In the past year, a record 93 people were murdered in Israel’s Palestinian Arab community — which, with 1.7 million people, makes up a fifth of the state’s citizenry. Organized criminal syndicates have created a “state within a state” in Palestinian villages, towns, and cities across Israel, employing hundreds of foot soldiers who engage in “conventional” crimes such as arms and drug trafficking, with over 400,000 illegal firearms at their disposal.
Those syndicates have also gone after businesses and Arab local councils, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens living in fear in their own communities. Above all, Israeli police have exhibited weakness and indifference to these problems and, even more disturbingly, an intimacy with the Arab crime families. The opening of new police stations in Arab localities has brought no relief: in fact, most of these communities have experienced an increase in homicides.
This alarming picture has emerged from months of research and conversations with heads and members of local councils, former and current police officers, criminologists, attorneys, civil society activists, contractors who have been victims of mob threats, organizers of reconciliation meetings between families, and foot soldiers who have actively carried out gang violence.
These extensive conversations, coupled with previously unreleased data, reveal that crime in Palestinian communities in Israel is not a local or cultural issue but a phenomenon created by the crime organizations themselves. There are claims and evidence that these organizations spread their influence either directly or through a “franchise” of local groups that operate under the patronage of national syndicates.
These crime organizations, according to various sources, have expanded greatly in recent years. Along with their involvement in “conventional” crime, they maintain a large number of “legitimate” businesses (restaurants, supermarkets, event halls, etc), and are trying to acquire control of local councils. Evidence shows that they also finance local election campaigns, provide firearms to rival political groups during election seasons, coerce tenders in their favor with threats of violence, and carry out drive-by shootings against contractors or senior members of local councils.
In 2019 alone, assailants opened fire at 15 out of around 75 Arab local council heads. This phenomenon increased following the implementation of Resolution 922, a five-year economic development plan for Arab society in Israel, which has transferred large sums of state money to local authorities. The injection of cash is precisely what has turned them into a target for crime syndicates.
How is it possible that Israel has allowed for the creation of a “state within a state,” in which these organizations control territory, conduct both legal and illicit economic activity, and accumulate immense political power? There is near-unanimous agreement that the police are immobilized in the face of this rising power, and that they deliberately neglect and are indifferent toward so-called “Arab on Arab crime.” Evidence shows that the police are turning a blind eye and even providing support to Palestinians who have worked with the security services, and who exploit the fact that the state has given them weapons and protection. Palestinian leaders and activists in Israel claim this is a deliberate plan to weaken the community.
How crime moved into Israel’s ‘backyard’
Palestinian communities in Israel have always suffered from crime, but not of the scope and magnitude that we see today. In 2015, there were 58 homicides among Palestinian citizens compared with 54 cases of homicide in the occupied West Bank, where around two million Palestinians now live (slightly higher than the number of Palestinians inside Israel). This rose to 72 homicides among Palestinian citizens in 2017, to 81 killings in 2018, and peaked with 92 homicides in 2019, compared to only 28 in the West Bank during the same year.
That means there was a 58 percent increase in the homicide rate in Palestinian communities in Israel within five years, compared to a nearly 50 percent decline in the West Bank during the same period. So what caused it?
According to a report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, which covers data from 2014 to mid-2017, the murder rate per 100,000 people among the non-Jewish population was five times higher than the rate among the Jewish population. Fifty-seven (57) percent of suspects indicted for murder are non-Jews. Of the 397 victims of attempted murder in this period, 212 (about 53 percent) are non-Jews. In 2014-2015, there were three times as many non-Jewish victims of attempted murder per 100,000 people than there were Jewish victims. In 2016, this gap grew to four times higher. One can assume that this gap has only widened in 2019, although the police have not yet released final figures.
These statistics prove that the “miracle cure” offered by the Israeli government — to open more police stations in Palestinian communities — has not been effective. The opposite may even be true: in most of the localities where a police station was recently opened, the number of homicides has actually risen, not decreased. (In 2015, the government decided to establish 11 new stations in Palestinian towns, alongside others opened since 2010; seven of these planned stations have been opened so far.)
Rasool Saada, an attorney who directed the Abraham Fund-initiated “Safe Communities” project for better policing in Palestinian communities, and who is currently working on the Maoz program, explains the difference between crime and organized crime: the former, he says, “involves groups of criminals,” while “organized crime signifies a connection between the criminal world and the government.”
Saada marks 2003 as the beginning of a government process to “dry out” the financial assets of organized crime in Israel. Within 10 years, most of the major crime organizations at the time had been eliminated and their heads sent to prison.
