Interview'The government’s priorities are clearly elsewhere'

Arab local officials are under threat, criminologist warns as violence skyrockets

With municipal elections approaching, a municipality director and a mayoral candidate have been shot to death. Researcher Badi Hasisi says violence is seeping into politics

Gianluca Pacchiani

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Activists march with symbolic coffins denouncing violent crime in Arab communities on August 6, 2023 in Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Activists march with symbolic coffins denouncing violent crime in Arab communities on August 6, 2023 in Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The unrelenting violent crime wave battering Arab Israeli society is seeping into the political sphere two months ahead of countrywide local elections, putting municipal officials under threat, an expert warned, as a municipal leader and mayor candidate were killed this week.

Abdul Rahman Kashua, director general of the Arab municipality of Tira in central Israel, was shot dead on Monday evening in unclear circumstances. On Tuesday, four people were killed in a mass shooting in the northern town of Abu Snan, including a candidate for mayor.

The killings contributed to a record year for violent crime. According to the Abraham Initiatives anti-violence advocacy group, 156 members of Israel’s Arab community have been killed since the start of the year, mostly in shootings. Over the equivalent period last year, 68 were killed.

The killings are part of a violent crime wave that has engulfed the Arab community in recent years. Many community leaders blame the police, whom they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence. They also point to decades of neglect and discrimination by government offices as the root cause of the problem.

The murder in Tira shook the Arab community and alarmed the government because its target was an elected official, a “symbol of governance,” as Interior Minister Moshe Arbel said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said that a “red line was crossed” and pledged to involve the Shin Bet internal security agency in the response.

“Local officials in our communities have an extremely hard life,” Badi Hasisi, director of the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University’s Law Faculty in Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel in an interview.

Main image: Police at the scene of a mass shooting in Abu Snan, August 22, 2023. Inset: One of the shooting’s four victims, Ghazi Sa’ab, a candidate for the town’s mayor. (Shir Torem/Flash90; Facebook; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

“They are under heavy pressure from local stakeholders, be it powerful families or criminal gangs. Meddling in local politics is not a new phenomenon and it is not unique to Arab society, but it’s much more prevalent in our cities and towns.”

“The local government has a central place in the life of Arab citizens,” Hasisi said. “While Arab voters mostly turn out in low numbers for Knesset elections, their voting rate is twice as high when it comes to municipal elections. Everyone wants to have a stake in how a town is run.”

Police at the scene of a mass shooting in Abu Snan, August 22, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Monday’s killing was not the first instance of deadly violence surrounding an elected Arab official this year. In April, a security guard for the mayor of the central Arab Israeli town of Taibe was shot to death outside the mayor’s home.

Municipal elections are scheduled to be held throughout Israel on October 31. Arab local officials from the north to the south have reported acts of intimidation and threats, such as shootings outside their homes, their cars being set on fire, and even one grenade launch.

During a cabinet meeting on Tuesday night, a number of ministers recommended that Israel cancel or delay the elections in Arab towns due to the uptick in threats and violence facing candidates for office, according to Hebrew media reports. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara rejected the idea, saying it would violate Arab citizens’ democratic rights.

“Of course, much of the threats and pressure on local leaders come from organized crime. Directors general, such as the victim of Monday’s killing, are the main decision makers when it comes to public tenders, for example for garbage removal, where large sums of money are involved,” Hasisi said.

“But sometimes violent conflicts can erupt from very trivial matters — a sidewalk or a streetlight that is not placed where someone requested it can lead to a family feeling disrespected, to delegitimization of the authority, and tension. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve organized crime.”

Badi Hasisi, PhD, professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the Walter E. Meyer Research Institute of Law, and director of the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Faculty of Law (courtesy)

The main difference between a dispute that ends in a brawl and one that ends up in a killing is the availability of weapons, he said.

“Arabs make up 22 percent of the Israeli population, but 94% of shootings in Israel take place in Arab communities. There is a certain proclivity to violence in Arab society,” Hasisi said. “But the murder rate among Palestinians in Israel — Arab Israelis — is significantly higher than among Palestinians in the West Bank.

“The reason is simple — the Palestinian Authority knows how to keep order and maintain deterrence on the streets of Palestinian cities. It knows when to intervene, where and how. The Israeli police do not. The Israeli state is weak against crime,” he said.

Involving the Shin Bet in the fight against Arab community crime has been discussed publicly and privately in government circles for months.

“The current system that the Israeli police have in place to prevent and investigate crime is clearly ineffective, so any improvement is welcome,” Hasisi said. “Whatever will stop corpses from piling up in front of our eyes is welcome, really — as long as it’s done within the framework of our democracy, with the appropriate checks and balances.”

Applying the tools of an anti-terrorism security force in a civilian context, however, will present challenges. “In the West Bank, the Shin Bet acts to neutralize terrorists, whether by killing or by arresting them. In a civilian context, it will have to be deployed to collect evidence for indictments. It’s a reconfiguration of its operational methods, but it can be done,” Hasisi said.

“Criminals inside Israel are extremely careful not to commit offenses against national security, because they know that if the Shin Bet gets involved, the terrorism charges against them will be much heavier. They know how to manipulate the law, and how to get away with relatively small penalties for their crimes,” he added.

Police at the scene of a mass shooting in Abu Snan, August 22, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

“Twenty years ago, the police realized that there was a problem in Arab communities. They started opening more police stations in Arab towns, increasing the number of officers, but it wasn’t enough.

“The real difference is made when they seize weapons on a very large scale. The size of the intervention must be commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. Sending a patrol of a few cars into a town at night is far from enough,” Hasisi said.

MK Yoav Segalovich attends a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Under the previous government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, a special inter-agency body was set up to fight crime in Arab communities. MK Yoav Segalovich of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, a veteran of investigation and intelligence units in the police, was appointed the agency’s coordinator and the Shin Bet was involved in an advisory role. Segalovich was then a deputy minister for public security.

“The first tangible results began to appear,” Hasisi said of the effort. “Government officials were showing up in Arab towns, asking local officials what their needs were. Murder rates went down. We saw genuine cooperation and action.”

“The current coalition clearly does not care,” he continued. “Beyond the rhetoric of ‘restoring governance’ in Arab communities coming from some cabinet members, we see nothing happening on the ground. If the ruling coalition is serious about fighting crime, they cannot come to Arab leaders with an attitude of superiority. They have to enter into dialogue with them.

“The government’s priorities are clearly elsewhere. The government talks the talk but does not walk the walk, and criminals have been the first to realize it.”

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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