On Fridays, Watfa Jabali spends the day with her eight grandchildren on her land, on the edge of Tayibe, a town in central Israel. From here, all you can see is olive trees, and some houses on the hills. In spring, she will be planting fig trees on land still lying fallow. “That’s what helps me hold on,” the 53-year-old Palestinian matriarch smiles, in her long black velvet dress with matching midnight blue headscarf.
On 13 November 2018, her 24-year-old son Saad was killed in his grocer’s shop, further down towards the centre of Tayibe. “It was in the evening, at ten to nine. It lasted barely 30 seconds. I heard some gunshots, and I told my daughter, ’That’s for us.’ She went out onto the balcony to take a look, and said, ’Saad.’ I couldn’t bring myself to go to the shop, I stayed there crying ’Saad, Saad’”, Watfa Jabali rasps hoarsely. She takes off her glasses and wipes her eyes. “Saad never came back.”
Some months earlier, Umm Shawkat, as everybody calls her, had checked out a property to rent. The landlady was thinking of renting it to some former neighours of the Jabalis, a family which had already caused problems in the neighbourhood. But Watfa persuaded her to keep it aside for her daughter, who was getting married. The other family took that as an insult. “It’s as though we had become settlers,” she says. Some weeks before the murder, the shop had already been shot at twice. The police came to check, but Watfa insists “they did nothing, nothing at all!”
By contrast, the investigation into the murder of Saad was exemplary. In 2020, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz1, only 23% of murders among the Palestinians of Israel were solved, as against 71% for Israeli Jews. “This was the only case in which the families of the quarter helped the police,” says Umm Shawkat, lighting up a cigarette. There was even a trial. On 30 May 2021, Sari Abu Rabiaan was sentenced to 30 years jail and his minor accomplice got 10 years. “When the verdict came out, people came to celebrate. They told me, ’Do you realise?’ Other mothers who also lost their children thought I was lucky. What kind of luck is that? You see where we’ve got to?” Watfa angrily thumps her small hand on the table.
Crime has exploded among the Israeli Arabs, as Israel calls them, the descendants of Palestinians who stayed on their land during the Nakba, the birth of Israel in 1948 when the vast majority were forced into an exile that continues today. They make up just over 20% of the Israeli population, but account for 70% of the murders.2 Last year, 109 Palestinians were killed, the great majority down to the settling of scores within organised crime.
“As long as they’re only killing each other”
The turning-point was reached 20 years ago. In 2003, three people were killed and 19 injured in an explosion in Tel Aviv targeting one of the mafia bosses of the time, Ze’ev Rosenstein. He escaped unscathed. The state swung into action : within ten years, the main Jewish mafia organisations had been dismantled and their bosses jailed. “Today, people come from around the world, including Italy, to study Israeli techniques for combatting crime!” says Walid Haddad, a criminologist based in Nazareth who worked for the Interior Ministry for 15 years before resigning.
One of the architects of that policy was the then Minister of Finance, Binyamin Netanyahu. Organised crime thus moved into the Palestinian communities. The state was not bothered. The prevailing notion is, “as long as they’re killing one another, it’s their problem,” as the former Police Minister, Omer Bar-Lev, stated in 2021.3
These admissions occurred a few months after the disturbances of May 2021. While Israel was violently repressing demonstrations in Jerusalem and the West Bank and bombarding Gaza, another front opened inside the country itself, between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. The Israeli authorities feared that the violence might spill over beyond the just Arab community. Organised crime became a national issue to which the government of the time, which included the Islamist party Raam, devoted a five-year plan.
Last year, the police also launched a campaign called Safe Road. “Thanks to determined and firm police action, 73 assassination attempts have been foiled and 507 indictments brought against individuals considered serious criminals, including 37 members of criminal organisations in Arab communities,” the spokesman’s office of the law enforcement forces told Orient XXI.
