Shin Bet: Criminals threaten governance in over 15 locales

Netanyahu says Shin Bet will help fight Arab crime related to local elections

PM reported to get in a row with Arab authorities chief about who is responsible for deadly crime wave; Shin Bet chief said to stress will only be involved on case-by-case basis

Mourners attend the funeral of 66-year-old Salman Halbi in Yarka, northern Israel, August 23, 2023. Salman Halbi was one of the four victims of a brutal shooting in Abu Snan the previous night. (Flash90)
Mourners attend the funeral of 66-year-old Salman Halbi in Yarka, northern Israel, August 23, 2023. Salman Halbi was one of the four victims of a brutal shooting in Abu Snan the previous night. (Flash90)

A ministerial panel established to address rampant violent crime in Arab towns has tasked the Shin Bet security service with assisting police operations in combatting some crime in the Arab community, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said after the forum convened on Wednesday.

The agency, which usually handles national security issues, will be brought in “against criminal organizations in all matters related to the municipal elections,” the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said, stressing that it will act in accordance with its “mission and role under the law.”

Crimes targeting state institutions are already under the agency’s purview, and it was not clear that the announcement represented a significant shift.

The Shin Bet has identified 15 to 20 Arab regional councils where there are threats to candidates, voters or public officials from crime families, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

A deadly crime surge in Arab communities continues to shatter records set over the past few years.

One of the victims in a shocking quadruple homicide Tuesday evening in the northern town of Abu Snan was a mayoral candidate. That shooting came a day after the killing of Tira’s municipal director. Since the beginning of the year, 159 members of the Arab community have been killed by violence, much of it attributed by police to warring crime organizations. The figure is over twice as high as for the same period in 2022.

Netanyahu and far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir have called to involve the Shin Bet in the fight against violent crime, which is not explicitly in the agency’s remit, though it is tasked under a 2002 law “with maintaining state security and maintaining the order of the democratic regime and its institutions against various threats.”

Threats to election candidates could fall under that designation, however.

Ben Gvir, who is responsible for police and has faced growing criticism for his handling of the crime wave, is also demanding the use of administrative detention, which enables holding suspects for extended periods without charge.

Judicial officials have indicated using such tools against citizens will create serious legal difficulties.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The three-hour meeting of the ministerial sub-committee on combatting crime in the Arab Israeli community included Ben Gvir and Shin Bet director Ronen Bar.

At the gathering, Netanyahu reportedly clashed with the chairman of the Arab Authorities Committee, Moder Younes, who refused to accept the sweeping claim that the rising violence in his community was due to organized crime groups.

“I hear you talking about crime organizations, it could be crime organizations,” Younes said, according to unsourced Hebrew media reports of the closed-door meeting.

Netanyahu then reportedly banged on the table and shouted in response “Could be? You know that it is crime organizations. I can’t deal with [the issue] with your denials.”

The prime minister then struck a more conciliatory tone, telling Younes: “I sympathize with your pain and I let you express yourself — but you need to help me and not deny that these are criminal organizations. That’s what we’re going to focus on,” Channel 13 reported.

Shin Bet chief Bar was said to note that the agency will only be involved on a case-by-case basis where necessary and not in every incident that comes up. Bar has previously expressed his reluctance for the Shin Bet to be used in criminal, rather than security-related, cases.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 20, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/POOL/Flash90)

Sources in the justice system expressed their opposition to bringing the Shin Bet in, the Ynet outlet reported, citing one unnamed official as saying: “The Shin Bet disapproves of its involvement in monitoring and solving criminal cases in the Arab sector as a matter of routine. This is because it does not want to serve as a police force in the Arab sector, and also out of fear that its working methods will be exposed.

“Instead of mobilizing the Shin Bet to assist the police, [police’s] capabilities and professional manpower should be strengthened.”

Leader of the opposition’s Islamist Ra’am party MK Mansour Abbas said he was initiating a plan to establish an Arab civilian guard to protect communities.

The idea would be “a kind of civil guard or security squads,” similar to the kind of groups that already exist in Jewish communities, he told Kan news.

“Community policing must be strengthened with volunteer groups,” Abbas said. “The police will train them and supervise them and they will work with them. We must take responsibility and protect our lives.”

Ata Abu Madighem, mayor of the mostly Bedouin city of Rahat, said Wednesday that he feels his life is in danger as police have stopped providing him protection. Earlier this week an explosive was placed in the yard of his home, without causing injury, and the day before that shots were fired at the premises, Ynet reported. Two suspects have been arrested in connection with the shooting that police believe is tied to a family dispute over lands.

“The police are refusing to protect me until security guards are brought in,” he said in the report. “They need to take the matter seriously, it could bring me to a difficult situation.”

Police denied the claim, saying in a statement that Madighem was being given the highest level of protection suitable for his situation in line with regulations, according to the report. A source told the outlet that the mayor is not being left alone and that “Wherever he goes, security guards go with him.”

Rahat Mayor Ata Abu Madighem speaks at a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya on January 5, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Madighem met earlier in the day with police officials. The mayor claimed he had tried to hire guards from security companies but none would agree to work in Rahat.

According to Ynet, the interior minister is set to provide Madighem with hired security guards.

Also Wednesday, thousands took part in the funeral of Abdel Rahman Kashua, who held the post of municipality director-general in Tira, just north of Tel Aviv, and who was gunned down at a gas station on Monday.

Mourners carrying black flags gathered outside a police station in protest as part of the funeral procession.

Taybeh Mayor Shuaa Masarwa Mansour attacked the government at the funeral, claiming it was “comfortable with Arabs killing each other,” Channel 13 reported.

In April, one of Mansour’s own security guards was shot dead outside his home.

Arab Israeli mourners carry the casket of Abdel Rahman Kashua, the director-general of the Arab city of Tira in Israel, who was gunned down at a gas station, during his funeral procession outside the Tira police station, on August 23, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Ra’am leader Abbas also attended the funeral, declaring: “Our demand is only one, that the state of Israel carry out its duty to protect the lives of Arab citizens.”

Earlier this month Netanyahu blamed “out-of-control criminal organizations” for the violence. Ben Gvir in a Facebook post Wednesday called Arab armed gangs “terrorist organizations” with “huge budgets and hundreds of thousands of weapons at their disposal, including millions of bullets, explosive charges, and grenade launchers.”

In early June, the prime minister said he was “determined to stop this chain of murders” and would see that happen by not only reinforcing police but also “with the help of the Shin Bet.”

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reiterated that he will not release hundreds of millions of shekels budgeted to assist development in Arab municipalities until he can be sure the money doesn’t go to organized crime groups.

“Organized crime relies on money,” he said in a statement, “and most of this money, which is the State of Israel’s, instead of serving Arab Israeli citizens… reaches the same ‘protection’ collectors.”

Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, called for oversight mechanisms to ensure the money reaches its intended target.

“We will hold dialogue with all the relevant government ministries, formulate these mechanisms and only then release the funds,” he said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on August 9, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Smotrich has taken flak — including from other cabinet ministers — for refusing to release NIS 200 million ($55 million) for economic development in Arab towns and villages, drawing accusations of racism from opposition lawmakers.

Earlier this week, representatives of Arab local authorities staged a protest in Jerusalem over Smotrich’s refusal to transfer the money and also organized a strike in the Arab community.

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