This police operation had a direct impact on the Arab sector. “The police operated and applied pressure in Netanya, central Israel, Ashdod, Nahariya, and other places,” says Saada. “But crime did not disappear — rather, it moved to ‘Israel’s backyard,’ the Arab communities. There was no police activity in the Arab villages, so the territory was ripe.”
Dr. Walid Haddad, a criminologist at Western Galilee College and until recently a national inspector in the program to combat violence, drugs, and alcohol at the Public Security Ministry, adds that before the collapse of the large criminal organizations in the Jewish sector, Arab criminal organizations acted as their subcontractors. “They were the executors of crime,” says Haddad. “The Arabs were sent to shoot a target under the orders of the Jewish organizations. The Arab criminal organizations did not have a hierarchy, or orderliness, or operational capacity. Once they stopped being the subcontractors of the Jewish organizations, they developed the business.”
That phenomenon, Haddad says, was not overlooked by the Israeli authorities. Arab crime organizations quickly entered the ensuing vacuum, trafficking drugs, firearms, and women brought from Russia and Ukraine through the Sinai. According to Saada, “Anyone who was an Arab foot soldier in the Jewish criminal organizations moved forward.”
Haddad knows the criminal underworld in Arab society very well. “I have been in the field for 28 years, and have known the criminals since they were teens. Some have retired but still know what goes on through their networks, while others work as ‘arbitrator.’” The reality he describes, which has also come up in conversations with local representatives who have been threatened, is frightening.
“Take for example the elections to the local councils,” Haddad continues. “Criminal organizations prepare themselves ahead of time and sell a lot of arms to families that are [local] election rivals — sometimes for NIS 5-6 million per election campaign. They feed off elections and feed the brawls and quarrels in the villages. If you fight with your neighbor, you buy a weapon and hide it for fear that he will attack you.” Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, co-director of the Abraham Fund, confirms this observation based on talks with heads of local councils and candidates who are afraid to speak openly.
Another factor that helped the spread of crime is the economic situation. “After October 2000, there was a steep rise in unemployment in the Arab sector,” explains Saada. “That is why today about half of us are below the poverty line. It’s crazy,” he adds. “If you are unemployed and need to find work near home, crime is an easy solution.”
Yet another factor, according to Saada, is the large number of Palestinian “collaborators” with Israeli security services who were brought into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza after the Second Intifada. “Look at Jaffa,” he says. “Who are the perpetrators of crime there? They’re collaborators. We [Arab society] rejected them, yet they started selling drugs, owning weapons, and slowly became entangled in the world of crime. This afforded them a certain status.
“Now we turn to them to protect us from other people,” Saada continues. “Something became lopsided here. We rejected them socially and politically, and now the power is in their hands and they tell us: If you want protection, you come to me and I will protect you.”
However, the approach to crime in the Palestinian population in Israel is misconceived, argues Haddad. Above all, he rejects the concept of “crime families” used by the media, the police, and the Public Security Ministry, saying it is an inaccurate description. The right phrase, he thinks, is “crime organizations.” “There are families that have many academics among them, yet they are labeled as a ‘crime family’ just because one of their members is a high-ranking criminal — even though it is very likely that most of his ‘soldiers’ are from other families.”
These organizations operate under a strict hierarchy, explains Haddad. The head of an organization never has a deputy, but under him has someone responsible for finances, another person for intelligence, local leaders, and low-level members, who are trained in the use of firearms. “They are taken to the woods or the mountains for shooting practice,” Haddad recounts. “That’s why we hear about the police catching young people shooting in open spaces.” Under these members are individuals who act on behalf of the organization but for whom the organization does not take responsibility.
These highly complex organizations, Haddad says, have reached every Arab village and town. He explains that their wide diffusion relies on building a “franchise” — which he calls “McMafia.” Local criminals engage in extortion or drug trafficking, but use the name of a large criminal organization which they reimburse according to the scope of their work and their earnings. The payment can reach tens of thousands of shekels a month. In return, if they encounter difficulties, they receive protection from the umbrella organization.
“It is like a branch of a chain,” Haddad explains. “The organization does not interfere in the work of the local criminals, but criminals use the ‘brand name’ in exchange for a lot of money.” Debt collection may also be conducted in this manner: if a criminal from one locality needs to collect a debt from another area, he may use the services of the local organization for a fee.
Aside from these “conventional” crimes, crime organizations have embedded themselves deep into the economy of Palestinian communities in Israel. Crime organizations, Haddad says, own all kinds of businesses — supermarkets and large food chains, restaurants, wedding halls, textiles, gas stations, garages, car dealerships, and large contracting firms. They also pursue the local councils in an attempt to gain control over them. In the past year, 15 heads of local councils were shot at, signaling a dangerous trend.
