Hard Questions, Tough Answers: The dangerous wave of violence sweeping the Arab sector in Israel (October 11, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: More than 100 Arab citizens of Israel killed thus far in 2021 by Arab gang violence. Arab villages where people fear to walk the streets. Illegal weapons everywhere. What is happening among Palestinian citizens of Israel?

A: First, let’s note that most Arab citizens of Israel are law-abiding. They themselves increasingly acknowledge that the criminal elements taking over their local councils and extorting protection money can only be suppressed by major governmental intervention. Indeed, it is Palestinian Israelis who have led the unprecedented calls for the IDF and the Shin Bet to get involved in rooting out crime in the Arab sector.

The list of societal lacunae in Arab society in Israel is long. It starts with neglect of illegal building activities and gangs taking over public property. Local councils are infiltrated by criminal elements. When criminals are caught, the courts are allegedly too lenient. There are even allegations that Arabs who serve as Shin Bet sources in the fight against terrorism abuse their ‘protected’ status to engage in criminal activities.

Then there is the covid-19 epidemic, which seems to have encouraged violent criminality in many places in the world. In the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, the total absence of a peace process in recent years has contributed to low morale and alienation among Israel’s Arab population. Attempts in recent years by Netanyahu governments to transfer generous development funds to Arab municipalities backfired when criminal elements got their hands on the money.

Behind all these negative developments there lurks an underworld of armed gangs.


Q: Indeed, it seems like the weaponry flooding the Arab street is the most immediate problem . . .

A: More than 90 percent of the illegal weaponry in Israel, including rockets and grenades, is held by Palestinian Israelis, who constitute around 20 percent of the population. Improvised weapons made in the West Bank, weapons stolen from the IDF or smuggled from Jordan, toy assault rifles cleverly converted to usable lethal weapons--all are available and all account for the high rate of gun deaths among the Arab community. (In contrast to this statistic for unlicensed arms, the link between licensed weapons and civilian deaths in Israel is low, somewhere between Japan and Switzerland.)


Q: And the more basic problems? Those linked to Israeli Arabs as a minority, to systemic discrimination, to the broader Palestinian issue?

A: Since 1948, to be an Arab minority in a Jewish state surrounded by hostile Arab states has almost by definition placed a huge burden on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. No doubt the Nation State Law of 2018, which effectively relegated Arabs and the Arabic language to secondary constitutional status, has contributed to overall alienation. Decades of sharp and highly discriminatory restrictions on the expansion of Arab municipalities have sparked criminality regarding land and construction.

Lack of trust in the government is sharply reflected in the low covid vaccination rate among Palestinian citizens of Israel, who as a consequence constitute 37 percent of seriously ill Israelis and those testing positive for COVID. Yet in a recent Israel Democracy Institute poll, 53 percent of Arabs had enough trust (or, alternatively, were desperate enough) to cite “combating crime in the Arab sector” as the Bennet government’s primary task for the coming year. Only seven percent cited “attaining agreement with the Palestinians” as the primary task.


Q: There has been a lot of talk of the IDF and the Shin Bet reinforcing the Israel Police presence in the Arab sector . . .

A: As noted, even some Arab citizens of Israel have become so concerned with what is happening that they have suggested this--an unprecedented development for a society that traditionally sees the IDF and the Shin Bet as oppressors. Lest we forget, Israel’s Arabs were ruled by the army under martial law between 1949 and 1966.

But this is not a simple proposition. Both of these institutions are mandated to deal with external threats to Israel’s overall security, and not with law-and-order issues inside Israel. The IDF and Shin Bet chiefs are extremely reluctant to get involved. Introducing the two external security arms into Israeli Arab society could alienate Arab citizens of Israel even further. The head of the Shin Bet was even against involvement in contact-tracing for covid in Israeli society in general (Arabs and Jews). The Attorney General has nixed a Shin Bet role.

Accordingly, for the moment, IDF ‘involvement’ will be confined to curtailing the flow of arms from Jordan and stopping thievery of weapons from IDF bases. Needless to say, the reluctance of Israel’s external security forces to get involved in a domestic issue like crime in Israel’s Arab communities is a credit to their leaders.


Q: Yet all this is happening at the same time that Arab citizens are increasingly integrated into broad swaths of Israeli society. How do you explain the dissonance?

