Violent crime rises among Arabs in Israel as authorities admit negligence

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TAIBEH, Israel – After a day of construction work, Alaa Sarsour, 25, showered, dressed and walked the short distance to the henna party before her friend’s wedding in an alleyway cobblestone adorned with ribbons in the old heart of Taibeh, an Arab city in central Israel.

Suddenly, in the midst of the celebration, a flurry of wild bullets ripped through the cool night air, hitting Mr. Sarsour and five other guests. Mr Sarsour died on his brother’s lap, said relatives, apparently the victim of a latent feud between the shooter – a friend of the groom who had attended the party moments earlier – and a family member of Mr. Sarsour.

The last week’s shooting was just one of at least 16 killings in Arab communities in Israel last month, and one of nearly 100 so far this year.

Murders – not by Israeli soldiers but by Arab criminals – account for about 70 percent of all Israeli homicides, although Arabs make up just over 20 percent of the population. The outbreak of violence has shocked the country and highlighted what the government admits to have been decades of neglect of crime in Arab communities.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has called the violence a “national scourge” and will lead a new ministerial task force to tackle the problem which is due to meet on Sunday.

Omer Bar-Lev, who as Israel’s Minister of Public Security oversees the country’s police force, denounced what he said was “the prevailing assumption that as long as they kill each other, it is their problem .

The surge in killings gave rise to an “Arab Lives Matter” campaign. But unlike the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, Arab leaders are imploring police action.

“Can’t the Israeli police really defeat a group of criminal gangs? Ayman Odeh, the leader of an Arab alliance in the Israeli parliament, asked during a protest last week. “Of course he does, but to put it simply, he treats us like his backyard.”

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

Less than a quarter of the cases have been resolved, a symptom, critics say, of both police indifference and Arab mistrust of the police.

Of more than 3,300 shootings in Arab communities in 2019, only five percent resulted in indictments, which police say is the result of difficulty in gathering evidence and locating suspects and witnesses.

In a passionate Twitter thread the day after the wedding shooting in Taibeh, Public Security Minister Bar-Lev blamed decades of government neglect on the problems of Arab communities and said tackling crime was the central mission there of his ministry and the police.

Arab leaders, experts and government officials attribute the outbreak of internal violence primarily to the rise of well-armed Arab criminal organizations involved in usurious lending and protection racketeering, brutally enforced by ranks of unemployed and aimless youth eager to become infantry for easy money.

But personal grudges, small land disputes between neighbors or even small affronts between schoolchildren add to the numbers, sometimes degenerating into murderous clan vendettas. Guns have also been turned on women in cases of domestic violence and so-called “honor killings”.

Disputes easily become fatal because Arab communities are inundated with illegal weapons.

Estimates of illegal firearms in Arab communities range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, although Israel’s Arab population numbers less than two million. “No one really knows how to quantify it,” explains Tomer Lotan, the director general of the Ministry of Public Security.

Arab politicians and activists staged mass protests calling for government intervention. The mothers of the victims marched from the northern city of Haifa to Jerusalem last year and in recent weeks have staged protests near Mr. Bar-Lev’s home.

“Every day they make promises and plans, including him,” said Watfa Jabali, 52, a trader and activist from Taibeh who lost a son to gun violence. “And we hear on the news about another murder and another and another.”

As the numbers have grown, the killings have become more and more brazen.

A month ago, 18-year-old Anas al-Wahwah, an outstanding student and young volunteer with the Israeli ambulance service, was shot dead at close range at noon while waiting for his mother in a car in central Lod, a mixed Judeo-Arab city. in central Israel.

Some are skeptical of the authorities’ intentions, believing that they have deliberately allowed violence to break out in order to weaken the Arab minority in Israel, which largely identifies as Palestinian.