Arms and impunity
The Israeli media seized on the issue, talking about an “epidemic”. But the problem is above all political, according to Wi’am Baloum, researcher at the Baladna Association for Arab Youth and co-author of a long study on the question.4 In the Arab quarters of Lydda (Lod) in the centre of the country, he says that “when a murder occurs, the police cordon off the area for 10-15 minutes, then go away. One day, a Jew walking in the quarter was killed accidentally in the crossfire between Arab gangs. People told us the police came and collected all the bullets in the street, all the cigarette ends, they stayed for hours, searching, questioning people...the residents noticed the difference! It’s not just racist, it gives a signal : a green light to kill Arabs.”
Impunity feeds fear. Even eye-witnesses to crimes do not talk.
People are afraid that if they incriminate someone, he will come and kill them or attack their families. Sadly, that fear is not misplaced. In 2001, a resident was invited to give testimony, the police failed to protect him, and he was killed. “They cut him down before the trial,” fumed the mayor of Tayibe, Shuaa Mansour Masarwa. “We are not protected. It’s the state’s responsibility, and it has utterly failed.”
As for guns, they are easily come by. In 2022, the police said they seized 3,300 different firearms in the “Arab sector”. That was just a drop in the ocean : in 2020, the Knesset estimated that some 400,000 illegal weapons were circulating in the country.5 Some 70% of crimes committed with firearms in 2021 involved guns from army stocks stolen or sold by former conscripts, according to the Israeli website Walla! News. The others were smuggled in, mainly from Jordan, while some local workshops in the West Bank produce Carlo, a homemade assault rifle.
The state’s only concern is that the arms should not fall into the hands of the Palestinian resistance. Walid Haddad asserts : “If you’re arrested in possession of arms in order to commit a crime, you can escape with minimal penalties, sometimes even just community service; you don’t go to prison,” he says. “But if you were preparing to use arms to commit an attack on state security, you might get 15 years in jail.”
He has followed the criminals, repentant or otherwise, over a long period.
Most of those who are killed are called “soldiers”. They are often the children of families with cases of abuse, in highly vulnerable economic and social conditions. They aspire to smart new cars, designer clothes...and joining criminal organisations is the way to go! For each shooting they get 20,000 shekels (about €5,400). They are of course criminals and killers, but their background leads only in one direction. As for the criminal bosses, when they feel the wind shifting, they flee the country and they are fine.
Arab mafia organisations took over the casinos, and the smuggling of arms and drugs. But their most lucrative business remains the black market : the gangs have replaced the banks, which don’t give loans to “Arabs”, according to Wi’am Baloum. “They give people loans at an eye-watering rate of interest,” he says. “Some of them began with 50,000 shekels [a bit more than €13,000] and end up with ten times that amount, on one single loan, because interest piles up.”
Plans succeed one another - without success
Crime flourishes on the social and economic marginalisation of the Palestinian communities in Israel, after decades of discriminatory policies on budgets, land allocation, access to jobs...According to an official report, in 2021 nearly 39% of Israeli Arabs lived under the poverty line. In 2015, faced with a crisis, Binyamin Netanyahu’s government adopted Plan 922 pledging 15bn shekels (€4bn) in investment, the biggest budget ever allocated to the “Arab sector”.
Since then, murders have doubled. “The budget, especially when it came to planning and construction, imposed many conditions which the municipalities could not meet, and most of the money never came through,” complained Mudar Younes, head of the National Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel, in 2020. His Tayibe colleague, Shuaa Mansour Masarwa, nods in agreement. “Only 20-25% of the promised money has been paid out.” He holds out greater hope for Plan 5506, adopted last year by the previous government for a five-year period : 30bn shekels (€8bn) of investment mainly in education, housing and employment. Plus another 2.5bn shekels (€670m) to combat crime.
