Deploying the SHABAK against crime and violence in Israeli Arab society: Between a political consideration and a civilian constraint


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​ | October, 2021

Shadowed characters and fires in the background
Photo: Gigi Ibrahim | CC BY 2.0


The question of whether to deploy the SHABAK (Shin-Bet) - Israel Internal Security Agency - in the war on crime and gun violence in Israeli Arab society has topped the Arab agenda in Israel in recent weeks. This topic touches on the most burning issues for Israel’s Arab population, making it a strategic challenge for Israel as a whole because it exemplifies the collapse of governance and the loss of the ability to enforce public law and order in various hotbeds of crime in Israel’s Arab society.


Against this backdrop, a heated debate is developing in the Arab public between the opponents and supporters of SHABAK`s involvement. Those who oppose SHABAK`s involvement contend that it would represent a regression to the early days of the state when Israel’s Arab population lived under a military government, and as a result, the Arab citizens of Israel would be treated as if they are the “enemy.”


This camp is led by Knesset members from the Joint Arab List, as well as by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which has always had reservations with any cooperation with members of Israel’s security forces. The proponents of the idea assert that the situation in Arab society has reached a level that leaves no alternative to the taking of extreme steps, which although fundamentally problematic, are preferable to the continued disintegration of Arab society.


While the opponents of sending the SHABAK into the fray are more vociferous than its supporters, the latter group appears to enjoy broad tacit support among the Arab public, which is striving to find solutions to its desperate plight.


The person who best embodies this latter approach is the chairman of the United Arab List (RA`AM) Mansour Abbas. He recently declared “I want to eat the grapes without killing the guard” (in reference to a well-known Arab folk parable) – meaning that the Arab public must be pragmatic and realistic, and accept that there is no choice but to involve the SHABAK, with its professional skills and sophisticated technical means in the war on a scourge that none of the other governmental bodies have managed to hold in check.


However, explained Abbas, all this must be done while scrupulously safeguarding the civil rights of Israel’s Arab citizens, with clear boundaries set for the actions taken by the SHABAK in Arab society. In saying this, the chairman of RA`AM once again represents a unique voice in Arab society, and has shown that he is willing to break with convention with regard to cooperation with Israel’s state institutions, as is expressed by his party’s unprecedented decision to join the current ruling coalition.


The discourse on the subject of the SHABAK reflects a far deeper dilemma among the Arab public regarding its collective priorities. On one side are those who give top priority to the political issues, while at the same time taking a conspiratorial approach – one lacking in any factual basis – whereby the SHABAK is in fact the source of crime in Arab society, professing that it provides protection to crime organizations and even controls their affairs.


On the other are those who give priority to the problems of everyday civic life, and are willing to engage in path-breaking cooperation with the state institutions, even those related to security, to resolve them. The latter approach is reflected in recent years in the activities of local Arab mayors. They maintain close ties with the police in order to grapple with the scourge of crime and gun violence in Arab society, and have openly and extensively cooperated with the enforcement authorities during COVID-19 crisis, including with the IDF Homefront Command, which operates in Arab localities too.


The deployment of the SHABAK in the war on crime in Arab society necessitates a high degree of sensitivity and caution in view of the fact that the “targets” of the war this time are citizens of Israel. With this in mind, it would be advisable not to position the SHABAK at the forefront of the campaign, which must be spearheaded by the police.


The SHABAK should serve in an auxiliary role, with a focus on those areas where it can provide added value, first and foremost to battle the illegal possession of or trafficking in arms and ammunition. The SHABAK can serve in a support role for police missions, consult to the police and even train its members in various areas. However, it is crucial that it not be the one that leads the various operations to be undertaken against the criminal elements in Arab society.


The government will have to present highly compelling arguments for the move in the media to help overcome the Arab public’s deeply held suspicions and concerns. In this context, it will be necessary to explain that the involvement of the SHABAK in the war on crime will be carried out with great sensitivity and with care not to violate the civil rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. It is especially recommended that senior elected officials, including the prime minister, discuss these matters in the Arabic-language media in Israel.


However, it must also be made clear that there is no “magic bullet” that will make the problem disappear, that time will be needed to deal with the problem and that various pitfalls can be expected along the way. Indeed, exaggerated hopes of this nature pinned on the involvement of the SHABAK in the war on crime and gun violence has been evident in the public Hebrew media discourse in recent months.


The deployment of the SHABAK in the war on crime in the Arab street may help to “lower the flames” of the threat in the visible future, especially if it succeeds in crippling the crime organizations in Arab society. A success of this kind could serve as the foundation for in-depth and multidimensional treatment of the violence in Arab society. This must include taking action in the areas of education, welfare, economy, infrastructure, and most importantly among the younger generation. One of the most serious and fundamental problems in current Arab society is the sense of alienation, loss of direction and anarchy among many young people in Arab society who are neither studying nor working, and consequently are relatively easily drawn into the world of crime.


Whatever courses of action are taken to root out the problems in Arab society, Arab society itself must take an active role with very close cooperation with governmental apparatuses, including the promotion of initiatives involving civic service for young Arabs and the hiring of more Arab citizens by the police. All these may help lay the groundwork for the regularization and formulation of the relations between the state and its Arab citizens, which have not been properly sorted out since the establishment of the state in 1948.




authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.


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