“This phenomenon is only increasing,” says Modar Younes, chairman of the Arab Local Councils Committee. “We all hear that this is related to crime organizations, but no local council head has come out and said so explicitly.”
The goal is money laundering, says Haddad, who is researching the issue. In certain cases, the organizations approach businessmen who have encountered difficulties and offer to settle their debts in exchange for control over the business. In other cases, he says, the organizations approach businessmen and propose they open a business that they will finance. “I heard this firsthand from businessmen who told me they had received such offers,” says Haddad.
The problem is that this is a “dead end,” he continues. “It is not like a bank where you take out a loan and the business is yours after you pay it back… it belongs to the criminal organizations. You cannot change your mind.” The criminal organizations threaten, shoot, and sometimes kill a person who has a change of heart. “It’s not even blackmail,” explains Haddad, “because the owner of the business agreed to their terms in return for the money they gave him.”
A weapons pipeline
“Arab criminal organizations are the ones in control of organized crime today in the State of Israel; they are strong, determined, powerful and are not accountable to anyone,” a senior police official recently stated in an article in Mako. “They have firearms like an entire army, including thousands of old and new weapons such as Tavor, Negev and M-16 guns, hundreds of ready-to-use explosive devices, and LAW rockets, and they do not hesitate to carry out assassinations in broad daylight. Jewish criminal organizations are afraid to confront the Arab criminal organizations; some cooperate with them, and those who do not align with them pay with their lives.”
How did hundreds of thousands of illegal firearms, at least 70 percent of which come from IDF bases according to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, end up in Palestinian villages, towns, and neighborhoods?
Retired police superintendent Nabil Dahar, who served in various command positions in the Israeli Police Investigative Unit (“Mahash”) in the north of the country, cites a lack of expertise and resources. “The minister knows that most of the firearms are smuggled out of Israeli army bases, and what does he do with this information?” asks Dahar. “The police and the media are busy with Sara Netanyahu, engaging hundreds of police officers, yet there are places where they have not even solved a single murder case. The police command presents erroneous data. Confiscating a weapon and saying ‘we found it in this or that village’ does not solve the problem.”
Dahar contends that the issue lies with the police command. “Many of the current officers were brought in from the army. It is not a similar institution. There are no enforcement actions, no exhaustive investigations, and no treatment of offenses.”
A Jewish officer who served in Israel’s central district, where much of the crime in the Palestinian communities is concentrated, notes the “helplessness” of the police, a shortage of manpower, and the impossibility of collecting evidence. “The killers are not apprehended,” the former officer, who requested to remain anonymous, told Local Call. “Compare the percentage of homicides solved in the Jewish sector to that in the Arab sector. There is no comparison at all.” The officer compares this helplessness to the effectiveness of the Shin Bet’s work in relation to the Palestinians. “The Shin Bet has no problem at all in the Arab sector,” he says.
The data corroborates the officer’s statements. According to the aforementioned Knesset Information Center report, only a third of the homicides in the Jewish sector between 2014 and mid-2017 — 51 out of 147 cases — remained unsolved (i.e. were still under police investigation or with the State Attorney’s office), compared to about 50 percent of homicides in the non-Jewish sector (119 out of 240). According to police data for 2018, this gap is growing. While indictments were filed in 71 percent of murder cases in the Jewish sector (25 out of 35), indictments were filed in only 43 percent of cases in the rest of the population (35 out of 81).
Retired Chief Superintendent Michel Haddad (no relation to Walid Haddad), who became renowned for solving the infamous Mala Malavsky murder case in the 1980s, thinks this discrepancy goes beyond negligence. “Police intelligence knows exactly what’s going on,” he says. “The police know everything because it has a lot of informants in the [Palestinian] sector who are basically criminals being indulged. The police do not care. There is no rush. The police treat Arabs differently.” A few years ago, an intelligence officer from the Negev Townships Police was caught involved in a robbery. Another intelligence officer was recently involved in a robbery in Shefa ‘Amr.
Michel Haddad does not understand how the police can allow so many weapons to circulate right under its nose. “If the police wanted, they could confiscate the weapons,” he says. “They can involve the ‘Yamam’ (Special Police Unit) and the Border Police, consolidate the forces, enter Juarish [a neighborhood in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Ramle], dig into the ground, and find weapons stores in the yards. The police have the power. It can take action. Is Juarish a state within a state?”
