‘They kill each other’: Israel Police chief says it is Arabs’ ‘nature’ to murder

Top Arab politician calls for ouster of Shabtai, who accuses Ben Gvir of leaking contents of phone call amid feud over establishment of national guard

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attend a special committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attend a special committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai claimed it is part of the “nature” and “mentality” of Arabs Israelis to kill, in a phone call with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir that the latter apparently leaked to the press.

The comments were made during a conversation that the two men were having about the national guard that Ben Gvir is seeking to establish, ostensibly in part to combat record-high crime rates in Arab communities.

“One murder after another. It has crossed every line. We need a strong national guard,” Ben Gvir was quoted to have said in a transcript leaked to Channel 12 on Tuesday.

“Mr. Minister, there is nothing that can be done. They kill each other. That is their nature. That is the mentality of the Arabs,” Shabtai responded.

Ben Gvir and Shabtai have been feuding intensely for over a week over the national guard, with the police commissioner warning against placing the nascent force under the authority of the far-right minister. The decision to leak damning contents of their private conversation appeared to bring ties between the minister in charge of the police and the commissioner to a new low.

Shabtai’s office fumed at the publication of the comments in the press, saying the commissioner was shocked that Ben Gvir and his office “are recording personal conversations between the minister and the commissioner and are outraged that statements were taken out of context from a conversation that dealt with patterns of conduct in Arab society.”

The police statement did not seek to walk back the prejudiced comments attributed to Shabtai and instead lamented what the commissioner claimed was a trend in Arab society, whose members, the statement said, “refuse to reveal the identity of murderers, even when it is known to the relatives of the victims.”

Police at the scene of a shooting in the northern Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, April 2, 2023. (Israel Police).

Shabtai’s office said the decision to leak his conversation with Ben Gvir “calls into question the ability of the police to report to the minister without fearing the disclosure of sources or that the conversations will be distorted.”

Ben Gvir’s office did not issue an immediate response.

Ayman Odeh, who chairs the majority-Arab opposition Joint List party, called for Shabtai to be fired over the comments. He also maintained that they were factually inaccurate.

“The number of Palestinians killed in [criminal incidents in] Israel is seven times higher than the number of Palestinians killed [in criminal incidents] in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan,” Odeh tweeted. “This is not the nature of the Palestinians, it is the nature of the racist establishment.

“In any other country, a racist commissioner like Shabtai would be fired in an instant. Shabtai, Resign!” he added.

Mansour Abbas, who heads the Knesset’s more moderate Arab Ra’am party, said Shabtai should be given the chance to apologize.

“I expect the police commissioner to retract his obscene remarks about Arab society and apologize to the Arab public or resign from his position,” Abbas said, and urged “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog to strongly condemn Shabtai’s racist statements.”

According to Channel 12, Abbas later spoke with Shabtai, who said the remarks were taken out of context and that there was no intention of harming Arab Israelis. He also reportedly stressed his commitment to fighting violence and crime in Arab towns, adding he views residents of these communities as partners in doing so.

Ra’am party head MK Mansour Abbas attends a Constitution Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, on March 5, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

In the remainder of the conversation published Tuesday, Ben Gvir insisted that crime in Arab communities can be stopped, despite Shabtai’s pessimism.

“The murder of both Arabs and Jews must be prevented,” Ben Gvir said.

“We are working in Ramle and Lod,” two cities with both Arab and Jewish residents, Shabtai said. “We have spoken with prominent figures in the Arab community and are trying to calm the situation.”

“It’s not enough to talk” Ben Gvir responded. “Remember what happened with [the mixed-city riots during the May 2021] Guardian of the Walls Operation. I understand that the pie is small, but this is why we need a national guard. If you show you’re serious [in rolling out the initiative], it can be under your authority. If not, I’ll move on, and it’ll be under mine.”

Arab communities have seen a rising wave of violence in recent years. Many blame the police, which they say has failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignores the violence, which includes family feuds, mafia turf wars and violence against women.

According to the anti-violence campaign group the Abraham Initiatives, 43 Arab Israelis have been killed in violent incidents since the start of the year.

Earlier Tuesday, Shabtai warned against the government’s proposal to form a national guard that reports directly to Ben Gvir rather than the police, saying the move would lead to a breakdown of the police force along with damage to citizens’ security.

Protesters rally in Tel Aviv against far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and the proposed formation of a National Guard on March 29, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday voted to approve the establishment of a national guard, which Ben Gvir had demanded would report directly to him.

Speaking at a ceremony at the Western Galilee College to inaugurate a new research institute on personal security, Shabtai noted that his opposition to the proposed arrangement is no secret and reiterated that all law enforcement should be kept under one roof.

“Establishing a national guard that will be subordinate to [Ben Gvir’s] office is an unnecessary move that will have a very heavy price, to the point of harming citizens’ personal security,” he said.

“Disconnecting [the new force] from police control and command would destroy personal security, waste of resources, and cause the disintegration of the Israel Police from within, both at the level of building the force and in its operation,” Shabtai added. “The national guard must be part of the Israel Police, operate within the police framework, and be subordinate to the commanders of the territorial forces according to the chain of command.”

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/POOL)

The controversial force is expected to comprise 2,000 servicemembers who will be tasked with tackling “nationalist crime” and terrorism, and “restoring governance where needed.” A timeline for the creation of such a force is unclear, though it is likely to take months. A committee will also decide whether, as Ben Gvir has sought, it will report directly to him.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara sounded the alarm Sunday, telling the government that there is a “legal hindrance” to the current version of the proposal and that the police can deal with the challenges it faces without a competing body.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Ben Gvir last week that he would bring the issue to a vote at the cabinet meeting, in exchange for the far-right minister remaining in the government despite his strong opposition to Netanyahu’s pause of judicial overhaul legislation to allow for dialogue with the opposition.

The authority granted to the national guard, and who it will answer to, will be discussed by a committee of professionals from different security bodies and government agencies who will deliver their conclusions within 90 days, according to a cabinet statement.

A chorus of former senior police commanders has warned against the plan, including former police chief Moshe Karadi, who said Ben Gvir could use the force to launch a “coup.” Civil rights groups as well as opposition politicians have similarly expressed extreme concern over the proposal to bring such a force under the direct control of a government minister, arguing that it could politicize policing and undermine the principle of equality in law enforcement.

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