2000: "Year Zero" of Crime and Violence in Israeli Arab Society


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | January, 2022

Shadowed characters with fires on the background
Photo: Gigi Ibrahim | CC BY 2.0


Crime and violence in Israeli Arab society have exacerbated in recent years, and attempts have been made to discern the roots and fundamental reasons for this phenomenon, as it gradually turning into a strategic challenge. This exploration is crucial as a precise definition of the characteristics of this phenomenon is sought in order to accurately resolve it.


There is a common tendency to adopt two contrasting explanations to this issue as part of the evolving discourse on it. The first argues this phenomenon is rooted in the government's ongoing neglect of Arab society: some even believe a "conspiracy theory" whereby this policy is deliberate and designed to destabilize and weaken the Arab public; As part of this theory, the ISA [SHABAK] places Arab organized crime under its auspices, and the IDF turns a blind eye to arms smuggling and theft, allowing weapons to flood Arab communities. The second explanation maintains that the roots of this phenomenon are cultural, primarily "the common tendency" in Arab society to settle disputes using violence.


The effort of tracing the roots of crime and violence in Arab society reveals that the year 2000 could be considered as "Year Zero" of this phenomenon: less than 100 civilians were murdered in criminal incidents in Arab society between 1980 and 2000, whereas the number of victims from 2000 to date almost amounts to 1500 (and 150 more in East Jerusalem). The exact turning point is the October 2000 riots - a severe rift in the relations between Israeli Arab citizens and the state that has yet to be smoothed over, and is perceived by the Arab public as a continuous past.


In hindsight, 21 years down the line, the October 2000 riots seems to reflect a disconnection between the Israel police and Arab public that has gradually deepened and created a broad governmental void. Since 2000, many in the Arab public have started to believe that the law enforcement and policing authorities view Israeli Arab citizens as a security threat, and therefore take measures such as oppression and harsh violence against them, leading them to stop cooperating with them. The police, for its part, has gradually restricted its peacekeeping and crime fighting activities in the Arab public, weakening its operative and intelligence hold on this population. Thus, an "Unpoliced Society" was gradually formed, an "enclave" of sorts where state governance is low. The scale of this phenomenon varies from one region to another; however, the same characteristics seem to have gained a footing across the Arab public sphere.


Data on crime and law enforcement in the last two decades demonstrates the deepening disconnection between the Israel police and Arab population in various aspects: a drop in the number of calls made by Arab citizens to the police emergency call center; lower levels of public trust in the police force's intentions and ability to address crime in Arab society; alongside a relatively low rate of resolved investigations. At the same time, of course, the figures on violence in the Arab population continue to soar: the number of victims, shooting incidents, disorderly conduct incidents, detainees, etc.[1]


The disconnection described has been enhanced over the past two decades by fundamental processes that have taken place in Arab society in particular, and the State of Israel in general, primarily the rise of a new generation born around the year 2000. This generation is characterized by multidimensional distress: it is deeply defiant in the face of the authority figures around it (including religious, political and public leaderships, as well as its parents' generation); it feels greatly detached as manifest in the fact that some 30% of young adults aged 18-24 in Arab society do not study or work; and experiences tremendous exasperation in view of the obstacles in Arab society and the government that render self-realization so difficult.


To a large extent, these same young adults represent the long-term implications of the disconnection between the Israel Police and Arab public. They have grown up against the backdrop of profound alienation toward the policing apparatuses (an approach that has garnered the support of some political Arab leaderships), suffer from sparse state investments, relatively easily end up leading a criminal life, and are involved in greater numbers in violence. It is these same young men and women who are at the forefront of criminal incidents (as well as the list of victims), and feature in violent encounters with state institutions and the Jewish population, as strongly seen in the May 2021 riots, which reflected an unprecedented collision between Jews and Arabs in Israel.


Other phenomena that played a part in bolstering crime and violence in Arab society were the relocation of institutionalized crime in Israel into the boundaries of Arab society after the police force had weakened organized crime in the Jewish population some 15 years ago; ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians since 2000 that exacerbated the structured tension within Arab society between "Palestinization" and "Israelization" trends; and the years-long neglect of Arab society in areas such as education, welfare, youth and banking.


The current problem in Arab society far exceeds the definitions and dimensions of "crime and delinquency". It is accompanied by violence prevalent throughout the public sphere, for instance: among teems; in the penetration of organized crime into local Arab authorities; in the widespread existence and frequent use of weapons on Arab streets; in the growing power of internal arbitrators - led by the Sulha or reconciliation committees often active on a tribal basis, or the local law enforcement forces such as Al-Harasa in Kafr Qasim.