But a huge gap remains between Arab and Jewish municipalities. In the 2000s, most of the Palestinian municipalities became indebted. Some were put under the control of an auditor, others, like Tayibe, are administered directly by an official named by the state. Ten years without a mayor have left the town on its knees. Drastic budget cuts have been made, depriving the inhabitants of basic services. Despite the five-year plans, the authorities continue to allocate reduced budgets to the Palestinians. “In education, investment per Arab pupil is 440 shekels, but 1600 for a Jew,” says Shuaa Mansour Masarwa. Social services are totally inadequate in the Arab communities, sighs Walid Haddad, who runs a clinic for drug addicts.
A deconstructed community
The social bond is affected, all the more so because the Israeli state works in parallel to stifle any collective Palestinian identity within its borders. The latest example : the new Police Minister, the Jewish supremacist Itamar Ben Gvir, has ordered his forces to impound Palestinian flags systematically.
Says Wi’am Baloum : “That’s how the Zionist project works : it tries to eliminate the Palestinians as a community. In Israeli society, the system is designed to create a community around symbols, national narratives...for the Palestinians in Israel, it’s the opposite. If you want to succeed, you have to hide your identity, anything you can do as a community is suspect. The tragic thing is that people end up internalising it.” In this respect, Jaffa is almost a text-book case. The Palestinian town was merged with the Jewish city of Tel Aviv. The impoverished inhabitants were hard pressed to resist the gentrification linked to judaisation policies. The local social balance was also upset by population changes. “Every intifada or war has brought in waves of collaborators transferred from the West Bank and Gaza. They had immunity, because they continued to work with the intelligence services and to recruit people,” Wi’am Baloum explains. The new arrivals were rejected by the inhabitants and their children isolated.
The whole structure of society, turned upside down, no longer has a hold on individuals, unlike the situation in the West Bank for example. Given the dereliction of the state in the face of criminal organisations, there have been calls for reviving the traditional sulha (reconciliation) councils to try to restore social control. “Before, when there was a dispute between two families, it was the notables who settled problems without resorting to the law. But the power of those figures has been weakened, and nowadays the notables have become the mafia,” says psychologist Dr Ziad Khatib.
“It’s the state that has to get involved. Don’t we have a government, aren’t we citizens of this state? It should be providing our protection!” insists Umm Shawkat. She has created a movement for the mothers of the victims of crime. They organised a march in 2020 to alert the authorities. Today, she is involved in the schools, telling her story, in the hope of getting through to pupils before the criminal gangs can recruit them. “They too have mothers, sisters, a family,” she says.
The new, extreme-right government, including some supremacist members who advocate the deportation of “Israeli Arabs” deemed to lack loyalty to the Jewish state, holds out the prospect of more repression without political solutions. Itamar Ben Gvir envisages bringing in Shin Beth, the internal security agency, to combat crime.
“We have no hope,” laments the mayor of Tayibe. “Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich hold the most important portfolios of state : Internal Security and Finance. And they openly say, We’re going to build settlements and weaken the Arab sector.”
For Wi’am Baloum, the problem is deeper than that. “Discrimination is built into the institutions,” he says. “To stop all that, the Palestinians have to be seen as first-class citizens. And that’s not going to happen as long as the state defines itself as a Jewish state.”
1Josh Breiner, “Israel Police Solved 71 Percent of Murders in Jewish Community, but Only 23 Percent for Arabs”, Haaretz, 8 August 2021.
2Djamel Belayachi, “Israel’s Arab community terrorised by rising crime and violence”, France24, The Observers, 11 October 2022.
3Herb Keinon, “Attitudes toward crime in Arab sector changing among Jews, Arabs” , Jerusalem Post, 22 September 2021.
4Nine Years of Bloodshed. A Statistical Report on Homicide Cases among Arab Palestinians in Israel (2011–2019), Baladna/Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR), June 2020.
5Anna Aronheim, “IDF weapons flooding the streets”, Jerusalem Post, 5 October 2021.
6“Government Resolution 550 (Takadum) : NIS 30 Billion for Socio-Economic Development of Arab Society”, Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, November 2021.