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PM reveals plan to fight Arab society violence; panned as ‘too little, too late’

Long-promised initiative comes as he courts Arab vote ahead of elections; also criticized for choice of ex-cop as czar to fight community crime, who once called Arabs ‘ungrateful’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces a new plan to fight crime in Arab Israeli communities on February 3, 2021 (screenshot: YouTube)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces a new plan to fight crime in Arab Israeli communities on February 3, 2021 (screenshot: YouTube)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled a long-awaited plan to combat violence and organized crime in Arab Israeli communities on Wednesday night, but the initiative drew immediate criticism for being “too little, too late.”

“I cannot imagine a future of the State of Israel which contains a Wild West without law order, with violence, crime, and terror. We will overcome it,” Netanyahu said, pledging NIS 100 million ($32 million) to the issue.

Arab Israeli politicians and civil society figures immediately chided the plan as “too little, too late.”

“Netanyahu is offering us a bandaid,” said Joint List chair Ayman Odeh, adding: “It’s impossible to solve a decade of neglect with NIS 100 million.”

A 2016 government decision to fight organized crime in Arab communities had budgeted NIS 2 billion ($605 million) over four years.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh speaks to reporters outside his home in Haifa on March 3, 2020. (Flash90)

Netanyahu said that “a much larger plan” would be passed at a later date, without specifying what would be included or when.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined a request by The Times of Israel for a detailed draft copy of the plan Netanyahu proposed on Wednesday night.

Opinion polls consistently show that ending violence and organized crime is a top priority for Arab Israelis, who die violently at considerably higher rates than Jewish Israelis. According to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, 96 Arab Israelis died in homicides in 2020, the highest in recent memory.

Netanyahu has been promising for months to propose a wide-ranging plan to combat the roots of violence in the Arab sector. The pressure has mounted in recent days following the shooting death of Ahmad Hijazi, a 22-year-old resident of Tamra, during a shootout between police and criminal gunmen.

“The sad death of Ahmad Hijazi is painful for us all, and I send my condolences to the family,” Netanyahu said.

Thousands attend the funeral of twenty-year-old nursing student Ahmad Hijazi near the Arab city of Tamra, northern Israel, February 2, 2021, Ahmad Hijazi killed in a shootout between Israeli police officers and criminals in Tamra. Photo by Sraya Diamant/Flash90

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has also been meeting with dozens of Arab mayors as part of a new electoral campaign in Arab communities. The prime minister said that his interlocutors had consistently demanded the appointment of someone to lead the fight.

On Wednesday night, Netanyahu announced that retired senior police official Aharon Franko would serve as a czar for violence in Arab communities.

“I have worked with him and been impressed by his professionalism, his fair-mindedness, and his humane character…He has excellent relationships with leaders in Arab towns,” Netanyahu said.

Franko’s appointment immediately raised controversy, however. The retired police officer had formerly served as Jerusalem District Commander. During his time as city police chief, Franko had said Arabs had displayed “ingratitude” after a series of violent clashes with law enforcement at the Temple Mount in October 2009.

“There’s ingratitude on the part of the Arabs. The police allowed the many Muslim worshipers who came to the Temple Mount to observe Ramadan and everything went in perfect order, and now, during the [Jewish] holidays, they are rioting,” Franko said at the time.

Deputy Chief of Police Aharon Franco attends a press conference at the police headquarters in Jerusalem. April 25, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90

The 100 million NIS short-term plan, which Netanyahu outlined for reporters on Wednesday night, will include the construction of six new police stations, fire departments and community centers, among other projects.

Netanyahu added that some funds would be allocated to work on collecting illegal weapons in Arab communities. Around 400,000 illegal guns are present in Arab cities and towns, according to a report presented to the Knesset last year.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who spoke after the Prime Minister, announced the establishment of a special investigative unit to target organized crime in Arab communities.

“The goal is to stop crime before it happens,” Ohana said.

Nonetheless, the plan falls far short of what Arab Israeli politicians and civil society leaders had publicly hoped for. A 2016 government decision on fighting organized crime in Arab society allocated around 2 billion NIS ($650 million) over four years to the issue; Arab Israelis had suggested a similar figure.

But it is also less than the full recommendations issued by the Prime Minister’s Office in November, which proposed a comprehensive, ambitious multi-year plan dealing with the roots of organized crime.

The plan covered seemingly every conceivable issue: improving employment opportunities for young Arab men, fixing the housing crisis in Arab towns and cities to providing better credit for Arab Israelis, who often turn to criminal gangs for loans.

In his remarks on Wednesday night, Netanyahu seemed to indicate that those programs would be passed in a later plan.

Joint List MK Mansour Abbas, who chaired a parliamentary committee on violence in Arab society, called for the full plan proposed in November to be authorized immediately.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“The steps which the Public Security Ministry announced, in waging this war against violence and crime are certainly important — albeit late — but they are limited to treating the symptoms of violence and crime,” Abbas said.

The Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, a shared society organization that has worked extensively on relations between Israel Police and Arab Israelis, said the plan was “too little, too late.”

“The immediate measures presented, and especially the meager budget provided, do not provide a solution in and of themselves. A handful of police stations, fire stations and community buildings, at a total cost of NIS 100 million — this is not a serious response to rampant crime,” the Abraham Initiatives said in a statement.

Asked by a reporter about the timing of the plan’s announcement, Public Security Minister Ohana dismissed concerns that the initiative was related to the March elections or to a campaign to gather votes among Arab Israels.

“It’s always a good time to save lives,” Ohana said.

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