Israel dispatch: do Arab lives matter? Dispatches
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Israel dispatch: do Arab lives matter?

Israeli law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting Israel. This dispatch is from Mayan Lawent, a law student in the Buchmann Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University and a JURIST Staff Correspondent in Israel.  

The Minister for Public Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, went on record in an August 23 TV interview saying that the main reason Israel should care about the alarming level of violent crime in Arab-Israeli cities and neighborhoods is because it could spread to Jewish areas as well. A statement like this made by a public official, which prioritizes some citizens over others, is despicable. Very deservedly, he came under fire for this statement, but is the outrage because of what he said, or because he said out loud something many people have felt? In Ben Gvir’s interview he relates to the violence in Arab neighborhoods as a criminal issue, but the moment it might spread to Jewish areas, he discusses it as a matter of national security. The minister has just given words to a sentiment that has been evident in the current government’s actions time and time again – this government does not care for its citizens’ lives equally.

The Arab-Israeli community makes up around 21% of the Israeli population, and yet 70% of the murder victims between the years of 2018 and 2022 are Arabs. The clearance rate of murders in Arab communities is low and getting lower.  In 2022 only 20% of cases in Arab communities were solved in comparison to the 70% solve rate in the Jewish population. While solve rates tend to be fairly good for murders based on domestic disputes, the solve rate for organized crime killings (which make up 55% of the deaths) is abysmally low.

Recently, and possibly due to the fact that some of the most recent victims were candidates in municipal elections, the government has taken some steps. Municipality funds were finally released to Arab municipalities after being on hold for months. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would call on the Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) to assist as well. Ben Gvir worked on increasing police staff and pay. The police are clearly ill-equipped to handle organized crime, and these steps may very well be useful, but they are coming very late.

In the infamous August 23 interview, Ben Gvir also says that the current situation in the Arab community is due to years on years of neglect. While he may have said this to dodge responsibility, he is not wrong.  This is not a new problem.  This is a problem that we have been aware of as a society and done not much about. The coverage of the growing crime problem has been skewed, depicting it as criminal-on-criminal crime. This image does not line up with reality, where mass shootings are killing innocents as well, making people fear for their safety in their own homes.

In 2020, the movement Arab Lives Matter sprung up (inspired by Black Lives Matter in the US) and demanded action be taken to stem the violence in Arab neighborhoods. Its efforts did manage to create change, as special government programs like Safe Track and Stop the Bleeding were created to prevent and solve crimes in Arab communities. The program saw some success, bringing down murders in Arab community by 15% in 2021.  Unfortunately, the current government discontinued some of the programs and the numbers do not look good. If you compare the first half of 2022 to the first half of 2023, the amount of murders in the Arab community are up by 135%.

There are unique and significant challenges in providing the services and tools these communities need, but “better late than never” is definitely true here. That being said, the government has yet to take responsibility for its role in enabling crime to run rampant in Arab-Israeli communities. Regardless of what steps Ben Gvir and the government are taking, why would they have the trust of communities they have so clearly shown are not a priority? Many of the ideas floated by Ben Gvir to deal with high levels of crime are too easy to abuse: a personal police force that answers directly to Ben Gvir or removing the need for warrants to conduct house raids to look for guns. Based on his track record, who would believe that Ben Gvir wouldn’t abuse these tools? The answer to under-policing is not over-policing – it is a combination of resources, strategy, and cooperation that includes the affected communities.

It is enraging and heartbreaking that a public official is so openly discriminatory, and I hope as a country we make it clear that it does not represent us. That being said, I also hope, that the words of a racist politician do not distract us from protecting Arab lives.