RAMALLAH: About a million and a half Palestinian citizens living in Israel are at the mercy of organized crime gangs operating largely with impunity in their communities. The activities of the gangs resulted in the deaths of 125 people in 2021, 62 of whom were below the age of 30, and another 14 have died since the start of this year.
According to police in Israel, seven criminal gangs are active in Arab communities. Some of their members previously worked as “contractors” for Jewish crime organizations but by 2016 many of these had been dismantled and Arab gangs filled the vacuum, with tens of thousands of weapons at their disposal.
A number of factors fuel organized crime and the violence that comes with it within Arab communities. Israeli banks will not give loans to people who do not possess construction licenses from the Israeli authorities, for example. Arabs instead seek loans from the black market or criminal gangs and families; if they fail to repay the money they owe on time, they are targeted with violence.
A career in crime is a tempting option for young people between the ages of 16 to 18 because it offers them quick and easy access to money.
The cash flows extend to arms trafficking, which is highly profitable: The price for a pistol ranges between $3,086 and $6,173, while an M16 assault rifle costs about $21,605. The weapons offered for sale typically have been stolen from Israeli Army warehouses.
The majority of suspects arrested and prosecuted in connection with organized crime are the lower level “contractors,” not the gang leaders or those who fund the crimes.
A crucial obstacle to the efforts to tackle organized crime is the mistrust within the Palestinian community of the Israeli police and a belief that they do not adequately tackle crime in Arab areas. The police in turn blame the community for not cooperating with crime-fighting efforts.
Arabs say that if they do report the criminals, they are targeted by revenge attacks and the police do not protect them. They add that the police take action to confiscate weapons but do not arrest many suspects, and few of those who are arrested ever stand trial.
The police say they need sufficient evidence to prosecute suspects but this is difficult to obtain because they lack adequate staffing, budgets and technology.
There have been calls from some to use the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, to assist the police but there are strong reservations about having the agency interfere in civil affairs.
Meanwhile, despite a pledge by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev to crack down heavily on organized crime and illegal weapons, the violence continues largely unabated, though the Israeli police have established a unit called Saif to tackle violence within the Palestinian community.
According to a statement by the police obtained by Arab News, there has been a 36 percent decrease in the number of shootings since the start of this year.
Col. Yigal Ezra, head of the Anti-Crime Division in the Arab division of the Israeli Police, said: “The Israeli police have cracked several murders since the beginning of the year. We have filed indictments against 122 suspects who have been identified as the main perpetrators of the crime, and 102 of them have been arrested.”
Israel’s population of 9 million people, including 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, is currently policed by a 32,000-strong force. Law-enforcement authorities want to recruit more than 5,000 additional personnel, increase their budget and have access to better technology.
There are hopes that the police might step up their operations against organized crime in the Arab community because Arabs have recently started to move to Jewish towns adjacent to Arab villages, an issue the police cannot ignore.
In the meantime, organized crime and the violence that accompanies it continues in the Palestinian community, despite the claims by authorities about its decline. In fact the danger posed by the gangs has increased significantly with their adoption of car bombs as a weapon.
“There is an improvement in the performance of the police but it is less than what is required and they should redouble their efforts in combating crime and violence in the Arab community,” Rida Jaber, director of the Aman Center, which monitors organized crime and violence in the Arab community, told Arab News.