With illegal weaponry rampant in Israeli Arab towns, 2020 is now officially their deadliest year in recent memory; a government plan to stop the violence seems to have been shelved
On December 16, Nimr Suleiman was sitting in a house in al-Reineh with several friends when a group of armed men burst in and opened fire.
Suleiman was hit by a spray of bullets and died on the spot. While his death is still being investigated, it is believed that the intruders had intended to gun down one of his companions.
The killing marked a tragic new record for bloodshed among Israel’s Arab citizens: 90 homicides since the start of 2020. By December 28, the toll had hit 96, representing a harrowing 50 percent jump in the murder rate among Arab Israelis in only four years.
“We’re counting our time in murders,” lamented Joint List MK Mansour Abbas, who directs a parliamentary committee on eliminating organized crime in Arab communities, in early November
Many Arab Israelis blame the violence on organized crime, and accuse police of devoting too few resources to root it out in Arab cities, towns and neighborhoods. Experts, policymakers and activists argue that even as Israeli police have cracked down on crime among Israeli Jews, not enough has been done to combat endemic violence in the Arab community, which has long suffered from official neglect.
Over the past few years, Arab criminal groups have proliferated and taken over spaces vacated by state institutions and police. A new reality has been created in Arab towns and cities, one in which powerful protection rackets have access to an enormous quantity of weapons, lend money and collect payments at the barrel of a gun, and open fire at Arab mayors and their family members.
The metastasizing phenomenon has also fueled gang wars between different groups jockeying for turf and clientele, turning towns into battlefields and sometimes catching innocent bystanders in the crossfire.
“It is the Arab crime organizations who rule Israel today when it comes to the criminal underworld. They are strong, determined, forceful and they don’t screw around. They have enough weapons for an entire army,” an anonymous senior cop told Channel 12 in 2018.
The underworld violence is mostly confined to Arab areas of the country, as seen in the disproportionate number of killings among the Arab community compared to Jewish areas of the country. Even though Arab Israelis constitute roughly 21% of the population, they accounted for 71% of the 125 homicides in Israel in 2019.
The number of homicides among Jewish Israelis since 2016 has remained relatively constant: 38 in 2016; 44 in 2017; 35 in 2018; and 36 in 2019, according to the Israel Police. Among Arabs, however, it has skyrocketed over that same period: 64 in 2016; 67 in 2017; 71 in 2018; 89 in 2019; and 96 in 2020, according to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, which works to advance shared society initiatives in Israel — by far the highest number in recent memory.
“We used to see a murder in the district once every week, once a month. Now it seems like hardly a day goes by without a killing,” said Maj. Gen. Dani Ronen, a retired police chief who commanded Israel’s Northern District, where 42% of Israel’s 1.9 million Arab citizens live, in 2004-2007.
To make matters worse, an investigation by the Haaretz daily in November found that many of the murders of Arab Israelis are going unsolved: Only 22% of homicides in Arab communities resulted in indictments by November 2020, as opposed to 53% of those in Jewish communities.
According to a 2019 study by the Abraham Initiatives , 60.5% of Arab Israelis reported a sense of personal insecurity in their hometowns due to violence. Among Jews, only 12.8% reported such a feeling.
“People are pessimistic and distrustful and frustrated with the government. People want results. Instead, crime is rising, violence is rising, and collective security is receding,” said Kamel Rayyan, who served as mayor of Kafr Bar’a for 18 years.
After his son Mu’adh was shot and killed by an anonymous gunman in 2009, Rayyan founded the anti-violence nonprofit Aman — literally, “safety.”
In addition to alleged neglect by police, Arab Israelis say they have faced decades of systemic discrimination in housing, employment and education since the founding of the state. The lack of opportunities to earn a dignified living has made the Arab community fertile ground for the growth of organized crime.
“All of these factors accumulated over the last fifty years. But over the last 10 years, it’s exploded in our faces,” said attorney Rida Jabr, who currently directs Aman.
“There’s the police and the law, and then there’s the rest of the state institutions. The state for years never placed the Arab community at the top of its list of priorities. In a sense, we as a society have failed them,” said Ronen, the retired police chief.