Saada explains that the rift between the police and the Palestinian public in Israel has grown since the late 1980s. Until then, the police were essentially a civilian body where many Palestinian citizens served. “During the First Intifada, the Shin Bet was busy in the West Bank and Gaza, and left security issues relating to the Arab population in Israel to the police,” he says. Arab police officers who served in the police left, and by the time of Rabin’s assassination in 1995, almost no Arabs remained on the force.
After the events of October 2000 — during which police killed 13 Palestinians in Israel at demonstrations during the Second Intifada — the police also realized that it did not want to and could not work in this sector. “The message was mutual,” says Saada. “The Arab leadership asked to be left alone to take care of its own people, and the police implemented a model called ‘non-policing.’ The police stood by watching from above and intervened only in events that could undermine state security, such as violence between Arabs and Jews, demonstrations, and house demolitions. It has no interest in ordinary civilian matters. As far as they are concerned, the Arabs can kill each other.”
A former Shin Bet senior official reinforces Saada’s remarks, stating that “the Shin Bet hardly deals with Israeli Arabs. An event that does not involve terrorism against Jews or terrorist attacks on ideological grounds does not interest them. They will not deal with organized crime or with weapons [within the Green Line]. The national border is the parameter.”
According to Rada Jabbar, an attorney and director of the Aman Center for the War on Violence, “there is a difference in the approach and treatment of Arab society compared to Jewish society. The Arab population exists in the margins of the state, a state that defines itself as a Jewish state… [and] the police are part of the political system. The police ensure that crime and violence stay within the borders of the Arab villages.”
Dr. Doron Matza, a former senior security official who is currently conducting research on Arab society at the Institute for National Security Studies, says the state is not interested in improving the situation in the Arab sector. “No one wants to deal with issues of violence,” he says. “Since the 1950s and 1960s an effort has been made to modernize Arab villages, but the state has never intended to close the gaps. It wanted to preserve the politics of dissimilarity. Partial failure allowed the state to intervene in the sector. And how can dissimilarity be maintained if everything functions properly? You refrain from transferring all the budgets. This filters down to the police. There is little interest in eliminating crime.”
This state of affairs points to a widely-held belief among Palestinian citizens that the state not only does not care that “Arabs kill Arabs,” but actively seeks such outcomes and even encourages criminal organizations. Many Palestinian political leaders argue that this is precisely the case. It is also a belief that is repeatedly vocalized in demonstrations.
Abed Anabatawi, who was the general director of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, recalls a meeting of committee members with then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Shin Bet director Avi Dichter on Oct. 3, 2000, two days after the start of the “October events.” The meeting was confidential, but Anabatawi kept the minutes.
One note reads: “Avi Dichter, who was cracking sunflower seeds, told us: ‘You will pay for [the demonstrations] dearly, what’s the West Bank and Al-Aqsa to you?’” The meeting, Anabatawi says, was held at 2:30 pm; by then, four Palestinians had been killed by police fire that day. “We were assured that the police would not use live fire,” Anabatawi recalls. “Fifteen minutes after the meeting ended, the fifth person, Ramez Bushnaq from Kufr Manda, was killed.” In Anabatawi’s view, Dichter’s statements were a threat fulfilled — Arab society is paying the price for supporting its Palestinian brothers in the West Bank and Gaza. Dichter’s spokesman said in response that “such a thing never happened.”
Collaborating with the security services
The connection between tacit state support of criminals in the Arab sector and Israel’s resettling of Palestinian collaborators from the occupied territories inside the Green Line is raised frequently. Collaborators are often granted a license to carry a weapon after their resettlement, and many Palestinian leaders cite this as proof that the state is in fact encouraging crime. Several point to the case of Nashat Melhem, who murdered two Israelis in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day 2016, using a submachine gun that his father possessed legally. Melhem’s father, according to his own testimony, “volunteered for the police for 35 years,” and had a permit for another submachine gun he kept in his home. He also hinted in an interview that he had worked with the Shin Bet.
Jewish police officers do not deny the role of former collaborators in crime. “These collaborators — God help us,” says retired Police Commander Ephraim Ehrlich, whose duties included various command positions in the Central Unit in Tel Aviv. “They are enormous trouble. They were brought to neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and they think that because they were collaborators, they can do anything. Some of the members of their families became criminals. You cannot talk to them. In some cases they have weapons. They are sure their back is covered.”
Asked if the collaborators do indeed have state support, Ehrlich replied: “There are reciprocal relations with the Shin Bet and with the police. I had a few cases where [the collaborators] promised a brothel or a casino owner that they will protect them from police raids because they have connections with the police or the Shin Bet.” He says that in most cases “these are imaginary stories,” but he admits that many “take advantage of their situation to make easy money.”
