For the 10th consecutive week, thousands of Palestinians protested in front of the Israeli municipality building in Umm al-Fahm against the police and discriminatory Israeli policies against the Palestinian Arab population.
The city, located on the other side of the Green Line north of the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, has witnessed a spate of homicide cases since the beginning of the year that have largely gone unresolved.
Some activists say the lack of action by Israeli police is intentional, and officers who deal with Palestinian-on-Palestinian crime see it as an internal familial or tribal issue.
However, according to the Umm al-Fahm protest movement, the role of the Israeli police has been deeply entrenched in fostering and encouraging organised and systemic crime in the Palestinian Arab community within Israel, for the purpose of “dividing our unity, tearing our social fabric, and confusing our political compass”.
“In a lot of cases, where the murderer is known, he is declared innocent by the Israeli police, which in the absence of justice is nothing but an illusion of authority,” Nidaa Kiwan, an activist from Umm al-Fahem, said.
According to the protest movement, 1,700 Palestinians have been killed in homicide cases since 2000.
A report by the Baladna Association for Arab Youth said from 2011 to 2019, 575 people were killed – the overwhelming majority being men (83.7 percent) below the age of 30.
In 2020, a record 97 homicide cases were reported – the most since Israel’s establishment in 1948 at the expense of Palestinians.
According to local media, this year’s victims already number 20.
Role of Israeli police in abetting crime
The advent of Israeli police stations in Palestinian Arab communities has been relatively recent, and was based on recommendations by the government-issued investigative inquiry, which became known as the Orr Commission.
The commission was formed in November 2000 to investigate Israeli state crimes against 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel who were killed a month prior during the second Intifada.
But Kiwan said the main reason behind the commission was Israel’s fear of Palestinian unity during the second Intifada for the first time since 1948, which extended beyond the Green Line and unified Palestinians and their political ambitions in the occupied territories, as well as within Israel.
Palestinian writer Majd Kayyal wrote the Orr Commission aimed to “cure” Palestinian unity by “restoring the model of colonial separation, which had been cracked”.
The findings were published in 2003 and although it criticised the Israeli government for discriminating against the Palestinian Arab community, Kiwan said the main outcome was to gather intelligence on them.
“One of its recommendations was based on how how to placate our community,” she said. “That was done by opening up more police stations, encouraging people to sign up for the Israeli civil service, and adding more public police forces to Palestinian towns and villages.”
Some 51 police stations were added, and the number of Palestinian recruits to the Israeli police force reached 3,937.
Umm al-Fahm did not have a single murder case committed by Palestinians against each other until after the Israeli police station was established in the city in 2004. At the same time, the black market arms trade spread at unprecedented rates.
A year later, Amal Mahameed was killed, to the shock of the residents. To this day, her murderer is unknown, but her death was the beginning of the proliferation of homicide cases in the following years to come.
It is estimated there are as many as 400,000 unlicensed “sophisticated and modern” guns in the Palestinian Arab community. In 2019, Gilad Erdan, then Israeli public security minister, said 90 percent of these firearms come from the Israeli military arsenal.
To Kiwan, that statement is a confession of the Israeli security forces supplying the Palestinian community with weapons.
“Usually these weapon deals are made between police and families – not just families involved in organised crime but also families who want a leg up in society,” she said.
Weaam Baloum, a researcher at the Baladna Association for Arab Youth, said there are a number of reasons behind the high level of crime among Palestinians within Israel.
“Crime offers economic incentive by way of easy money especially for the youth,” he said. “It is more profitable than looking for a legitimate job.”
Other aspects include marginalisation from basic services, discriminatory policies, and land expropriation that has led to a housing crisis.
Palestinian citizens of Israel make up one-fifth of the population, and have long complained of prejudiced policies by the state. The Adalah, the legal centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, found at least 65 government laws that “directly” discriminate against them in sectors such as education, religion, housing, and due process rights.
Baloum said the mayhem caused by the availability of weapons has made it easier for Palestinian youth to organise into different gangs and attract members.
“It’s not just gang members who get killed,” he said, “but ordinary citizens that are not involved in crime at all.”
But the Israeli police, he continued, have a limit on investigating crimes committed by a Palestinian against another Palestinian.
Statements by the police regarding intra-communal crime in the Palestinian community show they blame it on “Arab culture of violence” to escape responsibility, he added.
“In contrast, if a crime was committed by a Palestinian against a Jewish Israeli, he would be apprehended the same day,” Baloum said.
“Over the years, this becomes a clear line to the Palestinian community regarding who is allowed to be killed without fear of repercussions.”
One such example is the murder of Mohammed Ji’u Ighbariyah. Israeli police paid a visit to the family home on January 13 and warned his father to keep an eye on him. The police left after confiscating the family’s security cameras.
Two days later, Ji’u, a popular and well-liked young man in the community, was murdered. The perpetrator is widely known but the police said there was “insufficient evidence” to arrest him.
‘Taking matters into our own hands’
On March 1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved a 150 million shekel ($45m) crime-fighting proposal for Palestinian Arab communities, including expanding police stations and creating a new dedicated police unit.
Baloum said that is not a solution, but a “mockery” of the situation.
“The causes behind the crime levels are still ongoing and will continue to do so in the absence of a radical solution,” he said. “There needs to be a fundamental change regarding Israeli policing, not more of it.”
At the same time, he added, the Palestinian Arab community needs to think about how to take their fate into their own hands.
“Our demand is to shut down the police stations in our communities because that is the root of the problem,” she said.
“Once that is done, we will deal with the remnants – the criminals and murderers – by taking matters into our own hands, which means finding a way to hold them accountable and bring justice to families of the victims.
“As long as the police stations are there, our hands are tied.”