperated as he sat on his porch at dusk on a recent evening, above the street where the shootout occurred.

“I expected a change after what happened to us,” he said. “Then someone goes to a wedding yesterday…”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed to this report.

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Violent Crime Spikes Among Arabs in Israel as Officials Admit Neglect