A retired officer who served in the police intelligence wing claims that “the Shin Bet cannot close a case,” yet he admits that “the Shin Bet needs to protect its interests. There are those in need of protection that the police, the Shin Bet, and all other intelligence agencies will always be happy to safeguard.” Are these people given greater freedom of action? “Always. Whoever tells you this is not so is lying.”
Pinchas Fishler, an attorney and former senior police officer, confirmed to The Times of Israel that the police are turning a blind eye to crime in the Arab sector in exchange for security intelligence. In response to an explicit question on the matter, he replied: “This is absolutely true. I don’t see this as a problem.”
Hamoudi Masri from Haifa, an attorney who represents many criminal organizations, elaborates. “It is no secret that there are heads of gangs who serve the police. I experienced this once. A gang stole a police patrol car. The police contacted me and I intervened, made a few phone calls, and returned their patrol car.”
Ehrlich and other police officers confirm that police are using senior members of criminal organizations to “keep things quiet.” This is particularly evident in the involvement of the police in “sulhat” — “solutions” or “conciliations” — which are led by members of Arab families that the police itself defines as “crime families.”
The same is true of a government program called “City without Violence,” which was launched in 2004 and today operates in approximately 60 Arab towns and villages. Walid Haddad argues that this program has more of a security character than a civilian character. The program is headed by Brigadier General (res.) Dani Shahar, and most of its senior staff members are military and security personnel. “This is not a ‘city without violence’ project, but ‘violence without a city,’” says Haddad.
Today, the program is under the Public Security Ministry’s Authority for Prevention of Violence, Alcohol and Drug Abuse. “Its overt aim is war on violence and education, but the covert goal, the criterion for the success of the project in Arab society, is the number of young Arabs you succeeded in recruiting for [non-military] national service, and the number of cameras you installed,” Haddad continues. “I do not recall how many cases of crime and violence they were able to solve through these cameras.”
The Public Security Ministry confirms that the program does engage young national service volunteers, but states that they do not actively recruit them. They also state that the municipalities and the police coordinate the instillation of the cameras, and that the ministry has nothing to do with the materials they film.
A statement from Israel Police in response to a request for comment on killings in Arab communities said that “The police invest significant effort in solving crime cases in general and murders in particular, while employing covert and overt measures, and with no connection whatsoever to the suspect or victim’s identity or ethnicity. In 2019 alone, police solved 39 murder cases and filed indictments against the suspects.
“Alongside preventative and information sessions with the Arab community’s leadership, and attempts to prevent violence and resolve conflicts, police carry out persistent and extensive enforcement activities at all times to fight violence and bearing of arms, with the goal of reducing crime in the [Arab] community and in general, and to enhance the sense of security among all Israeli citizens.”
Regarding the data on weapons, police state that “In 2019 alone, Israel Police arrested more than 4,200 people suspected of illegally firing, trading or operating arms — 90 percent of whom are members of the Arab community. Since the start of the year, about 1,120 suspects were indicted on those charges, and hundreds of more cases are either being actively investigated or are toward indictment.
“Furthermore, police located and confiscated more than 4,700 illegal arms, including 1,500 guns and various weapons, hundreds of grenades of different sorts, ammunition and explosives — most of which were found in Arab locales.”
Regarding organized crime in Arab society, police state that their forces are “running a relentless and uncompromising struggle against organized crime in Israel, both generally and within the Arab community, and that police authorities are focusing their attention on this subject. Over the past several years, the police and the Public Security Ministry have been working to strengthen enforcement in the community, while allocating significant resources to amplify policing in Arab communities as well as promoting discourse and forging partnerships with the Arab leadership in Israel, coordinating among law enforcement authorities, formulating a long-term strategy in the field of prevention and enforcement and building a work plan.
“The police’s goal is to enhance the sense of personal security in the Arab community in Israel while using the best tools, units and personnel to address crime in all its manifestations — beginning with delinquency, violence and outlaws and ending with a determined and ongoing struggle against violent gangs and criminal organizations.
“As part of this plan, police have led several professional, significant conferences on the topic of prevention and enforcement challenges in Arab society, for the purpose of promoting and formulating a strategy and policy among all parties who deal with this issue. Israel police will continue to promote any plan and measure involving police action in Arab communities, anything for law-abiding citizens and against severe and organized crime, with the aim of preventing crime, strengthening the norm of abiding by the law and maintaining the public’s safety, everywhere and at all times.”
A version of this post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.