To combat rampant crime on their streets, Israeli Arabs heed call to join police
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'If new police serve as an outpost of force against Arab community, then they will be seen as traitors'

To combat rampant crime on their streets, Israeli Arabs heed call to join police

Hundreds of young citizens have joined force in recent weeks, but critics ask why Jewish cops couldn’t get the job done

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Katarina Abu Akell, a 20-year-old Christian from Kfar Yasif, is one of the many hundreds of young Arabs who have answered the call to join Israel's police force since September, 2016.  (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Katarina Abu Akell, a 20-year-old Christian from Kfar Yasif, is one of the many hundreds of young Arabs who have answered the call to join Israel's police force since September, 2016. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

JALJULIA — In the Arab-Israeli village of Jaljulia, the metal gate to the municipality is ridden with bullet marks. The town’s mayor Fayik Auda is not surprised no suspect was arrested for shooting at the government building. In the 10,000 strong village whose history and name extend back to Roman rule, 12 people have been murdered over the past five years, he said, but only one suspect was arrested for these crimes. He turned himself in.

“It is evident there is a difference between [Jewish] blood and [Arab] blood in the state of Israel,” said Auda, who defines himself as a “realist” and “moderate” that respects Israel’s police.

Auda’s sentiment is wide-spread among Arab Israelis, who face far greater crime and poverty than their Jewish counterparts, but receive far less police services. In 2015, 59 percent of murders in Israel took place in the Arab community, even though Arabs are only 20% of the population.

This violent reality, however, may be about to change.

Israel’s current government has recently set into motion a $350 million (1,350,000,000 NIS) plan to root-out crime in the Arab community. And to do so, they are asking Arab citizens to join the effort by joining the force.

Of the 1,300 new cops expected to serve the Arab community in 12 new stations, Israeli police hope 600 of the recruits will be Arab citizens.

To facilitate this plan, an unprecedented institution was founded in August at the former site of the National Police School in Kiryat Ata: a preparatory program for Arabs to join the force.

Highest ranking Arab policeman: no glass ceiling

When Deputy Commissioner Jamal Hakrush walks into the small classroom, the students grow quiet and fix their gaze upon him—the highest ranking Arab-Muslim in the history of Israel’s police force.

Deputy Commissioner Jamal Hakrush, who is the highest ranking Arab-Muslim in the history of Israel’s police force. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Deputy Commissioner Jamal Hakrush, who is the highest ranking Arab-Muslim in the history of Israel’s police force. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

The pre-recruits are asked to say where they’re from: “Kafr Kanna, Kafr Qasim, Shfar’am,” towns in the Arab “triangle,” not usually thought of as a reservoir for Israel’s security services.

Hakrush, who speaks softly with Arabic-accented Hebrew, tells them: “Our goal is to bring better and more effective policing to the Arab community. Anyone who tells you differently isn’t telling the truth.”

“We will draft you into the police. How far you advance in rank is up to, what effort you put in,” concludes Hakrush.

While in the week-long preparatory program, the Arab students are given the tools they need to succeed in the written entrance exam to the police academy. This mostly means lessons in Hebrew, which the students can generally read and speak, but have a limited vocabulary when it comes to the parlance of policing. There are also lessons in Israeli civics. But most importantly, the course is a confidence booster for a group that Israel now desires to join the force, but has a long history of failing the entrance exam.

The deputy commissioner, in a briefing with journalists in Kiryat Ata on Tuesday, said he is “living proof” that all cops in the force are equal, no matter their ethnic or religious identity.

In his 38 years of service, the young man from Kafr Kanna says he has served in nearly every single job in the Israeli police.

“I have been in many different command positions. Every time I was promoted, I always heard that this would be the last position I would have. But I just kept moving on,” he said.

While Arabs are 20% of Israel’s 8,000,000 citizens, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, only 1.8% of the police force is Arab-Muslim. A total of three percent is Arabic speaking, including Christians and Druze.

Katarina Abu Akell, a 20-year-old Christian from Kfar Yasif, is one of the many hundreds of young Arabs who have answered the call to join the force. She is also part of phenomenon that sees Arab women signing up to join the police (1/3 of Arab recruits) at a much higher rate than their Jewish counterparts (12% of the police force).

Arab students attend week-long training at police academy in Kiryat Ata to prepare for written exam to enter Israel's police force. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Arab students attend week-long training at police academy in Kiryat Ata to prepare for written exam to enter Israel’s police force. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

Before starting her process to become a cop, she worked for two years in the office of Akko’s police station during her national service—a post-high school program for those who can’t or don’t want to serve in Israel’s army. (Recent years have seen a meaningful increase in Arab Israelis doing national service.)