Abbas, the Joint List MK, said the violence extends far beyond the murders that make headlines in the Hebrew press.
“Homicides are just one parameter in the violence: Attempts to gun down mayors, threats, extortion, blackmail, domestic violence, use of weapons in disputes,” he rattled off in a phone call.
The phenomenon is fairly new, and partially an effect of official efforts to crack down on rampant organized crime in the Jewish community.
“In the 1980s, most organized crime was Jewish, with Arab contractors. But these Arab contractors were not particularly organized, nor were they in positions of power in the organizations,” said Mahmoud Nassar, who directed the anti-crime division within Nazareth’s City Hall for over two decades.
In the early 2000s, prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered law enforcement to crack down on crime in the country’s Jewish cities. The situation had become unbearable: Crime organizations were slaughtering one another in the streets in Netanya and Ashdod. A 2003 bombing that targeted crime magnate Ze’ev Rosenstein in Tel Aviv killed three civilians (Rosenstein survived).
The police, the state attorney and the Israeli Tax Authority ultimately uprooted these organizations after wide-ranging and complex investigations. Many major crime bosses in Jewish Israel — Rosenstein, Avi Abutbul, the Abergil crime family — either wound up in jail or fled the country.
“Crime is like a weather system. It never vanishes. It merely travels from high-pressure to low-pressure areas. For years, there has been less pressure in Arab areas. When the state began to fight organized crime in Netanya and Ashdod and Tel Aviv, they simply moved 15 kilometers over to the Triangle,” said Amnon Be’eri-Soliziano, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, referring to a collection of Arab cities and towns in central Israel.
No longer in the shadow of Jewish organizations, the Arab groups developed into complex institutions, said criminologist Walid Haddad. Haddad, who now teaches at Western Galilee College, served for fifteen years in Israeli law enforcement as a national inspector in the Public Security Ministry before entering academia.
According to Haddad, criminal organizations in the Arab community even franchise out their names to toughs looking to put prestige behind their muscle, for monthly payments. Haddad has dubbed the phenomenon “McMafia.”
“Contrary to the stereotype, these are not ‘crime families.’ In the families of those involved in organized crime, you’ll often find doctors and lawyers — and a crime boss, whose foot soldiers are mostly from outside the family,'” Haddad said in a phone call.
The coronavirus pandemic has only intensified the grip of these mafia-like organizations on Arab communities. While the widespread economic catastrophe has impacted Jews and Arabs alike, Arabs have little access to credit. According to the Prime Minister’s Office in its 2020 report on Arab violence, only 2% of those who take out mortgage loans in Israel are Arabs; more than half of Arab Israelis lack credit cards, and more than a quarter don’t have bank accounts.
With widespread economic catastrophe and a dysfunctional government response, Arab Israelis are increasingly turning to organized crime groups for loans, with high-interest rates and disastrous consequences in case of delinquency.
“In general, banks hesitate to provide loans in our Arab towns. This has led individuals, breadwinners, and business owners in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to take loans on the black market. Most of them are asked to pay absurd amounts,” Joint List MK Abbas said in a phone call with The Times of Israel.
“How do these groups make people pay? They threaten their lives and their property. And those people who do manage to pay, in practice, fund the next series of crimes,” Abbas said.
The violence is abetted by a tide of arms — the vast majority of them reportedly taken from poorly supervised Israeli military stashes — that has swept through Arab communities in recent years.
According to data released by the Knesset in 2020, there are some 400,000 illegal weapons in Israel. Former public security minister Gilad Erdan estimated that 70% of the
illegal weapons were stolen from the Israeli army and police force
With weapons seemingly available with ease, even everyday conflicts can escalate tragically. Atfa al-Jabali’s son Sa’ad was gunned down two years ago at the age of 16 while working a shift in the family grocery store in al-Taybeh. It took about thirty seconds, she said; his father witnessed the whole thing.
“He was in the shop. Two men entered wearing masks, and one shot him and left. Just like that,” Jabali told The Times of Israel.
The 18-year-old shooter, it later emerged, was one of their neighbors; the two families had been involved in a land dispute. Jabali said she never thought that the argument could escalate to murder.
