A masked man dressed in black barged into the office of Amal High School principal Youssef Hajj Yahya in Taibe last month and fired a number of rounds. Hajj Yahyah, who was in the midst of meeting with five teachers in his school, was critically injured and died on his way to the hospital.
The brazen August 25 execution of a prominent educator briefly made headlines in Israel’s mainstream media but only highlighted its general disinterest in intra-Arab violence, which has reached terrifying levels, community leaders charged on Sunday. In September alone, 11 murders have occurred in Arab communities across Israel.
A few dozen Arab politicians and civil society representatives demonstrated across from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on Sunday, demanding that Israeli authorities treat the problem of armed violence in the Arab sector more seriously.
“I don’t think murders in Jewish cities are treated so matter-of-factly,” said 28-year-old Amid Hajj Yahya, Youssef’s son, who was among the demonstrators in Jerusalem.
“In Tel Aviv or Herzliya, the killer would have been caught within a day or two, but here we are a month after the murder [and the killer is still at large]. The police deal with us as though we are third-class citizens.”
Statistics regarding aggravated crime in Israeli-Arab society, published by the Knesset’s research department on July 29, show a worrying picture. A survey of police indictments for violent crimes between 2006 and 2013 revealed that non-Jewish Israelis (mostly Arabs) — despite constituting just 20% of society — committed murder nearly six times more than Jews; committed robbery 3.5 times more; committed assault three times more; and assaulted police officers nearly five times more than Jews.
The prevalence of illegal weapons in Arab society was repeatedly mentioned by the demonstrators as one of the main problems to be tackled by Israeli police. According to the Knesset statistics, Arabs are 10 times more likely than Jews to be indicted for possession of an illegal firearm.
“There’s a plague of illegal weapons across all Arab communities,” MK Masoud Ganaeim (Ra’am-Ta’al) told The Times of Israel. “It is the responsibility of the police to collect these weapons… they sometimes ignore the problem and sometimes don’t take it seriously.”
Ganaeim, who noted that 60% of crime in Israel takes place within the Arab sector, said that most of the illegal weapons are stolen from army and police armories and traded on the black market.
“If police believed that these weapons are being used against Jews for nationalistic reasons, they would have collected them all. But they don’t,” he added.
High unemployment levels among Arab youth are a central factor in engendering violence, opined Muhammad Zeidan, head of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, an umbrella organization representing Arab civil society groups.
“Violence is the result of unemployment and unlicensed weapons, which reach the hands of our youth with remarkable ease,” Zeidan said. “These weapons are pointed at Arab citizens today, but I don’t know where they’ll be pointed tomorrow. We don’t want them directed at either Arabs or Jews.”
Zeidan noted that just yesterday a loaded LAW anti-tank launcher was found in the Arab city of Baqa al-Gharbiya in central Israel and defused by police. He said that owners of illegal weapons much be punished much more severely than they are at present.
“It is illogical for someone caught with a LAW missile to be arrested for a month and then released home,” he said.
Mahmoud Aasi, mayor of the 3,000-resident town of Kafr Bara in central Israel, agreed that light sentencing reduced the motivation of police to arrest Arab citizens in possession of illegal weapons. But he preferred to direct his criticism inward rather than at Israeli authorities.
“At the end of the day, it’s a matter of culture. We are too trigger-happy,” Aasi said, noting that two homicides took place over the past year in his town, one of the richest Arab communities in Israel.
“We have lost our ability to conduct cultural dialogue and have begun using the language of violence, shooting and crime. I’m worried that these weapons will eventually be directed at Jewish society, not even for nationalistic reasons [but for criminal ones].”
Aasi added that he, like all other Arab mayors in Israel, faces regular threats from organized crime within his own community. Two years ago, he refused to allocate land designated for the homeless to a local resident who wanted to sell the plots to criminals. As a result, Aasi’s home was fired upon. When he filed a complaint with the police, he was warned not to testify lest “field soldiers” on the ground harm him. The mayor was forced to employ bodyguards for six months.
“What kind of life do you think that is?” he asked.