In the Jewish state, most prisoners are Arabs

Figures obtained by Local Call reveal that the number of Arab prisoners is more than twice the number of Jewish ones, even though they make up only 20 percent of the general population.

By Noam Rotem

Illustrative photo of a prisoner (
Illustrative photo of a prisoner (

A little over a quarter of Israel’s inmate population are Jewish, +972’s Hebrew-language sister site Local Call has learned.

In response to a freedom of information request that I submitted in conjunction with Physicians for Human Rights, the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) released the following figures: out of a total of 20,568 inmates, 5,659 are Jewish; more than twice that number, 12,397, are Arab; and 2,512 are classified as “other” – including asylum seekers held in detention camps, as well as a handful of non-Israelis who are neither Jewish nor Arab.

The proportion of Arab inmates among Israeli citizens (including residents of the West Bank and Gaza) stands at 43 percent – more than double their proportion in the general population

Among juvenile delinquents the gaps are even more staggering: out of a total of 281 minors held by IPS, only 100 are Jewish, 160 are Arabs, and “others” comprise 21 inmates. If we take into account the number of Palestinian minors in Israeli custody (511, according to B’Tselem), the proportion of Jewish inmates drops to a mere 13 percent.

According to the IPS, an overwhelming majority of prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza (81 percent) are classified as “security prisoners,” as opposed to the “criminal prisoners.” These categories appear only on IPS records, however, because there is no such distinction in the Israeli penal code. There is no list of offenses that qualify a suspect as a “security” case.

Being classified a security prisoner means being deprived of many of the perks other prisoners are entitled to, such as access to higher education, phone calls, regular visitation, and more. Out of 6,283 security prisoners currently held in Israeli prisons, only 31 are Jewish (about 0.5 percent).

Racial disparities

Within the Jewish prisoner population there is also a distinct ethnic bias. In June, the percentage of teenagers of Ethiopian extraction stood at 18.5 percent – down from previous years, but still disproportionately high. Thus, 18.5 percent of 281 minors gives us 51 young Ethiopian-Israeli inmates – 51 percent of the teenaged Jewish inmates. Given that Ethiopian-Israelis make up just two percent of the general population, this is no less than remarkable.

In June, Local Call and +972 revealed that more than 60 percent of Israel Police arrests are made against non-Jews. The figures revealed here complement that picture: not only are Arabs more frequently arrested in Israel, they are more frequently sentenced to prison. Israel is not alone in this, of course: in the United States, African Americans are six times more likely to be jailed than whites. The main difference is that while there it is recognized as a problem, here it is not talked about.

Attorney Raghad Jaraisy, director of the Arab minority rights department at the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), says that the figures testify to negligent law enforcement in the Arab sector.

“The daily discrimination the Arabs in Israel experience, the absence of frameworks that would prevent young people from resorting to crime, lack of resources for preventive care, poverty and hardship, all come together to explain the disproportionate number of Arab prisoners,” she said. “Arab leaders have been begging the police for years to increase enforcement and clamp down on illegal weapons, to no avail. We can and should tackle the situation before it reaches delinquency and incarceration.”

Studies have shown that judges, especially Jewish, are more likely to sentence Arab defendants to imprisonment. And since most judges are Jewish, the numbers only rise.

MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) told Local Call that “the figures show that incarceration replaces equality, education and crime prevention. The extent of criminality reflects the inequalities in Israeli society – ethnic as well as based on social class – and show that government policies increase inequality and push young Arabs into delinquency. What we see here is the result of a discrepancy in education, infrastructure and law enforcement between Jews and Arabs.”

Policemen arrest a protester during clashes between youth and Israeli forces in the Palestnian town of Nazareth in northern Israel, on October 8, 2015. Tension rises in the past weeks in the region with over tent stubbing attacks and around the West Bank, Jerusalem and Palestinian towns in Israel. (
Policemen arrest a protester during clashes between youth and Israeli forces in the Palestinian town of Nazareth in northern Israel, on October 8, 2015. (

Adv. Fady Khoury of Adalah – The Legal Center of Arab Minority Rights in Israel said that Arabs are discriminated against in all stages of the criminal process.

“When arrested, the nationality of the detainee will determine how long he will be arrested for, and throughout the trial itself, where Arab defendants are much more likely to be convicted than Jewish ones, and incur heavier penalties,” he said. “That explains the disproportionality of Arab inmates.”

Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and blogger at Local Call, where this article was first published in Hebrew. Read it here.