Government move to enlist Shin Bet to fight rising crime splits Arab Israelis

As murders sweep Arab cities, state hopes to bring the secretive agency into the fight. Some worry about cost to civil liberties

Arab Israelis protest rising violence, organized crime and recent killings in their communities, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northern Israel. October 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Arab Israelis protest rising violence, organized crime and recent killings in their communities, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northern Israel. October 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

A government decision to step up Shin Bet involvement in fighting rising organized crime in Arab communities finds Arab Israelis divided, with some firmly opposed and others desperate for solutions to combat the escalating violence.

On Sunday, the government decided to involve the Shin Bet and the Israeli military to fight the tide of illegal arms in Arab society. The easily available weapons are seen as a key engine of the wave of violent crime that has left 96 Arab Israelis dead since the beginning of 2021.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said in early September that he had held discussions with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in an attempt to find the legal footing for the Shin Bet to join the fight against Arab criminal organizations.

The intelligence agency is best known for operating against Palestinian terror activity over the Green Line. Its methods are invasive, relentless and seemingly effective in cracking down on Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians.

The Shin Bet can prevent suspects from meeting lawyers; hold them for years without charges; and wield technological tools that allow them to provide precise intelligence with little oversight by civilian courts.

Israel deems such measures a necessary evil in the fight to prevent Palestinian terror attacks. Implementing them against Israeli citizens engaged in criminal activity, however, would be another matter entirely.

“Back in the 1990s, when Jewish organized crime organizations were developing, we were also asked to step in, and we said, ‘We can’t do this, it would lead to a police state,’” retired Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon said in a phone call earlier this year.

For now, the government plan to involve the Shin Bet is limited, and Barlev has said that the Shin Bet’s deployment will be closely supervised by law. A 2002 law  — known as the Shin Bet law — governs the Shin Bet’s activities and places it under Knesset supervision.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev attends a ceremony at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem, on September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“We need to find the fine line where the Shin Bet can assist the police, and [also] where the Shin Bet must not get involved,” Barlev told a conference of Israeli lawyers in early September.

“We’re talking about very specific, sensitive situations here, with guidance from the attorney general. But these are sophisticated criminal gangs, with international networks…. This is a threat on a whole different level, against Israeli sovereignty and national security,” Barlev continued.

‘Wherever there are Arabs, there’s Shin Bet’

Over the past few years, Arab Israelis have seen sharply rising violence: gang assassinations in broad daylight; gunfire at the homes of local mayors; and thousands of illegal, easily accessible guns.

Both government officials and civil society experts say the violence is the bitter fruit of decades of state neglect. Over half of Arab Israelis live under the poverty line. Their towns and cities often have crumbling infrastructure, poor public services and few job prospects — leading young people to collaborate with organized crime for a quick buck.

When organized crime rackets operated in Jewish Israeli cities near the turn of the 21st century, law enforcement agencies conducted painstaking, complex investigations to end the violence.

“When Jewish crime syndicates were active in Jewish cities, the Israeli state never turned to the intelligence service or the Shin Bet,” said Umm al-Fahm mayor Samir Mahameed, who opposes the measure.

“Our position has always been clear: we’re citizens of the state. As such, the police is the address for our concerns about personal security,” said Wadi Ara’ara mayor Mudar Younes, director of the National Council of Arab Mayors.

But Arab Israelis also charge that police have failed to enforce the law in their communities for years. The vast majority of homicides in Arab towns remain unsolved, although many Arab Israelis say the identities of killers and crime families are well-known to both residents and authorities.

With the police either unable or unwilling to stem the violence, proponents say the security agency could help crack down on organized crime rackets and lock up the murderers — using an intelligence network honed from fighting terror groups.

“The Shin Bet shouldn’t replace the police. It’s not the Shin Bet’s job. But it can help the police with intelligence capabilities and intelligence infrastructure that only the Shin Bet has. Intelligence work can be done to aid the police, with the police in front and the Shin Bet behind,” said former senior Shin Bet commander Arik Barbing.

The Shin Bet already closely monitors Arab Israeli cities and towns to track extremist groups and prevent nationalist terrorism, Barbing said.

“Wherever there are Arabs, there’s Shin Bet. And it’s the Shin Bet, not the police, who gives the government its updates on what’s happening in Arab Israeli society,” Barbing said.

Arab Israelis have long decried the widespread security presence in their daily lives. For decades, Shin Bet officials in the Education Ministry were specifically charged with signing off on Arab teachers and principals to ensure that incitement was not being taught in Arab Israeli schools. The practice was officially discontinued in 2005 following a court battle.

“Jewish Israelis think of the Shin Bet entering as though it were the apocalypse. But we consider the existence of a police state [for Arab Israelis] to be an established fact. The Shin Bet is already present in our communities, we certainly don’t suffer from a lack of it,” said Amjad Shbita, who directs the shared society nonprofit Sikkuy.

Shbita, who strongly opposes involving the Shin Bet, said that using the agency to fight organized crime would “legitimize” its presence in Arab communities.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai during a ceremony marking the opening of a new police station in the northern Israel city of Kiryat Ata, August 11, 2021. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

Arab mayors were the first to demand increased Shin Bet involvement back in February, according to an Arab official who participated in policy roundtables with the government.

“Let the Shin Bet in, let the devil himself in. I’ll accept any means to combat violence and organized crime in Arab society,” Rahat mayor Fayez Abu Suheiban told The Times of Israel at the time.

Badi Hasisi, who chairs Hebrew University’s criminology department, said that some Arab Israelis support the maneuver “as a kind of cry of despair.”

“People are desperate for a quick response by law enforcement that brings immediate results. And the civil apparatus can’t move that way — it will take a long time, and you need evidence, and so on,” said Hasisi, who studies the relationship between Arab Israelis and police.

Even some longtime Arab Israeli anti-violence activists have expressed cautious support for involving the agency.

“I don’t oppose any agency joining the fight, on the condition that they stick to this issue alone. We don’t want to see the Shin Bet and the state again impose a system of military rule in Arab society,” said Sheikh Kamal Rayyan, who founded the anti-violence nonprofit Aman after his son was killed by unknown gunmen in 2009.

Asked if he was concerned over the potential for grave violations of civil liberties, Rayyan replied: “Is there anything graver than the taking of a life?”

Current Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman is said to oppose increasing the Shin Bet’s involvement. The shadowy agency is concerned that its methods and sources could be revealed in criminal cases, which have far more scrutiny than in national security courts.

But Argaman’s Bennett-nominated successor — who is likely to be formally confirmed in the coming months — looks more favorably upon the move, a government official said.

Moreover, it is unclear whether the Shin Bet’s intelligence capabilities could help the police prosecute the heads of criminal organizations.

“Many of these tools are used by the Shin Bet for intelligence-gathering purposes. But the police’s main problem is that they need evidence for use in court — they know who the crime families are, and so on, but they need evidence,” said former Shin Bet general counsel Eli Bachar.

Arab Israelis protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings among their communities, Majd al-Krum, October 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Bennett’s government has pledged to take a multi-pronged approach to ending the state of emergency in Arab communities. In August, the government signed off on a proposal to develop an over $650 million financial package to fight the violence. Over $310 million is set to be allocated to funding a slew of educational and economic programs in Arab communities.

But such long-term solutions will likely take years to bear fruit. Former deputy police commissioner Shahar Ayalon said the plan to involve the Shin Bet was the result of policymakers desperate for quick solutions in the short term.

“Most people don’t know how to solve the problem — it’s complex. So they think, ‘Here’s our joker, we’ll play it and save the day.’ But it’s not like that,” said Ayalon.

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