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Netanyahu government nixed effective programs to fight Arab crime, experts say

A heinous killing shocked the northern village of Basmat Tab’un on Wednesday. Five people from the same Bedouin family were gunned down by masked men inside a home: two teenage brothers, two men in their 20s, and the mother of one of them.

Police are investigating whether the quintuple homicide came in retaliation for another killing that took place only hours before in Haifa, where a 50-year-old man was shot in broad daylight in his car by two men.

The mass slaying is one of the most brutal acts of violence in a seemingly endless wave of homicides that has battered Arab communities on an almost daily basis since the beginning of the year.

Killings in Arab communities have steadily risen for the past nine years and hit a new record in 2023, with 188 homicides in nine months. While Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has said, according to leaks, that it is part of the “nature” and “mentality” of Arabs to kill each other, experts agree that the main catalyst for violence is the vast availability of weapons in Arab towns and villages.

Some 400,000 illegal firearms are circulating in Israel, the vast majority in Arab communities, according to a 2020 Knesset report. Many of the weapons are smuggled into Israel from Jordan and the West Bank.

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Seizing weapons is one aspect of crime prevention that the police have been engaged in, while the military has sought to intercept smuggled deliveries at the border.

Still, while the overall number of weapons in circulation has not changed dramatically in recent years, 2023 has already recorded over 180 killings in the community while the toll for the whole of 2022 stood at 116.

Volunteers for Zaka, Israel’s non-governmental rescue and recovery organization, remove a body after five family members were shot to death in the Northern Israeli Bedouin town of Basmat Tab’un, September 27, 2023 (Shir Torem/Flash90)

The ‘Safe Track’ program and the ‘Al Capone’ approach

Last year was the first year since 2014 in which killings in Arab towns registered a downward trend — 116 compared to 126 in 2021 — a minor but discernible decrease.

Various analysts claim that the downtick in 2022 was due to a crime prevention program called Safe Track.

The program was designed and put into effect under the supervision of police veteran Yoav Segalovitz, deputy police minister under the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government from mid-2021 until the end of 2022, who held the role of policy czar for the fight against crime in Arab communities during that time.

Scheduled to be implemented over four years, Safe Track was discontinued at the end of 2022 with the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government and the transfer of authority to a rebranded National Security Ministry under far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir.

The main purpose of Safe Track was to identify and indict offenders with the highest impact on the criminal underworld.

The program adopted a comprehensive approach to ratchet up pressure on criminals, especially on the financial side, and “put a halt to their feeling of impunity by making them understand that the rules of the game had changed,” as Segalovitz put it.

The program adopted a three-pronged approach. One task force dealt with the infiltration of criminal gangs into the bidding for public projects, another one addressed “gray” and “black” money lenders, and a third tackled tax evasion and money laundering by tracking, for instance, fake invoices and financial service providers such as currency exchanges used as cover-ups.

Badi Hasisi, a criminologist at the Law Faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, described the program’s approach as the “Al Capone method,” referencing the notorious American gangster who was arrested on charges of tax evasion as other evidence against him was insufficient to indict him for his violent crimes.

Badi Hasisi PhD, professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the Walter E. Meyer Research Institute of Law, and director of the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Faculty of Law, in 2019 at the Hebrew University. (Douglas Guthrie)

“In any Arab town, if you ask the local police commander who is behind illicit activities, he can give you a list of at least five suspects on the spot, based on their previous criminal records, or on collected intelligence” such as a sudden rise in personal wealth, Hasisi explained.

Law enforcement authorities may not have enough evidence to criminally indict the suspects, Hasisi continued, but they know their names: “One can easily expand the list of five to a few dozen, by looking at their network.”

Once investigators had that list, they proceeded to monitor the suspects in search of any minor infraction. “In an Arab town, those are not hard to find. Things are often run outside the scope of the law,” Hasisi said. If a criminal runs a cover-up business for money laundering, he said, the police should not have a hard time proving that the owner is not fully compliant with the law by searching for incomplete building certifications, minor violations of health or fire safety regulations, Palestinians from the West Bank hired without a work permit, social security fraud, and so on.

“You need to locate their weak spots and apply pressure there. Give them a constant headache. And once you uncover an infraction, you fine them for tens of thousands of shekels, or confiscate their properties. Usually, the more you dig, the more infractions you discover,” Hasisi continued.

The outcome of the Al Capone approach was threefold: Firstly, criminals were forced to spend their energy dealing with law enforcement, and therefore they had less time to focus on their criminal endeavors. Secondly, their reputation was damaged in their community, as their aura of impunity dissipated. Thirdly, potential criminals who were attracted by the easy money were discouraged from pursuing the lifestyle.

The numbers showed an evident success. Over the first six months of the program, the police filed 188 charges for extortion by threats, a 90% increase compared to the previous year, and seized 40% more weapons.

Out of the 1,400 target suspects that were identified at the outset of the program, 456 had been indicted within one year. In addition, by 2022’s end, 47 “financial service providers” were closed down, and tens of millions of shekels were seized. Over 530 weapons were confiscated, including guns, rifles, grenades, explosive charges and mortar rounds.

People react at the scene of where five family members were shot to death in the Northern Israeli Bedouin town of Basmat Tab’un, September 27, 2023 (Shir Torem/Flash90)

A holistic approach to crime prevention and the role of the community

While many of the killings in Arab society are related to criminal gangs, this does not account for all of them, as other types of conflicts often escalate into fatal violence given the availability of weapons.

