Crime wave in Israel’s Arab towns exposes rift with police

Israeli Arabs, who suffer from widespread discrimination, protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings among their communities, in the Arab town of Majd Al-Krum. (AFP)
Updated 10 October 2019

Crime wave in Israel’s Arab towns exposes rift with police

  • Israel has seen mass protests, complaints of police negligence and a public debate about violence in Arab communities

MAJD AL-KRUM: In the week since three men were killed in a midday shootout in an Arab town in northern Israel, the country has seen mass protests, complaints of police negligence and a public debate about violence in Arab communities that has veered into racist generalizations.

A recent spike in killings within Arab towns has exposed the longstanding mistrust between the marginalized community and Israeli authorities, with each side accusing the other of neglecting the problem.

Arab citizens, who suffer from widespread discrimination, say Israel’s vaunted security forces are suspiciously powerless when it comes to combatting violence in their communities. Police say local leaders and residents must do more to help them impose law and order.

The debate was reignited last week by the shootout in the northern town of Majd Al-Krum, which killed two brothers, Ahmed and Khalil Manaa, and a third man, Mohammed Sabea. Another Manaa brother was wounded and remains in hospital, and a fifth man is said to be on the run. The police have opened an investigation but refuse to provide any details.

“They loved everyone and everyone loved them,” Aisha Manaa said as she sobbed and held a picture of her two slain sons, one of whom is survived by a wife and two small children. “How can something like this happen?”

Israel’s Arab citizens make up just 20 percent of the population but account for more than half of all murder victims nationwide. At least 71 Arabs have been killed so far this year, nearly as many as in each of the preceding two years, putting it on track to be the deadliest year in at least a decade.

Last month a stray bullet killed a 21-year-old pregnant mother at a wedding outside the northern city of Haifa. Police say a shooting late on Tuesday in Jaljulia, a small Arab town in central Israel, left one person dead and another moderately wounded. Local media have aired surveillance footage from other areas showing masked gunmen firing at each other with assault rifles in broad daylight.

“Children go to school and they are terrified,” Manaa said. “We are afraid during the day and during the night. It is not safe anymore.”

The police say they are doing everything they can, from stepping up patrols to opening new stations in Arab communities. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said they have confiscated more than 3,500 illegal weapons and arrested more than 2,500 people on weapons charges this year alone. On Wednesday, police announced a major weapons bust in which they seized 200 guns as well as dozens of grenades and explosives.

“The Israeli police can respond to hundreds of incidents, as we do,” Rosenfeld said. “But of course we have to make sure that the leaders of the different communities are speaking to the youngsters, are speaking to the local residents, are making sure that at local weddings, you don’t have men that are turning up, using weapons and firing openly.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the police force, went further, telling a local radio station Monday that “Arab society, and I am sorry to say this, is very, very violent.”

“It’s connected to the culture there. A lot of disputes that end here with a lawsuit, there they pull out a knife and a gun,” he said. He later walked back the remarks, tweeting that the “main responsibility” for fighting crime lies with the government and police, and describing the Arab public as “normative and law-abiding.”

The Joint List of Arab political parties, which emerged as the third-largest voting bloc in the Knesset in last month’s national elections, slammed Erdan’s “racist” remarks, saying “the problem is not in the culture but in the policies.” It pointed to a series of large protests held in Arab towns in recent days condemning both the violence and the police response.

The mutual mistrust is rooted in the Middle East conflict. Arab citizens have close family ties to the Palestinians in the occupied territories and largely identify with the Palestinian cause. In recent years, Israeli police have tried to boost Arab recruitment, but only a small number have joined, and many in the community continue to see the Israeli security apparatus as a hostile force. Many Israelis in turn view Arabs with suspicion, and in recent elections Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians branded Arab citizens as traitors or terrorists.

The two families involved in the shootout in Majd Al-Krum know each other and even visited each other’s mourning tents. Mohammed Manaa, the brothers’ uncle and a former head of the local council, acknowledges that the community bears some responsibility for the spike in violence. “There’s no supervision, neither from the family, nor the local council, nor the government,” he said.

But like many Arab citizens, he sees a wide gulf between how Israel responds to threats against the state or its Jewish citizens, and its handling of violence within Arab communities.

“The Israeli government knows every detail about everything that happens inside and outside the country,” he said. “They can reach Iran, Iraq, Syria, everywhere, and they can’t remove weapons from the Arab towns?”

“They are happy with this situation, this chaos,” he added.

Manaa served on Majd Al-Krum’s local council for more than two decades, and he would seem to be the kind of community leader who could help the police, but he says he has no idea what led to the shooting. Ali Sabea, whose nephew was killed, said the young men were all friends and that he doesn’t know what caused the violence.

The Abraham Initiatives, an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Jews and Arabs, operates in Arab communities and investigates violent incidents in order to encourage better cooperation among residents, local leaders and police. Ola Najami-Yousef, co-manager of the group’s Safe Communities Initiative, said violence in Arab communities is rooted in years of discrimination and neglect by Israeli authorities.

“The lack of investment in the development and growth of Arab society in all fields, whether in construction, infrastructure, education, or economy, all this has led to a society that is very violent,” she said. But she said it’s unfair to hold the community fully responsible.

The police “aren’t doing their job, so they blame the victims,” she said. “It’s not the responsibility of local leaders or Knesset members to come and collect weapons from the Arab community. That’s the responsibility of the police.”

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 36 min 17 sec ago

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.


45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.


Twitter: @saeedalBatati