Mutual Mistrust Keeps Crime Flourishing in Israel’s Arab Communities

Published on Haaretz

Arab-Israelis lack trust in the police – whom they perceive as being part of an establishment more interested in hunting Palestinian terrorists than protecting Palestinian citizens. The police, meanwhile, are caught between using too much and too little force.

Last month, Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett caused a ruckus when he complained in a talk at Tel Aviv University that Israelis “can’t enter any Arab village or town – which, by the way, hurts Arabs first of all – because the State of Israel has determined that the rule of law might apply in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Raanana, but not in these places.” While his speech caused offense to dozens of Arab audience members, there was some truth to his words. The “rule of law” seems absent in many Arab enclaves in Israel, where deadly weapons are abound, local protection rackets tyrannize residents, and feuds too easily turn fatal.

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The problem is not, however, that there is no law enforcement in these towns, as Bennett suggested. Rather, it lies in the absence of trust between police and Arab communities, and in the policing that swings wildly from being non-existent to overly aggressive.

In sociological jargon, these opposite poles are called “under-policing” and “over-policing.” Citizens either feel that they do not receive sufficient police protection to guarantee their basic safety, or that their behavior is monitored so excessively that it constitutes police harassment and abuse. (For dramatized examples, see the sit-com, “Arab Labor” or the film “Ajami,” about an Arab neighborhood of Jaffa).

The feeling of being “under-policed” is widespread among Israelis, says Guy Ben-Porat, professor of public policy at Ben-Gurion University, “but minorities interpret this perception as an expression of discrimination.” They think police do not answer their calls or delay in responding because they are Palestinian citizens; that police will not venture into their neighborhoods or villages because they are afraid to or because they do not care what happens to them. Ben-Porat stresses that most Palestinian citizens of Israel have never had direct contact with the police, so their attitudes stem from perception more than personal experience.

This anxiety is compounded by suspicion rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ron Gerlitz, co-director of Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organization for civic equality, says Palestinian citizens of Israel do not ask for police assistance because, rather than seeing them as their protectors, they perceive the police as the enemy; as part of a security establishment that is more interested in hunting Palestinian terrorists than protecting Palestinian citizens.

Police, for their part, says Gerlitz, complain that when they enter Arab neighborhoods, local residents hinder their investigations rather than help them, out of distrust, fear of reprisals or both. (Imagine the opening scenes of “In the Name of the Father,” with our police in the role of the British and Palestinian citizens the Irish Catholics.)

The Gaza War made last summer particularly fraught, and provided potent examples of both ineffective and effective policing. Police did little to stop mob incitement against Arabs by right-wing Jewish extremists, to prevent attacks on Arab taxi drivers, bus drivers and commuters, or to curtail violence by right-wing thugs at left-wing or Arab rallies.

But the summer wasnt all bleak. Police stayed out of Arab towns while protests against the Gaza War took place, enabling Palestinian citizens to exercise their right to demonstrate without provoking violent confrontations. Unlike in October 2000, no Palestinian citizens were shot by police during these protests. And when Yom Kippur, a day when Jews fast and refrain from driving, coincided with Eid al-Adha, when Muslims drive to visit their relatives for celebratory meals, police announced certain road closures in Jewish neighborhoods well in advance and clearly explained the rationale. Little of the anticipated friction materialized.

Community policing can work to improve police-minority relations, but such efforts are hamstrung by the miniscule number of Arab officers in Israel and the scorn heaped upon them by other Palestinian citizens for being “collaborators.”

A shift in perception is in order. Palestinian citizens must come to believe that the police are there to help them, and police must see Palestinian citizens as their clients, rather than their adversaries.

Top-down change in the police is also required. If our next public security minister only seeks more crack-downs, we can expect more violence.

Israeli security forces have the daunting mission of maintaining order in a fragmented society while combating political violence. But they must not use this complex situation as an excuse for not serving our Palestinian citizens.

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