“We just could never have imagined that someone would grab a gun and shoot my son,” she said.
It cannot be said with certainty how many illegal weapons are at large in the Arab community. But according to data released by the Public Security Ministry, 93% of shooting offenses in 2018 were perpetrated by Arab citizens.
“We’re talking about a situation in which one in five Arab homes is armed,” said Ola Najmi-Yousef, who directs the Safe Communities initiative for the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit.
Arab Israeli policymakers often criticize the police for not doing enough to crack down on illegal weapons, saying that they know where the weapons are and choose to do nothing. Police officials say that it isn’t so simple.
“The police often arrive, well-informed, equipped with a judicial order. People know how to hide their weaponry. Even if you find it, it’s no problem to acquire new weapons — stealing from Israeli soldiers, or buying from soldiers willing to sell,” said retired senior police official Yossi Sedbon.
But in an environment in which police presence is low and criminal activity high, even ordinary Arab citizens sometimes decide to arm themselves.
“When everyone around you acts like a gangster, even an honest person will have to act like one too,” observed Bahia Jubran-Qasis, a social worker in Halisa, a poor, largely Arab area of Haifa that has seen repeated rounds of violence.
A government plan, known as the 922 initiative, has injected billions of shekels into Arab municipalities in an effort to fix gaps in infrastructure, education, and health between Arab and Jewish towns — the gaps that activists say helped lay the groundwork for the spread of organized crime in the first place.
The 922 plan is generally considered a success. Around NIS 10 billion ($2.96 billion) was allocated to local Arab governments in the past five years in every field imaginable: to train teachers, build water and sewage pipes, renovate public buildings, subsidize employment, and much more. Passing the next five-year plan is a major priority for Arab Israeli lawmakers.
But the sudden influx of cash has also attracted the attention of organized crime groups, which have attempted to muscle in on contracts for various development projects.
“Municipality heads were always targeted by criminal organizations. But since 922, as more money has been spent on local authorities, the local authorities have become a larger prize,” Jabr, the Aman director, noted.
Crime syndicates are still involved in the classic trades: weapons, drugs, prostitution, and protection rackets. But today, they also threaten and extort contractors, and they pressure municipalities directly, often by violent means, in attempts to take over development projects, Haddad said.
According to media reports, at least 15 Arab mayors were targeted by gunfire in 2019. Others had their cars set ablaze, Molotov cocktails thrown at their houses, or had family members threatened.
“The auctions are the target, the bidding is the target, so as to take over these public funds,” Haddad said. “That’s where the money is. Where does it happen? In every Arab municipality in the country.”
‘Fuck them up’
As organized crime has infiltrated communities, a sea change in Arab Israeli attitudes toward the police has taken place, creating a remarkable consensus in favor of more effective policing.
“As Arab municipalities, our fundamental demand is for police presence,” said Wadi Ara’ara council head Mudar Younes, who also chairs the National Council of Arab Municipalities.
The same vision has been echoed by the national leadership. Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh — as close to a leader as the Arab Israeli community has — repeated much the same line.
“We have a police force that can do everything when it wants to. Don’t you know the names of the crime lords? We, the Joint List, are calling on you to fuck them up! We want you to bash in their faces! We want to live in a society without weapons! No weapons! What are they good for?” Odeh said in an impassioned speech to the Knesset last month.
Arab Israelis and Israeli security forces share a violent, troubled history. Many Arab Israelis say that police treat them as enemy combatants, not fellow citizens. Though rare, a few Arab Israelis have been involved in terror attacks against Jewish Israeli soldiers and civilians.
“When police meet a Jewish Israeli, they behave as police. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes awfully. But when police deal with Arab citizens, they deal with them as a security threat,” attested Be’eri-Soliziano.
A generation of Arab Israelis recalls the October 2000 riots, 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.
Police shot and killed thirteen people — twelve Arab Israelis and one Palestinian. The Or Commission, formed to investigate the events, found that the police had used excessive force against demonstrators.
Ronen, the former northern police chief, described the October demonstrations as “traumatic, for the police as well as for the Arab community. Many people took harsh criticism, changed direction and learned their lesson. It was an extremely tough time inside the police.”
