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Meeting Arab mayors, Netanyahu vows to tackle community crime like terrorism

Move comes as PM continues to campaign for Arab votes, but he has pledged to fight rampant violence before; Umm al-Fahm mayor says he is ‘cautiously optimistic’

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of Arab mayors on Sunday night that he would pass a wide-ranging plan to combat violence and crime in Arab communities, likening the struggle against organized crime to the fight against terrorism.

“In a modern country, when you use every means at your disposal and focus on the goal, you can obliterate things like terror…one can deal with organized crime as one deals with terror. The means are similar, the capacities are the same, and the determination is the same,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu has recently been campaigning for support from Arab Israelis ahead of the March elections, in a stark about-face from his party’s previous unsubstantiated warnings of electoral fraud in Arab communities and repeated attacks on Arab lawmakers.

Fighting violence and organized crime is a key issue for many Arab Israelis, who have seen skyrocketing murder rates in recent years.

Netanyahu vowed to conduct a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the issue: a new economic plan, extending credit to Arab Israelis who have long suffered institutional discrimination from banks, and presenting a general plan to combat violence “in the coming days.”

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)

This is not the first time, however, that Netanyahu has vowed to pass an anti-violence plan. In November, Netanyahu made much the same pledge to Joint List MK Mansour Abbas’s parliamentary committee on violence and crime in the Arab sector.

“He’s the one who must prove himself. He must do what he’s promised. Every point we raised — whether about how the police deal with us, about urban planning’s role in violence, about education — he said that we were right. So we’re hoping this isn’t just talk,” Umm al-Fahm mayor Samir Sobhi Mahameed, who attended the meeting, told The Times of Israel.

The mayor of Israel’s third-largest Arab city said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Netanyahu taking action on the issue.

“When the prime minister, the public security minister, and the police chief, all come to you with the same words and insist that your problem is the nation’s problem — well, perhaps they’ve finally understood that they have to do something,” Mahameed said.

The premier made a rare visit Wednesday to the Arab city of Nazareth, during which he also pledged to pass a wide-ranging plan to combat violence and organized crime in Arab communities “very soon.”

Sunday night’s meeting was masterminded by Haim Bibas, mayor of Modi’in, and Wadi Ara’ara Council Head Mudar Younes; both lead national coalitions of mayors. While some Arab mayors had called to boycott the meeting with the prime minister, 21 mayors and council heads wound up attending the Zoom call with Netanyahu.

Demonstrators protest the spread of violence and crime in Arab Israeli communities, in addition to alleged police neglect, in Umm al-Fahm on Friday, January 15, 2021 (courtesy: Yousef Jabareen)

In opinion polls, Arab Israelis have consistently pointed to solving the violence in Arab communities as their highest priority. 2020 saw 96 homicides among Arab Israelis — the majority of them shootings — the highest annual toll in recent memory.

Three Arab Israelis and a Palestinian have already been killed in homicides inside the Green Line since the beginning of 2021; another four homicides took place in East Jerusalem.

Many Arab Israelis blame the police for the rise in organized crime in their communities, charging that cops fail to enforce the rule of law in their cities and towns. Numbers submitted to a Knesset committee on ending crime and violence in Arab Israeli society estimate that 400,000 illegal weapons are circulating among the community.

Netanyahu also said he would establish a new committee of ministers to handle the issue, which he would personally lead.

״The Arab community demands more police, more enforcement, more means [for law enforcement], more case-cracking, more education against violence…the Arab community wants to feel safe, like any other citizen, and they’re right to feel this way,” Netanyahu said.

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