Since the beginning of 2021, over 100 Arab Israeli citizens have been murdered in Israel. And with the year not over yet, it is likely that the record 113 Arab Israeli victims killed in 2020 will be surpassed. These killings are not at the hands of Israeli soldiers or due to security-related incidents; most involve Arab citizens killing other Arab citizens, often over family feuds or because of organized crime.
Arab Israelis are hardly surprised by the numbers and they are desperate for change. Last month, Sheren Falah Saab, a 34-year-old Arab blogger from the northern Israeli village of Abu Snan, woke up to the news of two murders in Arab towns in one night.
She tweeted the hashtag #Arab_Lives_Matter in Hebrew, and was surprised to see how fast it caught on. Soon social activists, lawmakers and ordinary citizens in Israel began using the hashtag inspired by #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the U.S.
It was a cry for help and a wake-up call at the same time. “The way we talk about minorities needs to be changed, we need to hear more voices and stories from the Arab society … this is where the change will begin,” said Falah Saab. “The complexity of the problem needs to be recognized. It is not just the murders, there are other prices being paid for this rise in crime.”
She was not the first to use the hashtag. A few months earlier, it was introduced by the Abraham Initiatives, a non-governmental organization that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence. But as the uptick in cases made headlines, her tweet gave the concept an additional push.
“It helped bring the issue to the forefront of the public discussion among the Jewish public,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives.
Falah Saab says she has witnessed a recent change in how the mainstream media in Israel is covering the issue. Interviews with bereaved parents are now conducted and representatives from the Arab population, not previously invited into TV studios, are now frequent guests. But this is only the beginning of the major shift that is needed. “In the end, we will need to see the policies made by the decision-makers,” Falah Saab added.
The virtual protest and the increased interest in the matter has come after years in which Israeli authorities neglected the issue, treating it as a sectorial matter. For years there was almost no law enforcement, few attempts at prevention and a seemingly diminished understanding of the core issues that need to be resolved.
When he took office in June, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed to tackle the many problems facing Arab society. From under-employment and under-education, to housing issues and widespread discrimination, the challenges are immense.
“We have finally begun to systematically address violence in the Arab sector,” Bennett said Monday in a speech during the opening of the winter session of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. “What has been neglected for years and has become a lawless territory within the State of Israel, we have begun to deal with, with determination.”
“A young generation has grown up in recent years, without employment, without a framework,” said Falah Saab. “Experts warned about these young people who will deteriorate into crime and violence without the proper solutions.”
She points out that most of the victims are under the age of thirty, and that the younger generation has been scarred and robbed of hope for a better future.
“This is a population with large gaps and inequality in every aspect of life,” said Falah Saab. “If the issue of equal rights will be addressed, we will see a change in everything and fewer Arabs will be murdered.”
While Arab Israelis are citizens with the right to vote, they face a great deal of discrimination. Many Jewish Israelis view them with suspicion, due to their often close ties to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the widespread perception that they identify with the Palestinian national cause.
Throughout the years, there have been several government initiatives and budget allocations meant to tackle the issues plaguing Arab society. However, most promises were not kept and funds did not reach their targets.
Deputy Public Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz, a former senior police officer, has been tasked by the government with leading the current effort. The plan includes increasing police presence in Arab towns and on highways, strengthening intelligence and investigation abilities, increasing law enforcement focused on organized crime, fighting protection rackets and advancing relevant legislation.
The soaring crime rate is not the only evidence of the state’s poor handling of the situation. Only a fraction of the murder cases are solved, a testament to the low priority given to them by the police, but also to the lack of cooperation of the Arab population with law enforcement.
“The police are under a lot of pressure,” said Abu Rass. “There is a feeling that the police are helpless. The majority of the Arab society does not have faith in the police and is increasingly scornful toward it.”
Footage of an Arab suspect punching a police officer in an Arab town in northern Israel over the weekend sent shock waves throughout the country, adding to this rising sentiment.
As the perception of the police continues to decline, organized crime in the Arab sector has become more audacious and sophisticated. Frequent kidnappings, use of technology and the increased ability to lure unemployed youngsters to undertake criminal activities make the job even harder for law enforcement in Israel.
Unlike the BLM movement in the U.S., the majority of the Arab population in Israel is looking for greater police involvement, not less, even though the Israel Police is largely mistrusted by the minority, which is a large hurdle to overcome. Meanwhile, an announcement earlier this week the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet would be involved in tackling crime and violence in the Arab sector drew widespread criticism.
“It makes it look like the treatment of the Arab problem is always about national security,” said Abu Rass, “but this is a personal security matter.” Bennett defended the contentious move. “The Arab public must understand that the security forces are not the enemy – they are the solution,” he said at a meeting of the special ministerial committee held Sunday to discuss the violence in the Arab sector.
While the statistics are looking grim for this year and the violence is not subsiding, there is still hope. “The Arab society is undergoing a major crisis,” said Abu Rass. “Despite the great fear in the society, there are enough positive forces that will overcome the crime wave.”
“As long as the issue is being discussed and thought over, we are in the right direction, but ask me in a few months,” Falah Saab concluded.
The article was written by Keren Setton and reprinted with permission from TheMediaLine