With new policing division, Bennett unveils plan to tackle crime among Arabs

PM says high crime levels are the result of state neglect: ‘The situation is intolerable and we will put an end to it’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) visits a police station on August 11, 2021, to announce a new national plan to tackle crime in the Arab sector. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) visits a police station on August 11, 2021, to announce a new national plan to tackle crime in the Arab sector. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed on Wednesday to end the ongoing crime wave in Arab communities, at a ceremony inaugurating a unit dedicated to “restoring safety to Arab streets.”

“Arab society today constitutes 20 percent of the population in Israel and 60% of the crime. This situation, this neglect, is intolerable and we will put an end to it,” said Bennett, after examining a table of illegal weaponry seized in a recent police raid.

Bennett announced his intention to formulate a national plan to combat crime in Arab areas in June, immediately after taking office. According to a draft of the plan, NIS 2.4 billion ($770 million) will be budgeted over five years.

Arab cities and towns have seen a surge in violence in recent years, with organized crime seen as the main driver. Arab Israelis blame police, who they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence.

Some 57 Arab Israelis have been killed in homicides since the beginning of 2021 including six people in the past week. In 2020, 96 Arab Israelis were killed, by far the highest annual toll in recent memory.

More than 90% of shootings in Israel last year took place in Arab communities, according to police, though Arab Israelis account for only around one-fifth of the country’s population.

“Today, we are establishing a dedicated division, the Seif division, whose guiding purpose is to thwart crime in Arab Israeli communities and to restore security to the streets,” Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtay said at the ceremony.

Notably absent from the ceremony were any Arab representatives, including the Islamist Ra’am party. Securing the passage of the anti-violence plan was a key demand for Ra’am when it joined Bennett’s coalition government.

The new government’s plan also includes the establishment of two police stations, one of which will be in the poor Arab fishing town of Jisr al-Zarka in central Israel.

Israeli Arabs protest against violence, organised crime and recent killings among their communities, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum, northen Israel. October 03, 2019. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

According to Shabtay, the Seif unit is already concluding its first operation to crack down on the spread of illegal weapons in the Arab community. Around 1,000 officers participated and some 41 suspects have been arrested, although Shabtay did not say how many guns were confiscated.

Police have launched gun collection operations before, but none have managed to dent the deadly arms trade. According to a 2020 Knesset report, some 400,000 illegal weapons are circulating in Israel, the vast majority in Arab communities.

The Seif division appears to be an expansion of an earlier unit established to improve policing in the Arab sector. That unit, established in 2017, had little actual policing power; its primary purpose was to mediate between Arab communities and police, as well as to conduct public awareness campaigns about “the importance of law and order.”

It is not immediately clear how the revamped Seif unit differs from its predecessor. But the Abraham Initiatives, an organization that works on improving Arab-police relations, expressed cautious optimism.

“The establishment of Seif in the presence of the prime minister, the public security minister, and senior police officers carries important symbolic value,” the organization said in a statement.

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