“Four years later, when I arrived in the northern post, the echoes of the events could still be felt,” Ronen said.
Trust in the police among Arab Israelis remains extremely low — around 19%, according to a 2019 study by the Abraham Initiatives. But rather than telling the police to get out, as many did in years past, there is an increasing understanding that working with them is part of the solution.
“In 2016, we began hearing voices that said ‘we want the police in our towns, in our neighborhoods.’ People began to understand that we don’t have another police force… that the police are the ones who are ultimately responsible, and that we can’t solve the problem of violence on our own,” said Najmi-Yousef.
The police have also changed. In the same year, the Israel Police also began a concerted effort to fix its relationship with the Arab community. It promoted Jamal Hakroush — a long-time colleague of Ronen’s — to the position of deputy commissioner, a first for Arab Israelis.
A campaign to draft Arab Israelis into the police force got underway, although the number of Arab police officers remains around 10 percent, around half their share of the general population. The majority of Arab officers are Druze; only three percent of officers are Muslim or Christian.
In accordance with a 2016 government decision, several new police stations were built in Arab towns and cities in order to increase police presence in Arab communities.
“Wherever we’ve built a police station, there has been a reduction in criminality,” Hakroush told The Times of Israel in a phone call.
This claim has not necessarily been borne out in the data, however. In a wide-ranging series of investigative pieces on organized crime among Arab Israelis, journalist Suha Arraf compared the crime rate before the new police stations were built to that of the following years. She failed to find a correlation — and even found that homicides went up in some cities.
“Good policing doesn’t merely happen by building stations. I don’t care if the station is in Karmiel or Sakhnin, in Nof Hagalil or in Nazareth, in Shfaram or in Krayot — the most important thing is that it provides effective policing as a service,” said Nazareth’s Nassar, citing pairs of Jewish and Arab towns near each other. “If all it can do is issue us speeding tickets, how did we benefit?”
In late November, northern Israel was hit with a spate of attacks on banks. Over the course of two days, several men allegedly affiliated with two organized crime syndicates opened fire on 14 banks in Shfaram, Nahaf, Karmiel, Deir Hanna, Jdeida al-Makr, Deir al-Asad, and four other towns and cities, shattering storefronts and terrifying local residents.
Within less than a week, Israel Police announced that it had arrested 11 suspects. Some, though, asked why police were so quick to nab the shooters when the target was a bank, and unable to crack down on organized crime or catch murderers?
The incident underscored a feeling among many in the Arab community that the policing problem isn’t one of numbers or resources, but willpower.
In the small town of al-Reineh, which saw two other killings in December aside from Suleiman’s slaying, Mayor Jamil Basoul accused police of prioritizing Jewish areas.
“I’ve asked for police reinforcements and for them to patrol our town. But they would barely show up… Look over at [Jewish-majority] Nof Hagalil, though, and you’ll find that their presence is felt,” Basoul said.
It’s a complaint repeated in Arab towns across the country: “When a young man is killed in Jewish towns, we see a far more intense effort to solve the crime than when a shooting incident happens in our Arab towns,” charged Younes, the Wadi Ara’ara council head.
“There’s no trust between Arab Israelis and police,” said Nassar, the former Nazareth official. “None.”
Ronen cautioned against blaming the police for all of the violence, however. According to Ronen, given the lack of a state presence in Arab towns and cities, police have become a convenient “address” for the complaints of many residents.
“It’s not all police. It’s not all enforcement. The police cannot be the solution to every social problem. The police can help, they can be at the forefront, but there’s a need for more comprehensive solutions,” Ronen said.
As for organized crime — which is undoubtedly law enforcement’s job — Israel Police officials note that such investigations are long and complicated.
“It took us eight to 10 years to eradicate organized crime from the Jewish community. This isn’t a day’s work. This is painstaking, professional work,” Hakroush said.
Sedbon, the retired former senior police officer, blamed the inability to complete even everyday investigations into shootings and murders on a lack of cooperation by Arab Israeli witnesses.
“When I would arrive in Jaffa, you can’t imagine how many times I found people who’d mysteriously lost their memory and their eyesight. No one was willing to talk. In the Jewish community, there are witnesses willing to collaborate,” said Sedbon, who directed Israel Police’s special investigations unit and commanded the Tel Aviv district in the early 2000s.