A: The dissonance is indeed striking. Arab citizens of Israel are increasingly filling the ranks of the country’s doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, and professors. Strategic think tanks in Israeli universities that deal with security issues now sport Arab research associates. There are more and more Arabs in hi-tech.

The other day I walked into my bank in a suburb of Tel Aviv and was served by an Arab teller. She is apparently there because there are Arab customers in this suburb too, and they need to bank in Arabic. We eat in Arab restaurants and, increasingly, vacation in Arab bed and breakfasts.

For the first time, an Arab political party, Raam, has joined the governing coalition. Its demands are confined strictly to the fight for law and order and equal status under the law in Arab society--nothing to do with the dormant (and controversial) peace process.

Yet Arab communities are beset by gang shootings and crime. The dissonance seems to correspond with glaring socio-economic gaps in Arab society in Israel, particularly among Negev Bedouin. Here is Dr. Sharef Hasan, an Arab educator writing in Yediot Aharonot: “Tens of thousands of Arab youth live in difficult socio-economic conditions, exposed to numerous dangers. It is from their ranks that criminal gangs find their ‘soldiers’, those who will shoot at people for money.”

Here we have two parallel tracks. On one track are those Palestinian citizens of Israel who, despite socio-economic handicaps and despite perceiving themselves as second-class citizens in a country that constitutionally prioritizes Jewish citizens, take advantage of the Israeli educational system, Israeli prosperity, and relative social mobility. On the other are those victimized by both endemic corruption and backwardness in many Arab municipalities. Then there is the Israel Police, whose attitude until a few years ago was neglect: as long as crime remained within the Arab sector, the (Jewish) authorities did not seem to care.

The neglect has now apparently ended because crime cannot be confined to the Arab sector. There are roads in the Negev where both Jews and Arabs fear to drive at night because of violence. IDF bases are being looted for weapons by nearby Arabs. Weapons are smuggled in from Jordan and the West Bank. Israel Police success in recent years in eliminating many aspects of organized crime in the Jewish sector appears to have spawned organized crime in the Arab sector: the Arab ‘soldiers’ of earlier Jewish crime syndicates have become ‘captains’ of today’s Arab crime syndicates.


Q: So there are now strategic ramifications for Israeli society as a whole . . .

A: Definitely. Arms smuggling to Israeli Arab gangs from Jordan and the West Bank can easily have broader regional security ramifications.

And crime among Arab communities does not have to be confined forever to the Arab sector in Israel. During the 11-day mini-war with Gaza-based Hamas last May, dubbed in Israel Operation Guardian of the Walls, Arabs attacking Jews in mixed cities like Lod and Jaffa were the same criminal elements the Israel Police had been neglecting. (Jews attacking Arabs were a more mixed bunch, including settlers from the West Bank, but that’s a different issue.)

The proliferation of illegal weaponry in the hands of Arab criminals is so extensive that one can easily conjure up a scenario whereby, at a time of war, say, on the Syria-Lebanon front, IDF reinforcements heading north are ambushed on key roads by Arabs from adjacent villages and towns. From the status of Israeli criminal gangs, they will have transformed themselves into armed Palestinian militia who identify with Hezbollah or Syria.

A state that does not maintain its monopoly on the use of force is jeopardizing its fundamental security. At some level, criminal violence gone wild might affect not only law-and-order among Jews, but Israel’s deterrent image in the eyes of neighbors like Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.


Q: Is everyone--Arabs and Jews--now alarmed enough to do something serious about this problem?

A: It appears so, although only time will tell. The government has approved a multi-pronged effort that includes a major anti-corruption campaign with both economic and legal arms in Arab municipalities. Tougher criminal laws are planned. Criminal gangs and illegal weaponry will be targeted. New programs will be introduced in Arab schools to prevent drop-outs and to steer wayward pupils away from criminality.

A former Israel Police general, Yoav Segalovich, now a member of Knesset, has been appointed coordinator of the campaign. Both Arab parties--Raam, which is in the government, and the Joint List, which remains in the parliamentary opposition--have expressed their backing and approval.

Segalovich and Minister of Public Security Omer Barlev promise initial results within six months. The outcome of their efforts could affect Arab-Jewish relations in Israel for a long time to come.