Meeting UN chief, Odeh says Israel’s Arabs ‘in terror’ of incoming government

Arab party leader urges global intervention to protect community from presumed incoming police minister Ben Gvir; says spiraling crime neglected due to ‘absence of political will’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Hadash-Ta'al chairman MK Ayman Odeh, left, meets with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, at the UN headquarters in New York. (Courtesy)
Hadash-Ta'al chairman MK Ayman Odeh, left, meets with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, at the UN headquarters in New York. (Courtesy)

Hadash-Ta’al chairman MK Ayman Odeh met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday, saying Israel’s Arab population was fearful of the incoming government and asking for “international intervention” to protect it from potential harm from the presumed incoming police minister, Itamar Ben Gvir.

Ben Gvir is set to serve as national security minister in the incoming coalition headed by Netanyahu, with an expanded portfolio that covers the national police force and the Border Police’s West Bank division.

In a letter he presented to Guterres during the meeting, Odeh wrote that Ben Gvir “has defended and glorified Jewish terrorists who have murdered Arab Palestinians and called for Arabs to be forcibly transferred from the state.”

The far-right MK “will be given a high level of control over state armed forces, including the police and border patrol. It is difficult to overstate the terror this has already caused among [Israel’s] Arab Palestinian citizens,” Odeh said.

The Arab leader stressed that “this is an extremely dangerous situation that
requires international intervention to protect the lives of Arab Palestinian citizens.”

A disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir kept a picture of the perpetrator of the 1994 Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre on his wall until he began to rise in national politics. He was convicted in 2007 of the crimes of support for a terrorist organization and incitement to racism, though he insists he has moderated in recent years.

In his letter, Odeh also highlighted the urgent need to tackle the wave of violent crime that has been plaguing Arab communities across Israel. He argued that the violence was the fault of the Israeli government’s inaction and rejected the notion that it was in any way a cultural problem in the community, calling such suggestions “racist.”

Odeh told Guterres that Israeli law enforcement has failed to address rising violence, with over 100 Arab Israelis killed in apparent homicides this year alone. He noted that Arab Israelis made up 4.9 percent of murder victims in 1948-2000, but that in 2021, members of the minority community made up 67% of all murders in the country.

He argued that the Israeli government successfully managed to clamp down on crime and illegal gun ownership in Jewish towns several decades ago and that there was no reason the same couldn’t be done in Arab communities.

“This is not an issue of lack of ability but rather a cruel absence of political will to protect the lives and safety of Arab Palestinian citizens,” according to the letter.

“The cause of this devastating problem is the systematic exclusion of Arab Palestinian citizens from all parts of society by many successive Israeli governments,” he continued, lamenting the unequal access to housing and limited investment in schools, hospitals and social services in Arab towns.

Arab Israelis block a road as they protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings in their communities, in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“Some politicians in the Israeli government have attempted to blame Arab Palestinian citizens, declaring this a ‘cultural problem.’ This is false, racist and absolutely unacceptable.”

Government officials in Israel have blamed the spate of violence on Arab crime families which have accumulated power and weapons over the past two decades while police have failed to crack down on the phenomenon, which includes violence against women.

The outgoing government, the first to include an independent Arab party, approved measures to combat the violence by improving socio-economic conditions among Arab citizens who have long complained of unequal treatment compared to Jewish Israelis.

Those programs included nearly $10 billion in funding over five years to “close the gap” between the country’s Arab and Jewish citizens, focusing on employment promotion, especially in hi-tech, and enhancing social services. A separate $780 million crime-fighting plan for Arab communities has also been approved. But such interventions, which are still getting off the ground, did not stop 2021 from becoming the deadliest year on record for murders with Arab victims.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan addresses the Security Council on October 19, 2021. (Courtesy)

Friday’s meeting was rare, given that Israel has an ambassador at the UN who could theoretically meet with Guterres to discuss such issues. But Odeh’s office set the meeting up independently without coordinating with Ambassador Gilad Erdan’s office or the Foreign Ministry, a Hadash-Ta’al aide said.

“Erdan does not represent us. We will represent ourselves,” Odeh tweeted, including a photo from his meeting with Guterres.

Erdan’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The ambassador was in Israel Friday hosting a delegation of visiting UN envoys.

During Friday’s meeting, Odeh and Guterres also discussed the uptick in violence in the West Bank where over 160 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the year. Many died in attacks or clashes with Israeli forces, but some were uninvolved civilians.

Guterres committed to following up on the issues discussed, an aide to Odeh said.

The last time an Arab MK met with a senior UN official, it led to massive pushback from Jewish lawmakers and government officials back home.

UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Rosemary Diancarlo (L) and Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman at the UN on August 23, 2018. (Courtesy)

Fellow Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman met with UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo in 2018, similarly imploring the international community to act against the then recently passed Nation-State Law, which critics said elevated Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one.

Two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel at the time that then-Israeli ambassador Danny Danon’s office leaked to Israel’s Channel 12 news that Touma-Sliman had urged DiCarlo to pass a resolution condemning the legislation, even though both sides insisted that no such proposal was weighed and no resolution was ever advanced.

But the Channel 12 report led to a wave of condemnations from Israeli lawmakers across the political spectrum, who accused Touma-Sliman and her colleagues of treason.

AFP contributed to this report

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