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Government okays NIS 150 million plan to fight crime in Arab communities

Arab MKs and civil society organization criticize plan as too little too late, having hoped for billions; 21 Arabs have died in violent circumstances since start of 2021

Israeli Arabs protest against violence, organised crime and recent killings among their communities, in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, February 5, 2021. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)
Israeli Arabs protest against violence, organised crime and recent killings among their communities, in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, February 5, 2021. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

The Israeli government has approved a NIS 150 million ($45 million) plan to combat the spread of violence and organized crime in Arab cities and towns, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Monday evening.

The plan includes the “establishment and renovation of five police stations and two fire departments, and the establishment of a special police unit devoted to combating crime in Arab communities.” the PMO said in a statement.

Another NIS 1 million ($302,500) will be devoted to raising awareness about violence in Arab communities. The Public Security Ministry will also conduct two arms-gathering operations — an estimated 400,000 illegal weapons are present in Arab communities, according to data released by the Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced the general outlines of the plan in early February, after a young Arab nursing student was killed in a shootout between cops and criminals. The death of Ahmad Hejazi, 24, helped ignite a wave of protest against what Arab Israelis call the failure of the Israel Police to crack down on violence in their communities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Arab city of Nazareth on January 13, 2021. (Gil Eliyahu/POOL/AFP)

But Netanyahu’s proposal drew substantial criticism from Arab lawmakers and civil society organizations, who consider it “too little, too late,” in the words of one anti-violence nonprofit.

“The government plan authorized by Netanyahu is a bad plan, which won’t solve anything regarding crime and violence in Arab society. Its only purpose is to gain votes,” charged MK Sami Abou Shehadeh, who leads the Palestinian nationalist Balad faction in the Joint List, following the plan’s authorization on Monday evening.

Arab Israelis have seen a staggering rise in violence in their communities over the past few years, with the homicide rate rising to a record 96 victims last year. Many charge that police neglect to solve murders or crack down on organized crime in their cities and towns.

Since the beginning of 2021, 21 Arabs have been killed in violent circumstances inside Israel: 15 Arab Israeli citizens, four Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, and two Palestinian West Bank residents. Three of them were killed in violent confrontations with police, while the rest were killed in violence within the Arab community.

Passing a major relief plan to combat the problem has been a central priority for Arab lawmakers, who had openly hoped for billions of shekels to be allocated to the issue. But Netanyahu’s plan only promised NIS 100 million, combined with a pledge to follow up with a larger plan at a later date, although another NIS 50 million was later budgeted.

“Netanyahu is offering us a Band-Aid,” Joint List chair Ayman Odeh said when the plan was revealed in early February, adding: “It’s impossible to solve a decade of neglect with NIS 100 million.”

Arab community leaders and Knesset members hold a demonstration against the lack of Israeli Police involvement in violence and murder in Arab and Bedouin towns and villages across Israel, in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90/File)

A 2016 government decision to fight organized crime in Arab communities had budgeted NIS 2 billion ($605 million) over four years.

The Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, a shared society organization that has worked extensively on relations between Israel Police and Arab Israelis, deemed the plan insufficient.

“The only practical measures proposed in the plan, centered on the establishment of three new police stations, simply do not provide a solution on their own,” the Abraham Initiatives said.

“The focus on police stations — whether in their establishment or renovation — is not enough, as the wave of crime in Arab society requires a much broader response,” the nonprofit added.

A wave of demonstrations by Arab Israelis against alleged police neglect has brought the issue to the forefront in recent weeks. Following the shooting death of Hejazi, a 10,000-strong protest was held in Tamra in early February.

Umm al-Fahm, a central Arab Israeli city, has seen weeks of protest following the shooting death of resident Mohammad Aghbarieh, who was killed while on his way home from attending an anti-violence demonstration being dispersed forcefully by violence.

Police disperse a protest against violence in Arab communities, in Umm al-Fahm on February 26, 2021. (Israel Police)

On Friday, another protest in Umm al-Fahm against violence and police’s failure to quell it was dispersed violently by police. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and sound grenades to disperse what they termed a riot. Protesters say they were demonstrating peacefully.

Medics said at least 35 protesters were injured at Friday’s protest, including Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen. Jabareen was hit in the back with a rubber bullet during the protest; the lawmaker was rushed to a local hospital and was released later in the evening.

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