Israelis must recognize Palestinian citizens as true equals
In an unusual gesture, Israeli public radio last week began one of its lunchtime news programs by reading out the names of the 103 Palestinian citizens of Israel who have been murdered already this year as violent crime soars. It was an important gesture, although a chilling one, to supply the names behind the cold figures of this almost daily carnage that is threatening to get completely out of control.
Whether these deaths were the result of gang wars or domestic violence, the authorities appear to have lost control of the situation. A comparison underlines the severity of the situation: In all of 2022, 106 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed. Previous homicide figures in the community have been shocking enough, but what is taking place right now is nothing short of a deadly epidemic that requires an immediate, coordinated and determined response from the authorities.
Law enforcement is a first step and a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Only through addressing the decades-long neglect of successive Israeli administrations — much of it due to societal and institutional racism against the large Palestinian minority that makes up 20 percent of the country’s population — can a path back from this murderous abyss be provided.
The spike in homicidal violence is largely attributed to a general rise in crime, but it is not sparing bystanders. They may comprise a fifth of the population, but a disproportionate 76 percent of those murdered so far this year so far have been Palestinian citizens of Israel, while the rate of resolving these crimes and bringing their culprits to justice is a mere 25 percent, much lower than among Israel’s Jews.
Although in principle the Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoy equal rights, there are many areas in which they are discriminated against. A March report by the Council on Foreign Relations highlighted that “nearly all Arab towns and cities have lower standards of living than those that are predominantly Jewish.” Research from around the world has proven time and again the strong correlation between inequality, poverty and population density, and there are high levels of all three factors in most Palestinian towns and villages in Israel, matching high rates of violent crime.
However, the current dramatic spike in homicides and other violent crimes has both long-term and short-term causes. Some experts have been arguing that it was last year’s pressure exerted by law enforcement agencies on the main crime families that led to splits among them, which resulted in violent rivalries, but this offers only a very partial explanation. For too long, government policy did not prioritize developing similar capabilities of dealing with crime in terms of prevention and apprehension in the same way it did within the Jewish society. This was coupled with allowing criminal elements to amass arms and ammunition, some of it illegally purchased from within Israel and some smuggled in from the West Bank and Jordan. For criminals and would-be criminals, to know that they can easily acquire weapons with little chance of being caught, let alone brought to justice, is an invitation to violence.
Most of the killings are to do with a general breakdown in law and order, for which the government must take responsibility.
While internal social causes are contributing to this high rate of homicide — for instance, there are honor killings, such as the case of 18-year-old Sarit Ahmed, who two weeks ago was shot and killed after receiving threats from her family due to her sexual orientation — most of the killings are more to do with a general breakdown in law and order, for which the government must take responsibility.
It is no coincidence that the spike in killings of Palestinian citizens of Israel has occurred since the swearing-in of the most extreme right-wing government in the country’s history. It is an open secret that Palestinians have been discriminated against and neglected for ideological reasons ever since Israel was created, with very strong racist elements caring little as long as the killings remain intra-Arab incidents. It was the violence that broke out among the Palestinian population in the spring of 2021, some of which was directed at their Jewish neighbors in the mixed cities, that served as a wake-up call for the authorities and a reminder that the accumulation of weapons and ammunition, coupled with a decades-long resentment toward the state, is a problem for all Israelis.
Some progress was made in tackling violent crime among Palestinian citizens of Israel during the short-lived Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government of 2021-22. It was very much the result of the participation, for the first time in the country’s history, of a Palestinian party in a coalition government. It led to a brief change in attitude regarding this dire situation and also in the allocation of resources. However, the very same people who relentlessly incited against increasing these budgets — and who, in their bigotry, described it as funneling money to Hamas and terrorism — are those who are now in power, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
In an analysis published last month by Israeli think tank the Institute for National Security Studies, the authors concluded that the major cause of the recent rise in crime “is ostensibly the loosening of the state’s effort since the current government took office to curb crime in the Arab sector.” For the vast majority of law-abiding Palestinians in Israel, the message is that the authorities are once again abandoning them and relinquishing their responsibility to protect them from all forms of criminal violence. This leaves them fearful of their future, suspicious of the true intentions of the national governing bodies and reluctant, even afraid, to cooperate with the police.
Yet, under these circumstances, the most creative solution that Ben-Gvir and his bunch of ultranationalist advisers have been able to come up with is to get Shin Bet, the internal security apparatus that for most Palestinians is a source of oppression and fear, actively involved. Neither Shin Bet nor the Palestinian citizens of Israel would like this to materialize, as it is reminiscent of dictatorial regimes and, beyond the prevention of criminal violence, might also be misused for political objectives.
Violence among the Palestinian population of Israel is a social and political time bomb that is ticking away. Solving the problem requires, first and foremost, a radical perceptual change on the part of the Jewish majority — a change that would see the Palestinian citizens treated as true equals who are entitled to all the rights and privileges that come with citizenship, including the same opportunities for social and economic development as the rest of the population. But above all, their lives must be protected.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.