YOSSI MEKELBERG September 08, 2021
There are many facets to the fragile coexistence of Jews and Palestinians living in Israel. Despite sharing the same land for 73 years, they are living through entirely different experiences. In all cases, it is the Palestinian community that fails to enjoy the same quality of life and standard of living as its Jewish neighbors. One particular and worrying discrepancy is in their exposure to violent crime, which has become rampant. Since the beginning of this year alone, 78 Palestinians have been killed in Israel, murdered by other members of their community, with police officers appearing helpless and allowing this to happen as if it were not taking place on their watch.
For years, there has been not only a near-total neglect of efforts to combat the unacceptable level of violent crime, which is more than four times greater than in the Jewish population, but also a complete disregard of the root causes of this tragic state of affairs. Moreover, so far this year, police have solved only 23 percent of murders in the Palestinian-Israeli community, compared with a figure of 70 percent in the Jewish community. This imbalance reflects decades of wilful negligence by Israeli authorities, which have declined to prioritize dealing with crime among the Palestinian community in Israel, mainly because it tends to be intercommunal and not affect Jewish society.
The combination of a sharp rise in killings this year (including those of 11 women), an increasing use of firearms in the heart of the civilian population, and May’s violent clashes in mixed Arab-Jewish cities clearly demonstrates that a proliferation of arms can only end in indiscriminate violence and has led to a rethink among those in charge of law enforcement on how best to stop the carnage. There has been a sudden and overdue acknowledgement of the threat stemming from criminal gangs amassing huge quantities of illegal weapons, with estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of guns in circulation, along with other types of weaponry.
But, at last, there is some recognition that this climate of violence needs to be addressed both through improved levels of policing and, more importantly, by attending to its root causes. Now, instead of standing by and letting the bloodshed continue, senior police officers are voicing concerns that the acute rise in unemployment among young Palestinians in Israel in recent years — now standing at 40 percent in the 18 to 25 age group — makes them more susceptible to the temptations of crime.
The initial response of the country’s new government was to establish a new and well-resourced police unit with the sole aim of addressing crime in the Arab community. There is little doubt that enforcing the law in this crisis is paramount and, although it would be unrealistic to expect instant results, the government’s response sends a twofold message. For the criminals, who are a small minority, the message is that the rules of the game are about to change and the police are now determined to reclaim the streets. For the law-abiding Palestinians who have nothing to do with this criminal activity, it is a message of reassurance, encouraging them to cooperate with police in eradicating the violence from their towns and villages.
However, improved policing is far from enough. The crisis of trust between Jew and Palestinian in Israel is deeper than ever, and nothing better illustrates the discriminatory power of Israel over its Palestinian citizens than the actions of those who wear the uniform of the security forces. Hence, demands to get Israel’s security agency Shin Bet involved — supported by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, though rejected by the head of the organization itself — if acceded to will only exacerbate the situation, since such an involvement implies employing methods of dealing with Israel’s Palestinian citizens that will match the unacceptable treatment endured by their brethren in the Occupied Territories.
Moreover, the demand by the head of the newly established police unit to be granted similar powers to those of Shin Bet, such as detaining suspects without trial, can only backfire and tilt the emphasis from curtailing criminality to one of conflict along sectarian lines. It all smacks of state oppression of the Palestinians living in Israel. Among many of Israel’s Palestinian population, the prevailing view is that there is already too much policing in their communities, but this is not aimed at protecting ordinary citizens and instead involves demolishing their homes and other hostile activities.
As was noted by former Supreme Court judge Salim Joubran, it is the responsibility of the state to ensure the safety and well-being of the country’s Palestinian community, and to achieve this it must work with that community to bring about the necessary changes. Collaboration and dialogue, not imposition, is the key. And this has to start with improving the education system, one that is grossly underfunded compared with the Jewish system and inevitably results in too many high school students leaving with no qualifications bar that of being easy prey for criminal gangs. The violence in their community is both the result of underdevelopment and the cause of underdevelopment.
The way forward requires the Jewish majority first and foremost to change its prejudiced and biased view of the Palestinian population; a view that perceives the latter as inferior. Racism and fear are interwoven and eclipse not only what is morally right, but also what serves the country best. Palestinian youths living in Israel, given the opportunity and despite being disadvantaged, are completing academic studies in increasing numbers, and in disciplines such as medicine and engineering.
Nothing better illustrates the discriminatory power of Israel over its Palestinian citizens than the actions of the security forces.
Building an intercommunal dialogue and partnership that empowers youth, both women and men, to complete their studies in high school and beyond, and ensuring that businesses can be built up without fear of arson or protection rackets, will benefit the society as a whole. Moreover, when allowed to enjoy lives as equally fulfilling as those of their Jewish neighbors, with respect and dignity, Palestinians living in Israel will also be able to weed out that criminal minority that is making their lives a misery and unjustly tainting their entire community.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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