Palestinian citizens of Israel escalated their protests against the police and government on Thursday by bringing sections of the country’s busiest highway to a crawl as they drove in a slow convoy towards Jerusalem for a major demonstration.
It was the latest in a series of high-stakes confrontations by Israel’s large Palestinian minority with the authorities to express their anger at police inaction over a tide of violence that has swept their communities. More than 70 lives have been claimed so far this year.
Over the weekend, Palestinians in Israel took over numerous road junctions to block traffic, causing long tailbacks, as they sought to bring their campaign to the attention of a seemingly indifferent Israeli Jewish public.
Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens – descended from those who avoided expulsion during Israel’s creation in 1948 – comprise a fifth of the country’s population. However, this year, they account for as much as 80 percent of the country’s murders – up from 5 percent 20 years ago.
According to figures from the Aman Centre, which campaigns against violence in Palestinian society in Israel, September was the deadliest month ever: 13 Palestinian citizens were killed in criminal activity.
An investigation by the Haaretz newspaper this week found that the police had solved less than a third of murders in Palestinian communities in Israel this year – half its clear-up rate in Jewish communities.
Towns turn lawless
Palestinian citizens of Israel also held a one-day general strike last week, shutting down schools, local authority offices and shops, to protest the police’s long-running failure to crack down on well-known crime families, collect their arsenal of weapons, and properly investigate the killing spree.
Leaders of the Palestinian minority say their towns and villages have been largely abandoned by the police, creating a vacuum filled by criminals. Many of the killings are the result of vendettas, criminal gangs’ turf wars and domestic violence. In several incidents bystanders have been shot too, including children. Tens of thousands attended the largest protest in Majd al-Krum, a Palestinian town in the central Galilee, where three men died in a shoot-out last week.
But there are also widespread suspicions that the police are actively complicit in the bloodshed. Historically, the police have recruited Palestinian crime families as informers, as a way to gather inside information on the minority.
The impression, say community leaders, is that the police are more interested in maintaining relations with these criminals than tackling the crime wave.
Ties to criminals
The Higher Follow-Up Committee, effectively the collective political leadership of the Palestinian minority, issued a statement over the weekend noting “a conspiracy between the police and the criminal organisations. The authorities know very well where the weapons are coming from into the Arab towns”.
Police estimates suggest that there may be as many as half a million weapons in Palestinian communities in Israel. Most are believed to have originated from Israeli army bases.
Ahmed Tibi, a senior Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, observed: “It is delusional to think that police intelligence is unaware of who is bringing them in and where from. If it were weapons smuggled in to be used by terrorists, the weapons would’ve been confiscated, and the responsible individuals put in jail at a moment’s notice.”
The committee’s statement complained that Israeli officials were exploiting the tide of violence as a way to “attack the social fabric of the Arab public”.
Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of the Israeli parliament for the Joint List faction, which comprises four Palestinian parties, said police had the tools to prevent the violence but lacked the will.
“People are wondering, how is it possible the police suddenly become incompetent only when the problem is curbing crime in Arab communities?” she told Middle East Eye.
Like many, Touma-Suleiman suspects foul play. She believes Israeli officials hope to replace the existing Palestinian national leadership in Israel with compromised local leaders tied to the criminal underworld.
“There is a rotten circle of interests between the police, the politicians and the criminal class to maintain a situation where Palestinian communities are left weak, divided and fearful,” she said.
‘Very violent society’
The police, on the other hand, argue that their efforts have been stymied by a lack of cooperation. Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, told MEE the crime wave was largely the result of a “failure by the Arab leadership to help the police”.
The Palestinian minority’s leaders, however, complain that they have found few allies in a years-long campaign to end the bloodshed.
That was highlighted this week by comments from the public security minister, Gilad Erdan, an ultra-nationalist ally of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He attributed the wave of killings to a violent “Arab culture”.
He told Jerusalem Radio on Monday: “It’s a very, very – and another thousand times – very violent society. … A lot of disputes that end here [among Israeli Jews] with a lawsuit, there they pull out a knife and gun.”
Accusing the government of “blaming the victim”, Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, observed that crime figures gave the lie to Erdan’s claim.
In an article for Haaretz this week, he pointed out that, despite the large number of weapons in the occupied territories, the rate of murders among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was little different from that in Israeli Jewish society.
