Sara Al’Atowna won’t stop seeking justice for her son Mahmoud, who was killed outside their home in the Jawarish neighbourhood of al-Ramla more than three years ago.
“If it was a Jewish boy who was killed instead of Mahmoud, in four hours it would be solved,” she says. “His case has been lost, it sits on the shelves.”
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As with many cases of violent crime in the Palestinian-Arab community living inside Israel’s 1948 borders – a diverse population that includes those staying in villages, urban areas and “mixed cities” of Israelis and Palestinians such as al-Ramla – Al’Atowna claims to know the identity of the alleged killer, but the police say they lack sufficient evidence to bring charges.
Mahmoud, the youngest of Al’Atowna’s four children, was 16 when he was shot dead on January 4, 2020. A single mother, Al’Atowna says she continues to find the strength to “pursue his case because the killer has not been caught”.
She was not at home at the time of the shooting and recalls seeing her son’s body at the hospital, telling Al Jazeera it left her “dead” and her entire family “broken”.
Al’Atowna is part of a growing group of 36 Palestinian mothers – who call themselves Mothers for Life – that holds weekly protests in different parts of the country to demand justice for the unsolved killings.
They began organising about two years ago when activists Fida Shahada and Maisam Jaljuli joined forces with a group of bereaved mothers to “transform their pain into hope” and collective power, says Shahada.
The group first drew attention in August 2020 for their march from Haifa to Jerusalem that led to a private meeting with then-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
In the last three weeks, their rallies have taken on a greater urgency with near-daily reports of shootings.
‘Every limit has been breached’
The problem of violent crime in Palestinian areas within Israel is a long-standing one, but experts describe an ongoing state of emergency since the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to dismantle positive measures such as the pilot programme “Stopping the Bleeding”, which aimed to reduce crime in seven Palestinian municipalities.
The Abraham Initiatives, a non-profit based in Lod that tracks the attacks, reports that at least 106 Palestinians have been killed in violent circumstances since the start of 2023, according to police and news records. That is more than double the number at this point last year, which was 44. Only about 12 percent of such cases have been solved.
Yoni Arie, a researcher at the Abraham Initiatives, says “we can see the actions of the government and also of the police” as explaining how the numbers are a result of government failure, and not due to statistical variation.
The emergency is not merely the high numbers of violent crime, but also a growing perception that “every limit has been breached”, he adds.
The organised criminals responsible for much of the violence “used to not harm women and children … [or] shoot at certain events because you wouldn’t do it, but now they just do it”, Arie says.
The rapid decline in public safety began with the shift from a coordinated government effort led by the former deputy minister of internal security, Yoav Segalovich, to a state of chaos since Netanyahu handed the national security portfolio to the far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power party at the end of 2022.
Segalovich, the lead Israeli politician responsible for crime within Palestinian society from October 2021 to December 2022, had decades of law enforcement experience and was able to build trust with his Palestinian-Israeli partners.
Arie says Segalovich’s approach led to coordination among several ministries, the police, mayors and heads of localities in the Palestinian communities.
“We could actually see a small decline in the number of victims and people also said there were less shootings at night.”
Since Ben-Gvir took over, Arie says “you can see it is obvious that they do not care about it that much”.
Mudar Younis, the chairman of the National Committee of the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel – an umbrella group of mayors of Palestinian municipalities – worked with Segalovich. He says Ben-Gvir bears responsibility for the escalating crime wave.
“Ben-Gvir entered the picture as if he is in control of everything, but nothing is under control.”
In March, Ben-Gvir announced that “Stopping the Bleeding” would be cut. The programme that started in 2022 will be phased out by the end of the year.
Many of Ben-Gvir’s other proposals are viewed by activists like Shahada as representative of a government that does “not solve the problem but is part of the problem”, she says as she speaks of his controversial idea of a national guard as an effort to create a private militia, rather than fight crime.
And while Ben-Gvir criticised the tactic of “administrative detention” for many years, he is now advocating for the power to detain Palestinians accused of a crime without any formal charges.
These powers, Shahada says, will “authorise him to use anti-democratic measures that limit the basic freedoms of the citizens”.
According to Younis, following a recent spate of shootings that horrified the country, Netanyahu “understood that a real disaster is occurring and there is no choice but for him to get involved”.
On June 18, the Cabinet approved the formation of the new government committee, which has already been criticised for including only two Palestinians and 18 Jewish members. Among them are Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the pro-settler finance minister. The committee’s first meeting was postponed after Israeli forces raided the occupied West Bank. It has yet to be rescheduled.
There is not much hope in the current government or committee led by Netanyahu. But Shahada says, “We know it is hard to encourage people, but we believe change will happen … we want members of our community to go on the streets.”
Younis is determined to hold the government to its promises, saying, “I look at the obligation of the state and the responsibility of the government – they have to do what they are charged with.”
As for Al’Atowna, she says: “I still dream that whoever killed my son will go to jail. He was a good person, an honest person. I want to protect people in his memory.”