Middle East

Israel’s Arab citizens demand justice after alarming rise in gang-related murders

By Hadas Gold, CNN

Haifa, Israel CNN  —  Sajida Abu Salah, clad in all black, is angry.

Standing at a protest march in Haifa against the rising crime wave affecting Arab communities in Israel last week, Abu Salah cries out “Enough! Enough!,” in Arabic-accented Hebrew.

“We want to live in peace and quiet. We want to find who is behind all of this – Why? Why kill these kids?” she demands.

Abu Salah’s son Ali was murdered just the week before on his way to work, a year after a stint in prison. He’s one of the latest victims of the alarming increase in murders targeting Arab Israelis, with more than 170 killed so far this year, numbers far eclipsing those of the same period in previous years (111 were killed in all of 2022).

Abu Salah says she was supposed to be preparing for her son’s wedding. Instead, she was attending the protest where thousands of Israelis – Jews and Arabs – gathered, calling for equal justice.

“I blame the police, the government, the law, the members of the (Israeli Parliament) Knesset. They should look for all the people who are doing these terrible acts,” she says. “Why should they let my child live only 30 years? Why won’t they give him his future?”

The family are Arab citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population. Many speak fluent Hebrew and also identify as Palestinian. But they say they feel like second-class citizens, and claim Israeli authorities are not treating their cases as seriously as those of Jewish Israelis.

Filling a ‘vacuum’

The rise in violence is fueled by organized crime, Israeli officials say. Activists claim gangs prey on the high unemployment rate among young Arab-Israeli men, acting as loan sharks, and force shop keepers and others to pay protection fees. Illegal guns have also flooded Arab towns across Israel, they add, and people are afraid to cooperate in police investigations for fear of reprisal attacks.

Thabet Abu Rass, the co-executive director of Abraham Initiatives, an organization that promotes equality among Israeli Arabs and Jews, says a lack of adequate policing has created a “vacuum” in Israel’s Arab community.

“This vacuum (is) filled by criminal organizations. And they’re doing everything actually, the criminal organizations are protecting, they are collecting protection (money), they are shooting people, they are (loaning) money to people if they want, but also they are making peace, reconciliation and consulting between people. Nobody else is doing this job except the criminal organizations,” Abu Rass says.

Abu Rass says Israeli police are “weak” right now, distracted by political drama, the regular anti-judicial-overhaul protests, and the recent rise in Israeli-Palestinian violence over the past 18 months. According to data from the Abraham Initiatives, few of the recent murders have led to indictments.

“It’s like we are in the different territories than they (Jewish Israelis) are. Like we are not part of Israel. But we are Israeli citizens. We are demanding fair and equal policing,” Abu Rass says.

Many of the victims have been targeted, either as part of the warring gangs or for other reasons. But uninvolved civilians, including several young children and toddlers, have been killed as well, local authorities say.

At the march in Haifa late last week, protesters carried white coffins for each of those victims thus far. Along their sides were messages with what the victim was doing when they were killed. “I went to get a pizza,” says one. “It was my birthday,” says another. Hundreds of women wearing white robes carried signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English with messages like “Arab Blood Matters,” and “Startup nation? More like innovation in discrimination.”

No sense of ‘belonging’

Badee’a Khnifes’ daughter Johara was an anti-violence and women’s rights activist who had participated in US State Department-sponsored programs. She was just 28 years old when she was killed last year after a bomb exploded under her car.

Wearing a white shirt bearing her daughter’s photo, Khnifes, who identifies as an Arab-Druze Israeli citizen, says the police have made little progress on solving her murder other than to suggest it may have been a case of mistaken identity.

“I feel like a neglected stranger in a completely neglected, dictatorial country,” she says. “I don’t have a sense of belonging.”

In the early 2000s, Israeli authorities launched a massive program to tackle a murder wave spurred by organized Jewish criminal activity. Some of the cases even involved extradition from the United States for trial in Israel.

Arab Israelis such as Khnifes want the same effort put towards this wave.

Israelis participate in a protest in Haifa, Israel, against the crime wave impacting their community, on August 31.

“What is happening in our Arab society now, 20 years ago it was in the center (of Israel) and the police did a wonderful job,” Khnifes says, referring to Jewish criminal activity. “We are one people, we are one country, but it means nothing. We are citizens of this country’s government. I want them to treat me and my community the same way they treat the Jewish community, who are our brothers.”

Many in this community, including Arab-Israeli member of parliament Ahmad Tibi, blame the current government – the most right-wing in Israeli history. Israel’s police force falls under the jurisdiction of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, himself once convicted of anti-Arab racism.

“He’s the most inappropriate man to be the minister for National Security. It’s ridiculous how Netanyahu chose this man in this post,” Tibi said. “This man, who is a convict and a terrorist, according to the Israeli court, is leading the police, fighting (with) the police, the police fighting (with) him, and both (are) a failure. And the cost of this failure is a lot of bloodshed in our streets in our community.”

Israel Police, which has publicized several recent major raids targeting crime in the Arab sector, declined CNN’s request for an interview.

Ben Gvir has blamed the crime wave on previous “years of neglect and ignoring warning signs” and has called on the Shin Bet – Israel’s domestic security agency, tasked with combating terrorism – to get involved in solving these crimes. He has claimed that his proposal for a new “national guard” would help as well.

“In the Arab sector, criminal organizations are active that have armed militias with thousands of soldiers and many weapons,” Ben Gvir said last month. “They are terrorist organizations. When they undertake violence on the street, they will turn the fire against the state of Israel.”

‘Internal terrorism’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, created a ministerial committee to fight crime in Arab communities .

He called the crime wave “one of the most significant challenges facing the State of Israel today,” as the committee met on Thursday.

On Thursday the committee announced proposals including giving police additional technology and administrative tools, and increasing financial penalties against criminal organizations. The committee also proposed allowing additional cooperation between the police and Shin Bet, a suggestion Netanyahu has made before.

“We will use all means, including the Shin Bet and the police – all means – in order to defeat this crime,” Netanyahu said last month after the director general of the predominantly Arab city of Tira was murdered. “We have eliminated organized crime in the Jewish sector in Israel and we will eliminate organized crime in the Arab sector in Israel. Every citizen of Israel must feel secure and not under the shadow of the threat of internal terrorism.”

That has led to some pushback, including from Ronen Bar, the head of the Shin Bet, since the agency is primarily tasked with investigating terrorism, although he is reported to have met recently with the heads of Arab municipalities.

“A country that leans toward involving the Shin Bet in every complex issue will transform into a very different country,” Bar told a parliamentary committee last month, according to Israeli media.

Whatever the method used to combat this crime wave, Arab citizens of Israel say it is only a matter of time before this crisis will spill into their Jewish neighbors’ backyards.

“Today this pain is in the Arab society, just like it was 20 years ago in the Jewish society, and it will return to the Jewish society,” Khnifes says. “And I do not wish that.”

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