Some 20 years ago, he added, the number of murders among Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel was identical. But in recent years, the rate had rocketed in Israel’s Palestinian communities, to six times that of Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Thabet Abu Ras, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which promotes coexistence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens, told MEE that Israel’s Palestinian communities had been hit by a perfect storm of problems created by officials.
A lack of public institutions, from police stations to governmental offices, meant they were effectively cut off from the rest of Israeli society. Poverty and neglect had created conditions ripe for exploitation by criminals, he said.
The state’s confiscation of land from Palestinian communities and a policy of denying them new building permits had created serious overcrowding and housing shortages that readily triggered disputes between families that turned violent.
The absence of banking services in many Palestinian towns, and the difficulties Palestinian citizens faced gaining loans and mortgages, had strengthened the role of criminal groups. They lent money at extortionate rates that borrowers could often not afford to repay.
Weak local institutions in Palestinian communities and the state’s cultivation of extended families as an alternative leadership had paved the way for criminal groups to intimidate local officials to gain control over communal resources.
And a major police crackdown in Jewish communities like Nahariya and Netanyahu in recent years had forced Jewish crime gangs to make alliances with organised criminal groups in Palestinian communities in Israel to continue their activities.
“Crime is the one place in Israel where there is some kind of meaningful integration between Jews and Arabs,” he said.
In his Haaretz article, Odeh blamed “government racism” that “sees us as enemies instead of citizens”. He called on ordinary Israeli Jews “who believe in democracy to join us in a battle for a society without guns. Eliminating violence is in the civic interest of us all”.
The move to the streets is seen as a way to bypass the seeming indifference of Israeli officials by appealing directly to ordinary Israeli Jews.
The national police command is almost exclusively Jewish, and was led until recently by a former secret police officer, Roni Alsheikh, known for being an avid supporter of the illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
Few police stations are operational in Palestinian communities in Israel, and the force is widely distrusted. Police officers typically enter the country’s Palestinian towns and villages in military-style operations to enforce house demolitions or to forcibly quell demonstrations.
Trust has been further eroded by the fact that the paramilitary Border Police, a major component of Israel’s security services, operate in Palestinian communities both inside Israel and in the occupied West Bank, using similar methods of violent repression.
Dozens of Palestinian citizens have died at the hands of the police over the past two decades, often in unexplained circumstances. Such deaths are rarely investigated.
And a judicial-led commission of inquiry nearly two decades ago concluded that there was a culture in the police of treating Palestinian citizens as “an enemy”. Little seems to have changed since.
There are similar problems at the political level. Palestinian parties have always been excluded from governmental roles, and the Palestinian minority’s legislators have no influence in the parliament.
Both Erdan and Netanyahu regularly incite against the Palestinian minority. During last month’s election campaign, Netanyahu sought to mobilise Jewish voters by warning: “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.”
Erdan was also recently exposed as having actively help cover up evidence that police unlawfully shot a Palestinian citizen dead during house demolitions in the Negev village of Umm al-Hiran in 2017. In the same incident, Odeh of the Joint List is believed to have been shot with a sponge-tipped bullet by police.
This hostility has forced the community’s leadership to take drastic action to make their concerns visible to the wider Israeli public.
In addition to the go-slow on Road 6 highway this week, there are plans for large protests outside the regional police headquarters in Nazareth later this month and for a protest tent next to government offices in Jerusalem.
The blocking of roads is a form of direct action familiar in Israel – but mainly from the Jewish public. Settlers have repeatedly obstructed roads, as well as throwing stones at the security services, as part of their demonstrations.
But whereas Jewish protests, however violent they become, are usually handled delicately by Israeli security forces, Palestinian citizens are used to very different responses to their own demonstrations, especially when they take place in areas visible to the Jewish public.
Palestinian demonstrators in Israel have often found themselves beaten, doused in tear gas and arrested.
Last year a leading Palestinian community activist, Jafar Farah, was arrested along with 20 others during a peaceful protest in the city of Haifa against the army’s lethal shooting of demonstrators in Gaza. While in custody, a police officer broke his leg and is reported to have assaulted several other demonstrators.
But etched even more deeply into the Palestinian minority’s collective memory are the so-called October 2000 events, when Palestinian citizens demonstrated on main roads in solidarity with Palestinians being killed by the Israeli army in large numbers at the start of the second intifada.
In a matter of days, the police had killed 13 Palestinian citizens and wounded many hundreds more using live ammunition and rubber-coated steel bullets. Investigations were cursory and not one policeman was charged over those deaths.
