Posted on October 6, 2021

Violent Crime Spikes Among Arabs in Israel as Officials Admit Neglect

Isabel Kershner, New York Times, October 2, 2021

After a day of work in construction, Alaa Sarsour, 25, showered, dressed and walked the short distance to his friend’s pre-wedding henna party in a cobbled alley festooned with ribbons in the old heart of Taibeh, an Arab town in central Israel.

Suddenly, mid-celebration, a wild burst of bullets split the cool night air, hitting Mr. Sarsour and five other guests. Mr. Sarsour died in his brother’s lap, relatives said, apparently the victim of a simmering feud between the gunman — a friend of the groom who had been at the party moments earlier — and a member of Mr. Sarsour’s family.

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

The killings — not by Israeli soldiers but by Arab criminals — account for about 70 percent of all Israeli homicides, though Arabs represent just over 20 percent of the population. The surging violence has shocked the country and put a spotlight on what the government acknowledges to have been decades of neglect of crime in Arab communities.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has described the violence as a “national blight” and will head a new ministerial task force to combat the problem that is set to meet on Sunday.

Omer Bar-Lev, who as Israel’s minister of public security oversees the country’s police force, decried what he said was “the prevailing assumption that as long as they are killing each other, that’s their problem.”

The spike in killings has spawned an “Arab Lives Matter” campaign. But unlike the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, Arab leaders are begging for police action.

“Can the Israel police really not overcome a bunch of criminal gangs?” demanded Ayman Odeh, the leader of an Arab alliance in Israel’s Parliament, at a demonstration last week. “Of course it can, but to put it simply, it treats us as its backyard.”

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

Fewer than a quarter of the cases have been solved, a symptom, critics say, of both police indifference and Arab distrust of the police.

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

In an impassioned Twitter thread the morning after the Taibeh wedding shooting, Mr. Bar-Lev, the minister of public security, blamed decades of government neglect for the problems of Arab communities, and declared combating crime there the central mission of his ministry and the police.

Arab leaders, experts and government officials attribute the spike in internecine violence mostly to the rise of well-armed Arab crime organizations involved in loan sharking and protection rackets, brutally enforced by ranks of unemployed, aimless youths eager to be foot soldiers for easy money.

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

Disputes easily turn lethal because Arab communities are awash in illegal weapons.

Estimates of illegal guns in Arab communities range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, though the Arab population of Israel numbers under two million. “Nobody really knows how to quantify it,” says Tomer Lotan, the director-general of the Ministry of Public Security.


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

The illegal weapons flooding Arab towns are often stolen from the military or smuggled across the border from Jordan, according to the state comptroller, the government 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, comptroller’s reports have said.