“We Are in a Daily Battle for Survival”

Abandoned by the Israeli government, the country’s Palestinian citizens live at the mercy of organized crime.

Elisheva Goldberg
July 11, 2023

The funeral of Palestinian citizens of Israel who were murdered in the town of Yafa an-Naseriyye on June 8th, 2023.

Mahmoud Illean/AP

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A 39-year-old dentist named Ramez Abu Asba was shot and killed at the entrance to his home on July 10th. The murder took place in the Arab town of Jatt in Israel’s Haifa district. In the 24 hours following Abu Asba’s murder, the Israeli newspaper Ynet reported that nine other people were also shot or stabbed across several Arab towns, including two men who were shot at point blank range while sitting in their car at the entrance to the town of Umm el Fahm; the incident was captured on video. The same day, residents of Umm el Fahm protested outside the police station, chanting “failed police!”

Shootings like these, which can go entirely unreported in the Israeli press, are a daily occurrence in Arab towns. “The number of people who go to the hospital for gunshot wounds in Arab society is six times the number in Jewish society,” Fida Nara Tabony, who runs the Haifa branch of the civil society consultancy Shatil, told Jewish Currents. “This happens every day.” Arabs make up roughly 20% of the population of Israel, but account for 80% of its murder victims, putting the per capita Arab murder rate at 12 times the Jewish one. And the numbers are increasing: In all of 2022, 116 Arab citizens were murdered in Israel, but the same number of Arab citizens have already been killed in less than seven months in 2023. Most of these murders are carried out by family-based organized crime rings, such as the Abu Latifs, who are known for extorting protection money from businesses in Israel’s north; the Hariris, who control nearly a third of all gray-market loans in Israel; and the Jarushis, who are cornering the market on local infrastructure contracts southeast of Tel Aviv.

Anti-violence advocates told Jewish Currents they blame the growing influence of these crime rings—and the corresponding rise in violent crime—on the Israeli government’s neglect of Arab towns, which has created a void of social services and forced Arab citizens to rely on organized crime to meet their basic needs. Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the NGO Abraham Initiatives—which focuses on public safety initiatives in Arab towns—told Jewish Currents that crime rings have especially flourished since 2000, when “a real rift [opened] between the Arab community and the Israeli government.” Between 1983 and 2000, Abu Rass said there were only 83 murders of Arab citizens in Israel—fewer than five a year on average. But starting in late 2000, Arab–Jewish relationships deteriorated as the Second Intifada began. When Arab citizens protested against Israel’s assaults on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the government responded with repression. By mid-October, Israeli police had killed 13 Arabs and one Jew in their effort to suppress the protests in Arab towns. In the aftermath of the protests, the government set up a commission of inquiry that criticized the police for using unnecessary force and recommended indictments, but none ever materialized.

Instead, “the police made a decision . . . that they no longer care about the Arab community,” said Nara Tabony. “They closed the police stations and left. And the Arabs didn’t want to see police in their towns, either.” According to Abu Rass, the vacuum left by the police was filled by gangsters, a situation that worsened after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to crack down on criminal organizations in Israeli Jewish towns ahead of the 2003 election cycle. But instead of disappearing, the illegal activity often just migrated into lightly-policed Arab towns.

Today, many Arab towns have come to be run by these organized crime families. “When we talk about crime, we’re not just talking about murder and violence but about a political system that works parallel to the state,” said Adi Mansour, a lawyer for Adalah, a Haifa-based legal center which focuses on the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. “Whether it’s the black market, drugs, loans, real estate, or protection money—these groups draw power wherever they can.” In the north, the Abu Latif family now controls local government contracts by intimidating other contractors out of making bids; doing so has enabled them to amass “hundreds of millions of shekels in annual revenue,“ according to Haaretz. The Jarushi family has made its fortune by collecting protection money from businesses that operate on its turf, in addition to money laundering and giving out gray-market loans. Because these heavily armed groups often settle their business disputes with threats and violence, their presence in Arab towns means constant shootings and murders.

Fida Shehada, an organizer for the anti-violence campaign “Mothers for Life,” told Jewish Currents that Arab towns’ poverty and lack of social services has created the conditions for organized crime to take hold. According to 2020 Israeli government data, 55.7% of Arab families in Israel could be classified as “poor,” and yet they lack access to the basic welfare services that poor Jewish towns have: public housing, public transportation, employment offices, city planning, and financial institutions. Many Arab towns have no banks, and even in towns with formal banks, Arab citizens are often unable to qualify for loans due to structural barriers such as Israel’s discriminatory zoning laws in Arab towns. So when Arab families need cash, they are forced to turn to criminal organizations, many of which run high-interest loan shops out of corner stores. When families amass too much debt to pay back, Mansour said, the moneylenders come for them, threatening violence: “They send bullets to your home in an envelope . . . or a funeral wreath to your doorstep,” he said. According to the Abraham Initiatives 2019 Personal Security Index, close to a quarter of all Arab citizens report having experienced violent threats against themselves or their relatives.