Compounding the problem is a fear of retribution against those who do work with the police, said Fayez Abu Sahiban, mayor of the southern Bedouin city of Rahat.
“Involving the police can be dangerous and complicated — it can lead to a renewal of violence, and still more murders — so ordinary people in Rahat refuse to collaborate,” said Abu Sahiban.
On Monday morning, the impunity of criminal groups in their dealings with cops was driven home when gunmen opened fire on a car being escorted by three police cruisers, killing one Arab Israeli man and critically injuring another. The hit was suspected to be revenge for a homicide overnight in the central city of Lod.
Pressed on the high rates of shooting deaths among Arab Israelis, senior law enforcement officials have often said that a “culture of violence” plays a key role.
“It’s a very, very — and another thousand times — very violent society,” former public security minister Erdan told Jerusalem Radio in 2019. “It’s connected to the culture there. A lot of disputes that end here with a lawsuit — there, they pull out a knife and gun.”
Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen suggested the same idea in a Knesset hearing in early November, calling attention to a “culture” in Arab communities that he alleged promoted violence.
Many Arab Israelis who spoke to The Times of Israel rejected the idea that Arab culture was at the root of most of the violence raging in the streets, pointing to the successful eradication of organized crime among Israeli Jews.
Others did state cautiously, however, that Arab Israeli society was changing, and its growing pains were accelerating the violence. The traditional authorities — family elders and religious leaders — were at a loss to prevent the disputes of the younger generation from leading to violence, numerous activists said.
“The violence in our streets — it’s not just the neglect of the state institutions. It’s a problem in our society, as well, an educational one. Our young people have lost the ability to resolve problems through dialogue — every small problem can lead to murder,” Najmi-Yousif said.
“We have to be realistic. We have to recognize in our society: do we bear part of the responsibility? Yes, we bear part of the responsibility,” she said.
‘This disease, this plague’
In October 2019, after a gruesome series of killings in Baqa al-Gharbiyya and Majd al-Krum, thousands of Arabs took to the streets across the country, jolted into action by the bloodletting after years of rising violence. Rallies were held across Arab Israel: Umm al-Fahm, Ramle, Nazareth. Convoys of cars blocked Israel’s main thoroughfares to demand a stronger government response.
In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his office to create an anti-violence plan within 90 days, aimed at attacking the root problems behind the bloodshed. After over a year, the plan was finally presented to the Knesset last month.
The NIS 5 billion ($1.56 million) anti-violence proposal is a sprawling and ambitious document. It was created in consultation with Arab politicians and civil society leaders and covers an enormous range of issues: access to credit for Arab Israelis, scholarships for young Arabs, high penalties for illegal weapons possession, more police stations, and proposals for protecting the integrity of public bidding for projects .
The plan is also vague, more of an outline than a detailed proposal, and lacks clear goals. It emphasizes measures controversial in Arab society — such as recruiting Muslim officers and encouraging young Arabs to perform National Service.
“If we start with this idea that it’s a ‘Muslim officer’ who must provide policing services to Israeli Arabs, we’ve taken all the content out of the idea that the police ought to provide equal service to all citizens, whether Jewish or Muslim or Christian,” Younes told a Knesset parliamentary committee in November.
Arab civil society leaders, however, repeatedly emphasized to The Times of Israel that they considered the proposal an important step forward — warts and all.
“The existence of this plan reflects an admission on the part of the state that it has failed in protecting Arab communities. That’s already important,” Najmi-Yousef said.
At a meeting in early November, Netanyahu pledged to approve the plan within two weeks. But as Israel’s political situation grew increasingly unstable, the plan vanished from the cabinet’s docket.
With the country headed for another round of elections, there is little optimism that the plan will be advanced in the near future.
“We need this plan passed as soon as possible,” said the MK Abbas.
In the meantime, Arab Israelis worry that the bodies will simply continue to pile up in Arab towns and cities.
“There needs to be a national decision to fight this disease, this plague, just as there was a commitment to fight it in Jewish communities,” Rayyan said. “Has the government made such a decision? Not yet.”