Demand for equal treatment
This time Palestinian leaders in Israel trust the police will have to tread more carefully.
At a protest outside Nazareth last Friday, hundreds of protesters blocked a road junction leading to the neighbouring Jewish city of Nof Hagalil. Furious motorists, caught in lengthy tailbacks, honked their horns in frustration.
A single policeman watched from inside an unmarked car at the side of the intersection. When spotted, he emerged to warn the demonstrators that they would be allowed an hour to cause disruption before his colleagues would arrive to make arrests.
Unusually, given the large number of such protests last weekend, not a single arrest or injury was reported.
The police caution is a reflection of their difficulties. The demonstrations are not overtly “political” – or not in the ordinary sense understood by the Jewish public – because they do not relate to issues in the occupied territories.
The chief demand is for a right to personal security – and the police themselves are the focus of the protests.
For years, Palestinian leaders in Israel have been calling for a new approach by the authorities to help end the violence, including enforcement campaigns, the collection of guns, and education programmes to change attitudes to crime.
“Our demands fell on deaf ears,” Odeh, head of the Joint List, wrote in his Haaretz article. He and other community leaders hope to prick the consciences of liberal Israeli Jews.
The question is whether the protests, which have been causing major disruption, rebound on the government for appearing intransigent or the Palestinian minority for inconveniencing the Jewish public.
More police stations
There are initial signs that the police and government are starting to feel the heat.
Erdan called for a meeting with the minority’s leaders this week to try to ease tensions. Netanyahu also pledged to allocate extra resources, including manpower, to tackle the crime wave.
But there are complex obstacles for both sides to resolve the stand-off.
Some of the placards at the Nazareth protest called not for more engagement by the police but less. There are genuine fears that Netanyahu’s idea of “greater enforcement” will simply mean more heavy-handed and provocative police invasions of Palestinian communities in Israel to create an impression that something is being done.
Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, said seven new police stations had been opened in Palestinian communities in the past few years and that there were plans for another eight to open in the next year.
‘Destroyed from within’
But one of the protest organisers in Nazareth, where there are already two big police stations, said the problem was not just a lack of policing, it also involved the wrong kind of policing.
Kamar Khutaba, a 27-year-old sports teacher, told MEE: “Palestinian blood doesn’t matter to the police. They know how to tackle crime in our communities but they choose not to.
“We are telling the police either do your job properly or get out. Our society is being destroyed from within and the police are allowing it to happen.”
In Jisr al-Zarqa, a poor Palestinian village on Israel’s Mediterranean coast where gun crime is now rampant, the local council leader told Haaretz last month that he had been wrong to support the opening of a police station in his community.
“We made absolutely no progress,” Amash Morad Fathi said, stating that gun crime and the drugs trade were worse than ever. “The police have no leads,” he added, noting that the police had not located a single gun.
He regretted ignoring warnings from fellow council members that the police would use their presence as a pretext to “suffocate” the village by setting up roadblocks and issuing traffic fines.
Abu Ras observed that the police station was only operational during daylight hours. “That’s useless when 90 percent of the crime takes place at night,” he said.
‘Fight against terror’
What is urgently needed, Palestinian leaders in Israel agree, is a dramatic change in police culture.
In his response to the protests, Erdan equated the fight against criminal violence in Israel’s Palestinian communities to the “fight against terrorism”. A Haaretz editorial warned that it was a sign that Erdan and the government continue to view Palestinian citizens as “an internal enemy”.
Even if Palestinian leaders in Israel cannot influence regional issues, such as the peace process, they want to advance the basic civic rights of their community. The question is whether it can be done inside a self-declared Jewish state.
Odeh broke with a long-standing political tradition of the Palestinian community in Israel when he chose sides last month in the ongoing coalition negotiations over forming a Zionist government. He recommended Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff and head of the Blue and White party, over Netanyahu for prime minister.
Gantz has indicated he may be prepared to make concessions on civic, if not the national, rights of Palestinians in Israel. Nonetheless, improving policing in Israel’s Palestinian communities may prove a tall order.
Abu Ras and others note that the police still see their role chiefly in ethnic terms – as protecting the Jewish public from a supposed Palestinian menace, both in Israel and in the occupied territories.
“The difficulty is that policing towards the Arab community in Israel is not seen primarily in civic terms, as preventing crime, but in security terms, as dealing with a national threat,” he said.
“That whole approach has to change, otherwise the criminal gangs in Arab communities will continue to grow stronger.”
• First published in Middle East Eye