The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As violent crime spikes in Israeli Arab towns, so does anger over a double standard in policing

Israeli Arabs protest violence, organized crime and recent killings during an Oct. 3 march in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northern Israel.
Israeli Arabs protest violence, organized crime and recent killings during an Oct. 3 march in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northern Israel. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

UMM AL-FAHM, Israel — Mohamed Mahamid had just stepped out to buy cigarettes when the Mazda 5 raced by, spraying the bullets and chaos that have become nearly routine in Arab towns like this.

 He dashed back to his auto parts store. His son Ibrahim, 25, was aiding terrified shoppers at the tobacco kiosk when the Mazda came back for a second pass. Ibrahim was fatally shot twice in the back, a collateral casualty of someone else’s family feud. 

“He was just an innocent; he did nothing wrong but be on his own street,” Mohamed said a week after his son’s death.

Ibrahim was one of more than 75 Israeli Arabs killed in violent attacks so far this year, a spike of nearly 50 percent over 2018. The wave of violence has prompted outrage in the country’s Arab communities, near-daily protests and accusations that law enforcement protects some Israelis more than others. On Tuesday, another man was shot dead after right after an anti-violence protest.

 Israel’s Arab minority, 20 percent of the country’s population of about 9 million, accounts for more than half of deaths from violent crime. Arab citizens say they are under siege in areas awash with illegal weapons, nightly gunfire, organized crime and revenge killings. They complain the violence is allowed to fester even when neighbors try to enlist police help. In this city of 57,000, only two of last year’s 11 murders were solved, according to Mayor Samir Mahamid.

Israeli Arabs say such a crime wave would never be tolerated in the country’s Jewish neighborhoods, where fatalities are rare and police are praised for high-tech crime-fighting. Ibrahim’s brother Yosef, who raced to his side, said it took more than 20 minutes for police to arrive and even longer for the ambulance.  

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“They could have helped him, but he died before they came,” Yosef said, sipping coffee with his father and uncles in front of their house. “If you call emergency in Tel Aviv, they are there in two minutes.” Police could not provide information on the response time after Ibrahim’s shooting. 

 Israeli Arab politicians are sprinting to keep up with the popular outcry that has thousands of citizens, many of them schoolchildren and families, protesting in cities throughout the country. In most cases, Israeli police have stood by as throngs blocked traffic and carried signs in Hebrew and English reading “Enough is enough” and “We want peace.” 

 Many said their Jewish neighbors have been understanding, even when they are inconvenienced. 

 “We feel sympathy, and that’s been different this time,” said Yousef Jabareen, a member of the Israeli parliament from Umm al-Fahm who handed out water to drivers blocked by the protest that followed Ibrahim’s funeral. 

Jabareen, a former law professor who studied the American civil rights movement at Georgetown University, said the disparity in policing reflects the second-class status of Arabs in heavily segregated Israeli society. 

Arabs have the right to vote and other privileges of citizenship, but their neighborhoods are typically more crowded and receive less funding for schools and infrastructure, Jabareen said.

 “It is not only that the police have neglected Arab citizens of Israel, it is the government as a whole,” said Ruth Lewin-Chen of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit that promotes equality between Jewish and Arab citizens.

 Israeli officials acknowledge that police have neglected Arab neighborhoods for decades. That has begun to change, the officials say, with the hiring of more police, including Arab recruits, and the opening of seven stations in affected areas, with two more scheduled to open before the end of the year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently responded to the protests with a promise to spend more on law enforcement in Arab neighborhoods. 

 “We have started an operation to deal with the violence, but it’s only been three years to fix what was not dealt with for more than 70 years,” said Maj. Gen. Jamal Hakroosh, head of Arab Israeli policing for Israel’s National Police. He is the first Arab to be appointed to such a high rank in the force.

 Hakroosh said police have also boosted their efforts to collect illegal weapons and are working with the army to stop the flow of guns from the West Bank. Police plan next month to begin asking people to turn in their weapons, no questions asked.

“I hope people will return the guns,” Hakroosh said. “In the past, similar operations did not work because we did not have support from the community leaders.” 

Police say one of the biggest barriers in Arab communities is a lack of trust and cooperation. Witnesses clam up, crimes go unreported. One police commander told a criminologist at Hebrew University that Arab residents sometimes actively thwart investigators, according to a review of his research in the daily Haaretz. “They remove the closed-circuit cameras, collect the bullet shells, wash down the scene,” the commander said.

 “There is a culture of tribes and the families remain silent, like a brick wall,” said Mordechai Kedar, a researcher of Arab societies at Bar-Ilan University.

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The mistrust is no surprise, Arab leaders say, when most of their constituents view the police as an extension of a government that doesn’t value them.

 “People see the police as part of the mechanics of discrimination,” said Jabareen.

 Some Jewish Israelis view Arab culture as inherently violent. They point to a history of revenge attacks, clan feuds and so-called honor killings. 

This month, Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, was criticized by Arab leaders when he told a Jerusalem radio station that the violence stemmed in part from “cultural codes.” He said, “Arab society, and I say this sadly, is a society that is very, very violent.”

 Erdan said critics took his comments out of context. In an interview, the minister said he has made tackling violence in the Arab community a priority, citing the boost in Arab officers, new stations and programs to stem the flow of guns. But he said Arab leaders need to do more to make the police more effective in their towns. 

 “Because of the national conflict between Jews and Arabs, some in the Arab community believe that cooperating with the police means supporting Israeli sovereignty,” said Erdan. “But the Arab leadership needs to embrace the police and help them become a positive force in their society.”

A few days after his radio comments, Erdan met with Arab leaders and discussed ways to address the violence, including a plan to target organized crime.

 “There was some progress and it’s important for us to continue the conversation with the police and the minister,” said Ayman Odeh, a parliament member and leader of a coalition of Arab parties. “But it’s still not enough and we will continue the battle.”

 In Umm al-Fahm, Mayor Mahamid agreed that Arab citizens must be ready to change. “It is not just a matter for police,” he said in an interview in city hall a few blocks from where Ibrahim was shot. “We have to take this issue back to the house, to the parents.”

Mahamid said he’s expanding an informal network of community mediators to broker peace between disputing families and wants to recruit 25 more imams and teachers to short-circuit the cycle of shootings. 

Such an effort might have saved Ibrahim.

 “Everybody knew about this feud and no one stopped it,” his father said, fingering prayer beads, his eyes rimmed in red. “And Ibrahim is the one who is dead.” 

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