Thus, two intertwined destructive fundamental processes are simultaneously expressed: the Israeli government's loss of governance in Arab society, particularly prominent among the Bedouin population in southern Israel (the Negev area), alongside profound destabilization of Arab society strongly manifest in the weakening of its authority figures, particularly political parties, public leaders, clergy and, to a large extent, as previously mentioned, parents.


Crime and violence are at the heart of the contrast- and contradiction-filled lives of Israeli Arab citizens. On the one hand, many of them have a growing desire to deepen their integration into public life in Israel, leading to greater contact between the two societies, and even the shattering of some old taboos, such as the unprecedented role that The United Arab List is playing in the current ruling coalition in Israel. On the other hand, Arab citizens still face deeply-rooted barriers, and the basic tension between their national identity and civilian status remains true, perhaps even deepens. Soaring crime and violence underscore the sense of ongoing "non-normalcy", boosting all the negative aspects described.


In view of the phenomenon's current dimensions, it is no longer relevant to keep holding on to slogans about "magic solutions" for crime and violence along the lines of "all it would take is some serious police action against crime families", for such an approach attests to an incomprehension or denial of this phenomenon's current complexity and scope. It is not about a focused campaign against crime families in Arab societies, the wider circles of this issue must be discussed, and Arab society's responsibility discerned as part of a discussion on the active steps that it must take in order to promote a solution to this problem.


It is a strategic multidimensional challenge requiring a multidimensional solution that far exceeds law enforcement and policing aspects, and instead calls for greater investments in Arab society, particularly in the context of the younger generation. The first stage of this response indeed requires focused action against organized crime, for such action could reduce the intensity of violence in Arab society, calm it down, and bolster its faith in the law enforcement authorities, while reinstating the regime's ability to govern in areas where its governance has weakened.


In view of the scope of this challenge at present, drastic steps must be taken, primarily involving the ISA in a campaign that the Israel Police will continue to spearhead, alongside strict legislation, especially on illegal possession of weapons and use thereof. The campaign should be accompanied by the dissemination of information on the importance of these steps by the state as well as Arab leaders, with particular emphasis placed on clarifying that Arab civilian rights will not be infringed upon.


The head of The United Arab List, MK Mansour Abbas, stood out in this context when he explained recently that, under the current circumstances, there is no choice but to involve the ISA in the fight against crime and violence; justified the use of administrative detention when being forced to grapple with what he called "ticking timebombs"; and even announced that "the police must be brought to society, and society to the police".


These steps must be accompanied by critical discourse within Arab society on the "conspiracy theories", for their constant emergence does not contribute to the Jewish population's trust and identification with Arab society's distress. The critical discourse should also address those voices that automatically object to almost every government initiative across the board, often without suggesting any practical alternatives: from the establishment of a Unit in the Israel Police dedicated to fighting crime in Arab society, through the weapon collection operations (to which the Arab communities have hardly responded), to the establishment of a unit of police officers disguised as Arabs or suggestions to involve the ISA in the fight against crime and violence while alleviating police procedures as part of the same effort.


The next stages will require a return to the lessons learned from 2000, and the repair of the disconnection that evolved between Arab society and the law enforcement and policing authorities. Such a step would require a "normalization" of relations between the Arab population and Israel Police, the deepening of mutual trust and collaboration between them, followed by the increased recruiting of Arab civilians to police ranks. The mended rift between the Arab population and Israel Police could serve as a basis for profound discerning and defining of the relations between Arab citizens and the Israeli government - an essential step that has not been taken since 1948.




[1] See, in this context: Nohad Ali, Violence and crime in Israeli Arab society: "A state institution conspiracy" or "cultural criminality"? (Haifa: Haifa University, 2014) [Hebrew]; Noam Zussman, Yonatan Woodbridge, & Sami Miaari, Crime in Israel, with a focus on Arab Society: 1990 - 2010 (Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, 2016) [Hebrew]; How the Israel Police grapples with the possession of illegal weapons and shooting incidents in Arab as well as mixed communities: Audit and follow-up (Jerusalem: The office of the State Comptroller, 2021) [Hebrew];Jerry Almo-Capital, Crime and Violence among teens in Arab society (Jerusalem: The Knesset Research and Information Center, 2020) [Hebrew];Ahmad Sheikh Mohammed, Sausan Razek Marjiya, & Mohammed Khatib, A survey on violence in Palestinian society in Israel (Shfaram: The Galilee Society for Health Research and Services, 2019) [Hebrew and Arabic]; Nurit Yachimovich-Cohen, Data on crime in Arab society (Jerusalem: The Knesset Research and Information Center, 2020) [Hebrew]; Nurit Yachimovich-Cohen, Weapons offenses - Data and how the authorities are coping (Jerusalem: The Knesset Research and Information Center, 2021) [Hebrew].




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



If you wish to receive the weekly brief regularly, please follow the link to register.




Back to the newsletter >>