“This is all part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Jamal Fattum, 47, a lawyer and social activist from the Arab town of Nahef, in northern Israel. “We are part of the Palestinian people, who have national aspirations. “

Mr Fattum, who has helped organize protests against government violence and inaction, has at least 10 security cameras monitoring his upscale residence. But one night in April, her family woke up shooting at the house and a boom as their car caught fire. A bullet pierced the thick wooden front door and lodged high in the wall of his dining room.

Mr Fattum said he had no idea who the masked attackers were or what they might have wanted other than to silence him. Police investigated but made no arrests.

But in many cases, victims refuse to cooperate.

Whether it’s out of mistrust of the police, fear of revenge, or both, according to officials and experts, witnesses and relatives of victims often stick to a code of silence. Some crime scenes are cleaned up before the police arrive.

In the case of the wedding, a suspect was quickly apprehended. But once the case was brought to court, the groom’s father, Nasser Barabra, said there would be no witnesses even if the shooter was unmasked.

“We didn’t see anything,” said Barabra, a house painter. Speaking at his home a day after the family switched from Mr Sarsour’s funeral to what they said was a joyless wedding ceremony, he added: “Some people are walking around with guns and others with fear. “

Relatives of the victim, in mourning in a nearby house, said they did not know the identity of the shooter, who was a neighbor. They were scared, they said, and wanted no more problems.

Successive Israeli governments have made promises and proposed plans of action. A commission comprising the heads of several ministries and representatives of Arab local councils studied the problem in 2020 and determined that the informal financial industry that is the source of so much violence arose out of the fact that Arabs traditionally depend on a economy based on cash and often do not have access to regular banking services. .

Lack of building permits and space for new housing in cramped Arab towns and villages has led to violent land disputes and prevents obtaining mortgages or loans from banks, making society Arab vulnerable to loan sharks, extortion and ruthless debt collectors.

The illegal weapons that flood Arab towns are often stolen from the military or smuggled across the border from Jordan, according to the state comptroller, the government’s watchdog. 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, according to the controller’s reports.

The military said it was working with police and security groups to reduce gun theft from its bases and improved surveillance measures. It has reported 80 cases of stolen weapons in 2020 and 21 cases so far this year.

The explosion of inter-communal violence that rocked Israel last May has also served as a catalyst for more urgent action by the authorities, raising fears that the guns have been turned on the Jewish public.

Mr Lotan, from the Ministry of Public Security, said the government had a detailed plan ready to be implemented once the state budget is adopted in November. He calls for the recruitment of 1,100 additional police officers, legislative changes to fight economic crime more effectively, greater use of technology and an improved witness protection program, all measures to improve access and trust in Arab communities.

Mr Bennett has offered to enlist the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, in the campaign, although this has become a point of contention with many opposing the use of counterterrorism means against civilians.

“You need a firm hand against organizations and guns,” Lotan said, “and at the same time, you need to keep working on the big social issues”, what he called “the huge inequality in all spheres “.

Clearly, more police officers alone is not the solution. In the nearby town of Tamra, when the police took action, it ended in tragedy.

One night in February, masked gunmen shot at a house in a densely populated residential area, telling the owner they would be back two days later to collect money, according to the town’s mayor, the Dr Suheil Diab. On their return, one of them armed with an M16 assault rifle, a police SWAT team awaited them in ambush.

The bullets began to fly. Across the street, Ahmad Hijazi, a nursing student who was visiting a friend, ran out when he heard calls for help and was shot dead. The friend’s brother, Muhammad Armoush, a doctor, followed him and was shot in the foot.

One of the gunmen was killed, another was seriously injured and arrested. A third escaped.

Dr Armoush said he saw police target himself and Mr Hijazi, apparently finding them suspect. Police investigators have yet to determine whether it was their bullets or those of the criminals that hit Dr Armoush and Mr Hijazi.

Sitting on his porch at dusk a recent evening, above the street where the shooting took place, Dr Armoush was emotional and exasperated.

“After what happened to us, I expected a change,” he said. “So yesterday someone went to a wedding …”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting.

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