Killings grip Arab towns in Israel as wave of violence builds

Tribune Content Agency

Gunshots felled Abdel Rahman Kashua last month right in front of a police station, escalating a wave of violence in Arab Israeli cities that’s stoking broader tensions in the country.

The brazen killing of the senior town official in Tira added to more than a dozen attacks this year that have targeted prominent Arab figures ahead of October local elections. The slaying is part of a wave of murders sweeping predominantly Arab cities inside Israel and perpetrated by members of their own community.

The death toll stands at 166 for this year, more than doubling from the same period in 2022. The attacks are compounding what’s also on course to be one of the deadliest years in the occupied West Bank, with a sharp rise in violence between Palestinians and Israeli defense forces.

The latest bloodshed has led to more domestic tumult amid a government overhaul of the judiciary that’s triggered mass protests and a sell off of Israeli assets.

When Tira’s mayor, Maamun Abd Elhay, spoke after the killing at an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, he ripped into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has abandoned Israeli Arabs and left them “drowning in their own blood,” the mayor said. The negligence, he told a crowd of thousands, echoes the government’s divisive judicial plans.

“If public officials are murdered and threatened, we are in complete chaos,” said Ofir Paz Pines, a former government minister now at Tel Aviv University. “This has become a national disaster.”

The crisis comes as Netanyahu faces off against the largest protest movement in Israeli history following his cabinet’s push to weaken the power of judges. The prime minister, who led a multi-billion development drive for Arab communities during an earlier stint in power, has been slow to implement programs inherited from his predecessors that aimed to reduce poverty and crime in the areas.

Chronic hardship and the spread of organized crime are feeding the strife, according to analysts. Still, the violence is exploding at a time when a far-right nationalist coalition is calling the shots in Israel after taking over late last year. The previous government presided over a decrease in killings.

The national security minister now in charge of the police is Itamar Ben Gvir, who was convicted of supporting a Jewish terror organization and inciting racism.

Different Priorities

“Crime in Arab society isn’t currently what the minister and the ministry prioritize,” said Yoni Arie, director of the safe communities program at Abraham Initiatives, an organization that promotes Israeli-Arab co-existence. “But, for many years, Arab society doesn’t trust the police, and the police see Arabs as a security threat.”

The plight of Arab communities stands out even in a society riven by disparities between the rich and the poor. Israel is one of the world’s most unequal high-income countries, with poverty widespread and youth unemployment among Arabs reaching 40%.

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More than four-fifths of Israeli Arabs live in separate cities and communities, nearly all of which occupy the four lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder, as measured by Israel’s assessment of wellbeing.

Although many murders go unsolved by the police, the Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University concluded that more than half over the past six years were carried out by criminal organizations or resulted from clashes between clans and gangs. Another 9% was attributed to domestic violence and personal conflicts.

Lack of Finance

A scant police presence and easy access to illegal firearms — with an estimated 400,000 weapons circulating in Arab towns in 2021 — have made for a lethal combination. Arab citizens, who make up a fifth of the population, accounted for 76% of murder victims in 2023, up slightly from last year.

Many are largely cut off from the Israeli financial system, worsening their economic prospects. In 2020, banks extended only 1.5% of all mortgages to Israeli Arabs.

“When this is the situation, organized crime turns into an alternative banking system,” said Amal Oraby, a lawyer and communications coordinator for the New Israeli Fund. “They give instant loans at very high interest rates. When borrowers struggle to pay back, their entire family becomes a target.”

The proliferation of criminal groups has turned the looming ballot into a battlefield for influence. While many Israeli Arabs choose to sit out national votes, competition and turnout is higher in local elections. Candidates see those polls as a better way to ensure access to resources like land and funds.

Nowhere to Hide

This year, the attacks have affected officials and election hopefuls, along with their families.

A mayoral candidate in Abu-Snan was recently shot dead in an olive grove and another contender was targeted twice in Nazareth, where two of the mayor’s sons and a nephew were killed in separate incidents. A prominent physician running for the post of council head in Kfar Yasif withdrew after shooters hit his house.

Mayors and council leaders in several towns have been placed under high security after their homes were attacked, in some cases with grenades.

In Tira, Kashua became a target for a crime family after a failed blackmail attempt, according to the town’s mayor.

His killing has turned into a reckoning for the government, with Netanyahu saying it crossed a “red line” and vowing to use “all means” — including Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service — to fight crime in Arab areas.

An added fear is of a broad spillover of violence into other societies. Neighboring Druze communities are already experiencing an increase in criminality, though it has yet to spread across the country at large, according to Meir Elran, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Securities Studies.

“Criminal organizations are constantly testing the boundaries and will continue to do so that if they aren’t stopped,” he said.