Arab youth with few other options also end up turning to criminal organizations. “According to studies, 40% of Arab youth [between the approximate ages of 18-24] are ‘idle,’” Shehada said. “They have not finished high school, have poor reading and writing skills, and no real Hebrew-speaking ability, so they can’t even get a grocery store job.” Shehada is from the city of Lod, which Ynet has referred to as the “murder capital of Israel” and which Shehada described as segregated between a well-off Jewish neighborhood and an under-resourced Arab one. “Anyone who studied or went to a good profession moved to a Jewish neighborhood,” she said. “Anyone who can’t leave lives amidst crime.” Buoyed by the glorification of violence (often on TikTok), crime rings are able to recruit disillusioned Arab youth in towns like Lod with the promise of both money and a sense of belonging.

When violent crime does take place, residents of Israel’s Arab areas feel they have little recourse given how minimally responsive the police often are. Sheikh Kamal Rayyan, the mayor of the Arab town of Kfar Bara, told Jewish Currents that ever since a local criminal organization killed his 25-year-old son in 2009, he has never spoken to a single police officer. “We see the police when they put up red tape to define the murder area for a half hour,” he said. But then the cops “leave, and take the red tape with them. But they leave the roads red. They leave the community red.” The trend Rayyan describes continues to this day. In 2023 so far, Israeli police have only solved 13 out of the 116 murders of Arab citizens—just 11%—in contrast to their 80% solve rate for murder cases involving Jewish citizens.

Mudar Yunis, chairman of the National Committee for Heads of Arab Local Authorities—an NGO that represents all 67 of Israel’s Arab Muslim mayors—told Jewish Currents that crime is likely to remain a problem in Arab towns unless the Israeli state brings its considerable powers to bear against crime families. “We want the government to do its job,” he said. “You have to bring all the authorities—the tax authority, the money laundering police, lawmakers who can change the minimum jail sentence for owning illegal guns.” Abu Rass agreed, adding that the government should act to stem the tide of weapons flowing out of the Israeli army and into Arab communities. (According to 2020 Israeli government data, there are at least 400,000 illegal guns on the streets in Israel today—the vast majority of which, government officials have said, came from Israeli army bases.)

Over the years, a number of programs have been put in place to close the public safety and economic gap between Arab and Jewish towns—including a five-year-plan with $9.4 billion attached to it, which was approved in 2021. Close to half of the amount was earmarked for more police. However, some activists say more police are not necessarily the answer. Shahade says that in Lod, there have always been police stations—but the murder rate has not dropped. Similarly, in 2019, after mass protests and marches by Arab citizens, then-Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan committed 600 more police officers to the fight crime in Arab towns. But adding more stations and more officers did not help. “There was still no feeling that this was my police,” said Nara Tabony. “I was treated not as a citizen, but more as an enemy.” Police can sometimes add to the violence: In 2021, Amnesty International found that police had frequently physically assaulted Palestinian citizens of Israel as they protested amid Israel’s offensive on Gaza in May of that year. During that period, police shot and killed 17-year-old Mohammed Kiwan. When police are involved in the killing of Palestinians, they often get off scot-free: The police closed their own investigation into Kiwan’s death in September 2022 and deemed the killing “justified.” Just last week, the police officer who killed East Jerusalem resident Iyad al-Hallaq was acquitted by a court in Jerusalem.

The current government does not appear interested in solving the problem, Yunis said, “especially under [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich and [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir,” both of whom have a long history of racism against Arabs. Many other Israeli officials share these sentiments: In April, National Police Chief Kobi Shabtai reportedly told Ben-Gvir in a recorded telephone call that Arab towns have frequent crime because it is in Arabs’ “nature . . . and their mentality” to “kill each other.”

As a result, Arab citizens of Israel must grapple both with the neglect of their communities and the violence towards Palestinians in the occupied territories. Just last week, the Israeli army began a raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the country’s largest military operation in years. Thousands of Jenin residents fled after homes were invaded and critical infrastructure damaged. Like many Palestinian citizens of Israel, Nara Tabony has family in the West Bank, and she said that the events in Jenin are significant to Palestinian society in Israel because “we are a part of the Palestinian people.” But given the current reality, she said it is hard for Arab citizens of Israel to make ending the occupation and demanding justice for Palestinians in Jenin a priority. “Because we’re so focused on our personal safety and keeping our kids safe, we can’t also be dealing with our national identity. We are not part of that battle—we are in a daily battle for survival,” she said.

That battle can last decades, as it has for Kamal Rayyan—who still does not know who murdered his son or why. “Usually someone who loses his son, he buries his son, he grieves, he cries, he moves on with life,” Kamal Rayyan said. “Every day I bury my son.” And he’s not alone. “There are thousands like me who live in total unknowing . . . we have been taken hostage by these crime families.”

Elisheva Goldberg is the media and policy director for the New Israel Fund and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. She was an aide to former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and has written for The Daily Beast, The Forward, The New Republic, and The Atlantic.