On Monday morning of this week, a 44-year-old man named Salim Hasarma was shot dead in the village of Ba’ana in northern Israel. This event marked a tragic and record-breaking milestone for Israel: 100 members of Israel’s Arab minority have been murdered so far this year as a result of intra-communal violence. Violent crime is hardly a new issue in Israeli Arab society, but it is a crisis that is becoming increasingly difficult for mainstream Israel to ignore. This violence takes various forms, ranging from gang activity and organized crime to domestic disputes and random street altercations, but the result is the same: an ethnic minority that accounts for 20% of Israel’s population, yet 70% of its murders. Illegal weapons, which the Ministry of Public Security estimates number anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands in the Arab community, are a significant driver of this phenomenon. As this crisis has exacerbated over the past few years, it has largely been met with indifference and inaction from Israel’s police force and justice system. In 2020, only 5.5% of cases involving illegal weapons led to indictment and most murder cases remain unresolved.

After years of ignoring this growing crisis, Israel’s leadership has now vowed to take action. This government is uniquely positioned to do so compared to its predecessors, and not just because its prime minister is someone other than Binyamin Netanyahu. For the first time in Israel’s history, an independent Arab political party, Ra’am, is part of the coalition and has direct influence over the legislative agenda and government policy. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has an opportunity to demonstrate that Jewish-Arab political cooperation can produce tangible progress in improving the situation of Arabs in Israel, who too often face institutional and state neglect. His heavy-handed approach to solving this crisis, however, has come under criticism. The key will be whether it can succeed in stamping out crime without eroding the civil rights of the innocent civilians impacted by it. 

Over the course of his several months in office, Prime Minister Bennett has given multiple statements expressing his intention to combat crime, violence, and illegal weapons in Arab society and announced a plan to do so in August, along with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, and Deputy Public Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz. This plan’s measures include increasing and strengthening the police force’s presence in Arab cities and the creation of a new section of the police known as the Seif Division, to be focused exclusively on combating crime in the Arab sector. The police force has already begun carrying out major operations against criminal organizations in Arab communities. The government is looking to earmark 35 billion shekels ($10 million) in funding for the Arab community’s development, infrastructure, and public services over the next five years as part of its state budget, the passage of which is necessary for the coalition’s survival.

Despite these promising steps, there is one aspect of Bennett’s plan that has proven controversial. Earlier this month, at the meeting of the ministerial team focused on crime in Arab communities (where, strikingly, no Arabs were present), he announced that the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal service, would collaborate with the IDF and the police on this matter. The Shin Bet, however, is a security organization that deals primarily with issues of counterterrorism, not civilian affairs, and taking on this responsibility would be unprecedented in the agency’s history. 

Many Arab communal leaders, including the committee of Arab mayors and Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, have slammed the move as an infringement of their civil rights and a dangerous precedent. The Shin Bet is accustomed to fighting terrorism beyond the Green Line, not civilian criminals within it. The organization is not bound by the same legal constraints and civilian oversight as the police force and can employ drastic measures, including holding suspects without charges and preventing them from meeting with lawyers. Israel has never deployed the Shin Bet to combat crime in the Jewish community. Just this week, moreover, the cabinet approved a bill brought forth by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar that broadens the conditions under which police can conduct warrantless searches. To many, Prime Minister Bennett’s embrace of these drastic strategies to solve this crisis, one that has exacerbated over the years due to state inaction, is indicative of the government treating its Arab citizens as non-citizens at best, and enemies of the state at worst.

Criticism of this approach among Arab leaders has been far from unanimous. Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas and Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freij of Meretz, two of the most prominent Arab politicians in the coalition, have come out in favor of involving the Shin Bet, citing the severity of the crisis and the urgent need for security in Arab communities. The Arab public is divided on the issue. After years of police inaction, much of Arab society sees the police as corrupt and incompetent and doubts its ability to tackle this crisis alone. Shakib Ali, a prominent Arab Israeli lawyer, argues that Arabs already believe that the Shin Bet operates in their communities in order to protect Jews, so it might as well be used to protect Arabs as well.

However, the Shin Bet’s involvement may also encounter legal challenges. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has announced that the Shin Bet lacks the legal authority to fight civilian crime in the Arab community, as it would extend the organization beyond its mandate. Mandelblit, Omer Bar-Lev, and Gideon Sa’ar have discussed the matter in order to find a legal basis for involving the Shin Bet. Maj. Gen. Jamal Hakroush, head of the Seif Division, offered assurances that the IDF and the Shin Bet would not be deployed on the streets and carry out operations on the ground, but rather would provide backup to the police force. Bar-Lev and Segalovitz have also clarified that the IDF would not be involved in the plan aside from preventing weapons smuggling. At this point, it is yet unclear what the scope of the IDF and the Shin Bet’s roles will be, and the issue may end up in court. 

Only time will tell how effective Bennett and his team will be in providing security to Israel’s Arab citizens, and to what extent their rights and freedoms will be impacted by the Shin Bet and military’s involvement, along with expanded police powers pending a full Knesset vote on Sa’ar’s bill. How this strategy plays out will not only impact minority rights, public security, and interethnic relations in Israel, but it will also have implications on the nature of future Arab participation in Israeli politics. Mansour Abbas’ reasoning for bringing Ra’am into the government was that he could reap real gains for his constituents, including government action to curb the epidemic of violence and crime, by positioning himself as a legitimate political partner rather than an irrelevant voice of dissent from the opposition. Yet his endorsement of Bennett’s anti-crime plan carries with it political risk. If this strategy ends up infringing on the civil liberties of those it was designed to protect, Abbas’ constituents may not give him or like-minded Arab politicians another chance to hold the reins of power. 

Photo credit: Synne Tonil