‘Like the Wild West’: Bennett vows to crack down on crime in southern Israel

PM meets southern mayors, allocates millions to improve law enforcement; mayor of Rahat blasts premier for going to lookout point near Bedouin city, not actually visiting

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a tour of the south on December 6, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a tour of the south on December 6, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett toured the south of the country on Monday where he reviewed efforts to combat organized crime in Arab communities, declaring it a concern for the entire nation.

“The crime in the Arab community is not only its problem — it is all of ours,” said Bennett near the Bedouin city of Rahat. “There are militias here like there are in the Wild West.”

But the prime minister drew criticism for only touring a lookout point over Rahat, rather than paying a visit inside the city.

Arab communities have seen a surge in violence in recent years, driven mainly by organized crime.

In the south, there have been longstanding complaints from local officials and residents about crime, much of which they say originates in Bedouin communities. Hebrew media has repeatedly broadcast footage of wild driving including car races and road stunts, as well as incidents of gunfire in the south.

There has also been a recent increase in attacks on buses as assailants — allegedly Bedouin teenagers — hurl rocks at the vehicles, according to bus operators.

“After years of neglect in which crime reached unbearable proportions, we are moving from being on the defense to going on the attack,” Bennett said at the lookout point near Rahat. “The message to southern residents is that we will not be apathetic. Justice in Beersheba and Rahat is like justice in Tel Aviv.”

Rahat Mayor Fayez Abu Sahiban scorned Bennett for staying outside the city.

“It is ridiculous that the prime minister of Israel goes to a lookout point near Rahat and doesn’t enter the city, as though we are all criminals,” Abu Sahiban said, according to Hebrew media.

During his tour, Bennett was joined by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai and other senior officials. The delegation met with local southern mayors at the Beersheba Municipality, where they promised an increase in law enforcement.

“We will bring forces to reinforce the south and we will budget tens of millions [of shekels] to bolster the police,” Bennett said at the meeting. “I hear your pleas.”

In November, Bennett said the drive against crime in Arab communities is a “critical effort.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2021. (Gil Cohen/Magen/AFP)

Last month, a public brawl at a hospital in Beersheba left four people injured and 19 were arrested. In another incident, also in November, three people were seriously injured when they were stabbed during a brawl in Rahat.

Leaders and community members blame police, who they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence, which includes family feuds, mafia turf wars and violence against women.

Both government officials and civil society experts say the violence in the Arab community is the 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 some young people to collaborate with organized crime.

In August, Bennett said that violence and crime in Arab Israeli communities was a “national calamity.”

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