Since the beginning of the year, Palestinian citizens of Israel murdered more than 72 members of their community for a variety of criminal reasons. The most recent case included the death of a 35-year-old from Umm al Fahem on October 15. In response to the heightened wave of violence, the Palestinian community in Israel and its leadership organized a series of steps, including strikes and protests to express dissatisfaction with police inaction in the face of violent crime within the Palestinian community in Israel. Demonstrations were held in several Arab cities and towns, such as Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm, Shfaram, Tamra, Majdal Krum, Ara, Ar'ara, and Kfar Qasim. Local governments and schools in the community participated in the strike to increase its impact and express the dissatisfaction of the different groups in the community toward the lack of proper police response. The Joint List did not attend swearing-in of the new Knesset on October 3rd, which was elected on September 17, the day of the planned strike in the Palestinian community of Israel. On October 10th, the Joint List Knesset members Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, and Mtanes Shehadeh met with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to demand a plan to curb violence in the community.
The community’s dissatisfaction is a result of insufficient everyday policing combined with the over-policing of political demonstrations. Alienation between the police and the Arab public exacerbated in 2000 when the police brutally killed 13 Arab protestors with impunity. It worsened again in 2017 as the result of two issues: the continued police killings of Arab citizens and the demolition of “illegal” buildings in the city of Qalansuwa. Moreover, Israel passed the Jewish Nation-State Law in July 2018, which declares and defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, downgrades Arabic from an official language to a language with special status, and encourages the development of Jewish settlements. These recent developments only heighten the sense of hostility and alienation Arabs feel emanating from the Israeli state and its institutions.
Even more, statements by Israeli policymakers, such as Gilad Erdan, deflect blame from the police to Arab culture and contribute to this sense of alienation. Erdan thinks the reason for violence in the Palestinian community in Israel is because “Arab society is a very, very violent society." He continued, "It’s because in their culture, disputes, rather than ending with a lawsuit, end with a knife or weapon being drawn. It’s because a mother can give her approval to her son to murder the sister because she is dating a man the family does not like.” Bezalel Smotrich, the transportation minister, echoed Erdan when he took to Twitter saying, "We are in luck that the Arabs boycotted the opening ceremony of the 22nd Knesset. They would have shot into the air to express happiness/sadness/their protest/ because that's their habit, and then, of course, blame the police." These statements increase the mistrust and anger the Palestinian community feel in Israel—racist narratives portraying the Arab community as innately violent only divert responsibility from the state. Such comments are another reminder to the community of its second class status and the state’s racism. They exemplify state’s marginalization of the community as second class citizens and its concerns.
The Palestinian leadership in Israel believe Israeli policymakers are misplacing responsibility on the Palestinian community in Israel. Instead, Palestinian leadership blames the police for the increase in firearms bought in the community and a disregard for addressing crime. In 2013, police projected there were around 400,000 unlicensed guns in Israel. Palestinian citizens of Israel own the majority of these weapons. The conclusions of the 2017 comptroller evaluation of police efforts to address gun violence in Arab communities validates these concerns. The report sheds light on the lack of coordination between police units, as well as between police and other law enforcement groups. Even more, findings suggest that police suffer from an insufficient labor force, with smaller teams of police allocated to stations serving predominantly Arab populations. Perhaps the most striking evidence of police inadequacy is the 2014 to 2017 unsolved murder case rate, which stands at about 70 percent. A Haaretz investigation found that this year, the police solved the murder cases in the Jewish community at twice the rate as those in Israel’s Palestinian community. According to the investigation, the police solved only 31 percent of murders of Arabs in 2019 so far, 22 out of 71, while in the Jewish community it solved 58 percent of murders, 21 out of 36.
Due to the inadequate police and state response, the Arab political and civil leadership proposed that gun violence in the community should be addressed through a variety of tactics. They believe more effective and egalitarian police interventions, as well as engaging in long-term processes to effect change and raise awareness within Arab communities themselves, will reduce gun violence. The Palestinian community in Israel appears to support such an increased police presence. According to a report by the Abraham Fund, 77 percent of Arabs support the opening of a police station in their cities and towns. Moreover, 79 percent of Arab citizens say they are willing to report crimes or offences they witness to the police. A large majority of Arab citizens—72 percent—support the integration of Arabs on to the police force, and 48 percent would be willing to serve in the police force themselves or support one of their relatives doing so.
Due to the recent immense public pressure from the community and its leaders, which started after the most recent Israeli elections, Israeli policymakers and security institutions started outlining their plans to address gun violence in the community. On October 4, Erdan called the situation an "emergency," claiming the police should "fight violence just as they fight terrorism." To address this emergency, he pledged to commit 600 police officers to deal with the wave of violence the Palestinian community in Israel. More recently, the Israeli police announced on Twitter that they would “set up three Border Police mission headquarters. The headquarters, to be established in Acre, and Wadi Ara, Jasser a-Zarqa and Fordis (Coastal District). Already in the coming days.”
Although the police and the state need to do more to counter crime and violence in the Palestinian community in Israel, increasing state intervention alone will not address the root causes behind the rise of violent crime in the community. These solutions are mainly focused on a militarized approach to addressing crime in the community. They can help in managing the issue, but not in preventing it. The availability of illegal firearms is a symptom—rather than a cause—of the larger inequality facing Palestinian citizens in Israel and lack of trust in state’s institutions. To address inequality, the community and the state must attend to the structural causes of disenfranchisement: limited educational attainment, rampant unemployment, and high poverty rates, to name a few. The police force serves as a hallmark institution of Israeli power and control, and as such, cannot be expected to remedy any problem facing Israel’s Palestinian community easily. Increased police presence in Palestinian communities will neither be sufficient nor effective in addressing gun violence without transforming the police’s purpose entirely. So long as the Israeli police force serves as the nation-state’s instrument for actively legislating racist policies, Israel’s Palestinian community will rightfully distrust it. An increase in police presence and involvement needs to be accompanied by state investment in initiatives and projects to address the persistent inequality experienced by the Palestinian community in Israel daily.
Anwar Mhajne is a visiting assistant professor at Stonehill College, where she writes and teaches about gender, religion, security, and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on Twitter @mhajneam.