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. As of this Sunday, 102 Arab citizens of Israel had been murdered in the course of 2023, a rate more than three times as high as in 2022. What is going on? Why?
A. This extremely high rate of violence has caused panic among the Arab citizens of Israel, nearly two million strong. Most of the murders, of Arab men by other Arab men, are by gangs, often clan-based, that have taken over entire swaths of Arab society and are running wild with protection and black-market rackets and gang wars.
Innocent bystanders, including women and children, are killed. Aside from the gang killings, a small but significant portion of the murders are so-called honor killings--all targeting women.
Nor has the violence been confined to Arabs in Israel. The murder rate among Israeli Jews has doubled this year, a phenomenon many experts link at least partially to the Arab sector rate.
Q. What are the underlying causes of this phenomenon?
A. Governance has weakened during the long years of rule by Benjamin Netanyahu. The Arab and particularly the Bedouin sectors have been neglected. The police have been neglected: currently the Israel Police lack some 2000 officers and are unable to recruit more due to poor salaries and poor leadership. No fewer than 11 Israel Police generals have revolted against police chief Kobi Shabtai’s views and tactics and resigned. Currently the police unit responsible for Arab criminal activities lacks a commander.
The jingoistic nationalism and messianic fervor that characterize Netanyahu’s style and rule automatically favor Jews over Arabs. The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, enacted in 2018, has codified this. A sense of alienation toward the state, backed up by the state’s laws, can contribute to an inclination to crime.
Likud Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, father of the anti-liberal ‘judicial revolution’, states that Israel needs judges who consider it a problem that “Arabs are buying apartments in Jewish Galilee communities”. This is but one small example of the way Israel’s most reactionary, racist governing coalition is encouraging despair and anarchy among Israel’s Arab community.
True, many Arabs in Israel find a measure of compensation in greater economic and professional integration into Israeli society, which means higher incomes. But for those left out of the boom, the alternative is increasingly gangs and crime. In 2021, 29 percent of Arab 18 to 24-year-olds in Israel--around 60,000 youths--neither worked nor studied.
The law-abiding majority of Arabs in Israel increasingly fear to let their children leave the house at night. In a vicious-circle effect, closed-circuit video-monitoring clips that could incriminate the murderous gangs are destroyed, and Arabs fear to testify, due to the threat of criminal reprisals.
Now factor in the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir of the Jewish Power party, and his chief of police, Kobi Shabtai. Ben Gvir is a racist messianic for whom the concept of ‘governance’ only means protecting settlers from their West Bank Arab neighbors. He and his constituents clearly do not care what happens to Arabs there or in Israel as long as they are killing one another.
Shabtai, who was appointed by Ben Gvir’s Likud predecessor, actually stated in late March (in a phone conversation that Ben Gvir gleefully leaked), “there is nothing that can be done. They kill each other. That is their nature. That is the mentality of the Arabs.”
There has always been anti-Arab racism in Israel. Now it is institutionalized.
Ben Gvir’s disastrous lack of qualifications for holding responsibility for law enforcement in Israel is by now undoubtedly clear even to Prime Minister Netanyahu. But if Netanyahu fires Ben Gvir and Ben Gvir takes his Jewish Power party out of government, Netanyahu has no coalition. If he has no coalition, he has no chance to change the judicial system in order to extricate himself from his trial on multiple charges of corruption. Meanwhile, the Arab citizens of Israel will pay with their lives.
Q. Why was the Arab murder rate so much lower last year?
A. In 2022, Israel enjoyed a year of governance by someone other than Netanyahu: first, Naftali Bennett as prime minister of a coalition that included an Arab party, then Yair Lapid. They took the Arab crime rate seriously. They appointed a retired police general, Yoav Segalovich, as deputy minister of internal security (the ministry’s title was inflated by Ben Gvir to ‘national security’) with responsibility for Arab crime.
Segalovich initiated an anti-crime effort in Israel’s Arab sector that coordinated on a constant basis among no fewer than eight government ministries. They attacked the underlying causes of Arab crime holistically, from the standpoint of tax-evasion, health, education, welfare, infrastructure, etc. Bennett was known to join, hands-on style, Segalovich’s weekly planning meetings with the ministries. The Arab crime rate dropped in a year by 16 percent.
This year, along came Netanyahu and Ben Gvir, cancelled Segalovich’s program, and replaced it with . . . nothing. The crime rate is up 300 percent compared to 2022. Only 25 percent of Arab murders, mostly the honor killings which are relatively easy to solve, lead to court proceedings. That is around one-third the rate for solving Jewish murders, which are also far fewer despite occurring among a population five times larger.
Q. In view of the failure of law enforcement among Arab citizens of Israel, a variety of Israelis--from the prime minister to Arab citizens in villages and towns--are calling for the Shin Bet to play a role. Why not?
A. The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service whose responsibilities include the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has developed highly sophisticated cyber monitoring tools for rooting out Palestinian terrorism. It actually did begin acting against Arab crime in Israel when, in May 2021 in the course of Operation Guardian of the Walls, Arab-Jewish violence broke out in mixed cities like Lod and Acre. This terrorist dimension in a war context justified the Shin Bet role based on “national security” considerations.
But Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, backed by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, opposes introducing the Shin Bet as a kind of auxiliary and highly sophisticated police force. Its investigating tools, semi-judicial methods and interrogation techniques may be tolerated by Israel’s courts because they are employed under military rule in the West Bank, but they would violate the civil rights of (Arab) citizens of Israel. Fighting Hamas in the West Bank is not the same as fighting organized crime among Arabs in Israel.
The Israel Police have access to the Shin Bet’s cyber tools. But the police are too unprofessional, too demoralized, and too underfunded. That explains the ludicrous nature of an additional panacea proposed by Ben Gvir and Shabtai: forming a “National Guard”, meaning in the Israeli context a kind of militia to deal with Arab-related issues. If there is no money and no manpower to beef up the Israel Police, why create yet another force, this one with a racist connotation and a vigilante job definition?
Q. Is there a link here with the situation in the Palestinian Authority?
A. Arab citizens of Israel, unlike Israeli Jews, enjoy open access to West Bank cities, markets, businesses, and universities. Many have family links in the West Bank. These days, too, they have the same access as Jews to countries like Jordan and the UAE. Arab crime families in Israel need weapons: many are smuggled in from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
I have yet to see evidence of actual coordination of criminal activities by Arab crime families in Israel with criminals or terrorists in the West Bank. But it looks inevitable.
Q. Bottom line: what does this Arab crime issue say about Israeli society?
A. Rampant Arab crime in Israel must be understood as yet another aspect of the slippery slope down which Israel and the Palestinians--both in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza--are sliding toward a conflicted, violent, non-democratic one-state binational reality. Israel’s Arabs are too demoralized and too intimidated to generate the leadership necessary to deal with the problem. (West Bank Arabs, too, in the Palestinian Authority, are increasingly demoralized and leaderless, but that is a different issue.)
Israel’s Jewish majority with its burgeoning messianic-racist component is content to either exacerbate the issue (the Nation-State Basic Law) or ignore it (Ben Gvir).
Yet inevitably, Arab violence in Israel will, as we saw in May 2021, become Jewish-Arab violence. And inevitably, Arab violence in Israel will merge with Arab violence in the West Bank. “Las Vegas rules” (what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas) do not apply to the Arab citizens of Israel.