Abu Akell, who also has a brother in the force, liked the atmosphere at the station, the rapport between police and workers and decided she wanted more of that in her life. She hopes to be a criminal investigator, but first she’ll have to pass the written entrance exam.

Before the preparatory program, only one out of every 15 Arabs passed the written exam. After completing the week-long course, on average two-thirds pass.

After the written exam, Abu Akell will then have a far-less historically problematic physical exam. After that, a year-long stay at the national police academy in Beit Shemesh. At the end of this process, about one-third of those signed up for the preparatory school will officially join the police.

Does Israel need Arabs to police Arabs?

The high crime rate in the Arab Israeli community has three main sources: criminal gangs, family feuds and domestic violence. Feeding the murder rate is a long history of the state turning a blind-eye to hundreds of thousands of Illegal firearms that have proliferated in Arab neighborhoods.

While the source of the crime comes from the within the Arab community, and some would argue problems like family feuds and domestic violence are cultural issues that the community itself must rectify, many Arab leaders place the blame squarely on the lack of policing.

File: The suspect in the January 1, 2016 shooting attack in Tel Aviv, 29-year-old Nashat Milhem, seen after a 2007 arrest. (Channel 10 news)
The gunman in the January 1, 2016 shooting attack in Tel Aviv, 29-year-old Nashat Milhem, seen after a 2007 arrest. (Channel 10 news)

They point to the fact the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan decided to get serious about illegal guns in the Arab community only after an Israeli Arab named Nashat Milhem gunned down three people in Tel Aviv on January 1st. Erdan told the New York Times in September the plan had been in the works long before Milhem.

However, all parties—the police, Arab leaders and civilians and the government— all agree that its time for more police in Arab neighborhoods. But there is debate as to whether these new police need to be Arabs themselves.

MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint-List) told the Times of Israel in a recent interview he opposed the new push to recruit Arabs to the force.

“The problem is with the police, not whether the policeman is Arab or Jewish. When there is a problem with traffic accidents, does the transportation ministry say ‘now we need to draft Arab traffic accident examiners (who gather evidence for court cases), ” Tibi asked in his characteristically sardonic tone.

Tibi argued if the police really decide to deal with a problem, such as they did in the Jewish-majority city of Netanya—which suffered greatly from organized crime similar to what exists in Arab towns—they can.

Fayik Auda, the mayor of Jaljulia, said he supported recruiting more Arabs to the police as long as it “guaranteed real change.” He added, however, he didn’t want the Arab recruits to be deployed in Jewish-majority cities like Tel Aviv or Haifa, but only in Arab towns, where they have the advantage of intimate knowledge of language and culture.

Dozens of illegal weapons seized by Israeli security forces in Bethlehem and Hebron on August 23, 2016, as part of a large crackdown effort on illicit guns in the West Bank. (Israel Police)
Dozens of illegal weapons seized by Israeli security forces in Bethlehem and Hebron on August 23, 2016, as part of a large crackdown effort on illicit guns in the West Bank. (Israel Police)

He also said his town—in which a seven-man cell was busted in November, 2015 before traveling to Syria to join the Islamic state— has good relations with Jewish police who enter.

The working strategy of the Israeli police is that Arabs and Jews should work together to police Arab towns. “It’s a fact that Arabs understand the mentality better,” said Harkush. “But you can argue an Arab policeman might feel uncomfortable arresting an Arab suspect. There are arguments both ways. And this is why it it won’t matter what kind of police officer is serving the community.”

Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, the co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiative, whose non-profit has been working on improving relations between Arabs citizens and the police, was hopeful yet cautious about the government’s new plan.

He said the government understands that the rate of crime in Arab communities prevents economic flourishing, which harms the state as a whole. The new policing drive is also imperative to the success of a $3.8 billion plan to integrate Israel’s non-Jewish minorities with the general population, through economic, educational and housing overhaul.

“Recruitment is only good as part of a holistic program to change the attitude toward Arabs,” he said, explaining that Arabs are generally seen through the prism of a security threat by the police, rather than a community to be served.

Recent years have seen a trickle of police officers move into Arab towns, but the locals in Jaljuliya, for example, say the news cops are more interested in giving traffic fines than anything else.

After studying case studies of policing minorities around the globe for years, Beeri-Sulitzeanu argued what’s more important is not who is doing the policing, but whether their is enough trust for collaboration between locals and the police.

“If the new police will really be seen as a service for them, the fact that Arab policemen will be there will be good. If they serve as an outpost of force against them, then they will be seen as traitors,” he said.

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