Bennett decries violence surge: ‘We are losing the country’

Government moves to expand warrantless police searches to fight Arab crime

Measure would allow police to conduct searches without a court order to collect evidence before it’s destroyed; Arab officials skeptical of measure, say it violates civil liberties

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar (L) and Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy (R) at a plenary session at the assembly of the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 28, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar (L) and Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy (R) at a plenary session at the assembly of the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 28, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The government advanced a proposal on Sunday that would expand the ability of the Israel Police to conduct searches without court warrants, in a controversial step intended to curb the crime wave in Arab communities.

“We’re at war. We must give the police and law enforcement agencies better tools to succeed in their missions,” Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar told the cabinet, according to his spokesperson.

With the cabinet’s backing, Sa’ar’s bill will now head to the Knesset. Bills advanced through the government are fast-tracked for approval and skip some preliminary legislative hurdles.

Arab Israelis are set to see their bloodiest year in recent memory: some 84 Arab citizens and 15 Palestinians have died in violent homicides inside Israel since the beginning of 2021, according to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit. Government officials blame the violence on powerful organized crime rackets that have emerged following decades of state neglect and lawlessness in Arab cities and towns.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government has vowed to take exceptional means to end the rising murder rate. In early October, ministers signed off on involving the powerful Shin Bet security agency in the effort, in an unusual and controversial move. The agency, which has powerful legal and technological tools at its disposal, is best known for operating against Palestinian terror suspects.

“We are losing the country,” Bennett said during the weekly cabinet meeting, emphasizing the dire situation among Arab Israelis.

Police at the scene of the murder of Sahar Ismail, the education minister’s aide for Arab society, in the northern Israeli town of Rameh, on August 15, 2021. (Flash90)

Israeli law already allows police to conduct warrantless searches for a number of reasons, including when police have grounds to believe a crime is being committed in a house or after those in the house have turned to the police for help.

Sa’ar’s bill would add another category to the list: allowing police officers to enter homes to seize evidence related to serious crimes when they have grounds to believe that it would otherwise be destroyed.

Police officers regularly lament that by the time they receive a court order, the perpetrators have absconded with the evidence — including by tampering with or destroying security camera footage that could convict them.

“The real problem is not the cameras themselves, it’s the computers which store the footage at the crime scene. For that, you need a court warrant. [The proposal] could help — it won’t solve the whole issue, but it could help,” explained former deputy police commissioner Shahar Ayalon, who held numerous senior positions in law enforcement before retiring in 2011.

But Arab officials have been skeptical of the proposal since Sa’ar first advanced it last month, charging that it would lead to police abuse.

Adalah, a Palestinian legal aid group, called the proposal “inappropriate and unjustified.” The rights group argued that existing legislation gave the police enough authority to get the job done.

Asking for expanded powers “only when it comes to the Arab community, amounts to racial profiling in law enforcement,” Adalah said in a statement.

“This would be a violation of civil liberties. In fact, it would be a form of collective punishment — most Arabs aren’t involved in this criminal activity, but this law could be applied to them,” said Umm al-Fahm Mayor Samir Mahameed in a phone call.

Thousands of Arab Israelis demonstrate in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel on March 5, 2021, against violence and organized crime calling upon the Israeli police to stop a wave of intracommunal violence. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Mahameed instead proposed raising the sentence for weapons possession. Hundreds of thousands of illegal guns are believed to be held in Israel, many of them in Arab communities. Police have sought to crack down on the free-flowing weapons — through gun collection programs and arms raids — but seemingly to little avail.

“It makes no sense that someone can be caught with weapons and sit in prison for a few months. Raising the punishments is a necessity at this point,” Mahameed said.

The new government seems to agree, and officials have pledged to stiffen the penalties for illegal arms possession. A new bill published by the Justice Ministry on Friday would raise the maximum sentence from three to five years in prison.

Other Arab Israelis said they cautiously support the proposal — as long as policymakers and the courts exert tight supervision of the new police powers.

“Yes to expanding the police’s authority and giving them more tools. But it must be under strict civilian oversight. Otherwise, it would be a stain on our democratic system,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a shared society nonprofit that works on ending the Arab crime wave.

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