Law enforcement can intervene in violent confrontations to prevent such escalations, if they have the right support from the community. “If a local man is insulted in the town’s main square at midnight, it can be a matter of hours before he or a clan member gets hold of a weapon and exacts revenge,” Hasisi said.  “And then the police are faced with a murder, or a sequence of murders if the cycle of revenge continues, and they don’t know how it all began.”

In these circumstances, the community’s cooperation with the police is crucial. “Even if you have the best intelligence, the most advanced software from the Shin Bet, it won’t be enough if you don’t have the support of the local people,” Hasisi said, pointing to community-based solutions such as “street intervention workers” or “volunteer parent patrols,” which use civilians to prevent disputes from escalating.

The Safe Track initiative launched a pilot program called “Stop the Bleeding” that aimed to prevent crime in a holistic, community-based way. The pilot was implemented in seven Arab towns.

The goal of the plan was to deter larger groups of criminals, not just a few selected targets, and to thwart violent activities by increasing police presence and surveillance in dangerous areas around the city, in cooperation with neighborhood committees.

The program also offered rehabilitation for young people with a criminal record who decided to leave crime.

Stop the Bleeding was a joint project of the police and several government and academic bodies, and was implemented by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In March of this year, Ben Gvir halted funding to the program, claiming the JDC is a “left-wing organization.”

One of the seven localities that took part in the pilot was Umm al-Fahm, the third-largest Arab city in Israel with a population of 56,000. As part of the project, 80 of the city’s residents who were considered at risk received help leaving the world of crime.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Umm al-Fahm Mayor Samir Mahamid said that since Safe Track and Stop the Bleeding were discontinued at the end of 2022, the reality on the ground has visibly changed.

Samir Mahamid, mayor of the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, in 2022. (Courtesy)

The city witnessed only three murders in 2022, compared to 11 the year before. “We used to see the cars of criminals being confiscated. There was financial prosecution by the Bank of Israel, there was a decrease in the number of killed and wounded, and a rise in the number of police cases solved. Today, we don’t see that anymore. There is no deterrence on the ground,” Mahamid said.

Mahamid also started his own program to eradicate violence three years ago. Funded by private donations, the initiative aids the 40% of young people in the city who are considered at risk — for example, if they have a criminal past. Mahamid launched educational and leadership programs and built 12 parks and playgrounds, with outdoor lighting, where young people can spend their time. He said he is currently building two community centers.

Mahamid said the government has not been cooperative. “I have limited resources. With the funding I have, I can only reach out to 1,500 youths at risk out of 7,000. I have turned to the Welfare and Education ministries in order to get additional resources,” he said.

For Mahamid, the rise in Arab crime starts in the cabinet. “Itamar Ben Gvir is not suitable for the post of minister. Firstly because he is a racist,” he said. “Arab local leaders do not want to dialogue with him, because his political capital was built at the expense of Arab citizens.

“Secondly, we judge him on his achievements, and the grade we give him is ‘complete failure.’ Crime has more than doubled since last year, cases solved by the police have gone down by 10%, and trust in law enforcement has been severely eroded. The police are supposed to provide a service to citizens, including Arab citizens. Instead, we feel that they only come here to impose sovereignty and control,” Mahamid said.

Stressing that crime prevention cannot be shouldered by local authorities alone, Mahamid added, “It’s the responsibility first and foremost of the government, the police and financial authorities. We as local leaders can only do so much, but ultimately it’s their duty.”

A new czar for Arab crime and advice from his predecessor

No one has held the position of Arab crime czar for nine months, since the end of the Bennett-Lapid government and the dismissal of Segalovitz from the post of deputy security minister.

Amid heavy criticism from the opposition and Arab leaders over the government’s perceived inaction, earlier this month Netanyahu announced the appointment of a new point person. Roi Kahlon, 43, a lawyer in the financial department of the State Attorney’s Office, will head a task force that will coordinate efforts between law enforcement agencies and government ministries to curb the crime wave.

In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Segalovitz, an MK in the opposition’s centrist Yesh Atid party, said the government should bring back the programs put in place by the Bennett-Lapid government.

“The first thing the government needs to do is revive Safe Track and all its components,” he said, stressing that the plan should not be subject to political considerations. “Our coalition partner was [Ra’am leader] Mansour Abbas, but I had no problem discussing the plan with Ayman Odeh or Ahmad Tibi,” he said, referring to the leaders of Arab parties that were in the opposition during the Bennett-Lapid government.

Yoav Segalovitz (left), at the time deputy public security minister, and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas during a plenum session in the Knesset on December 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

“When the Bennet-Lapid government came to power, we knew we did not have time to waste, and decided to manage Safe Track as an informal task force,” Segalovitz said. “We would hold weekly meetings with all relevant stakeholders where we decided how to proceed week by week.”

Safe Track was a coordinated effort that saw participation by the police, the Tax Authority, the Bank of Israel, the Authority for the Prohibition of Money Laundering, the State Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, the Federation of Local Authorities, and representatives of the Shin Bet and of the National Security Council in an advisory role.

MK Yoav Segalovitz attends a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In an informal structure, a coordinator needs to have quick and direct access to high-ranking officials in various ministries and agencies at all times, Segalovitz said.

But the main issue is establishing trust with Arab leaders, especially on the local level, Segalovitz said.  “[People in Israel] don’t appreciate enough the genuine will of Arab leaders to be partners,” he said.

“We were implementing an effective plan to combat crime, but the current government shelved it overnight,” he said. “As a result, we are now witnessing a total loss of control. Twenty percent of the Israeli population lives in fear, and it is the duty of the government to protect them. The issue of Arab crime has been deteriorating since 2014 and has been ignored for too long. It has now grown into a monster.”

“The problem today is not just Ben Gvir, the problem is the person who is in charge of this government, Benjamin Netanyahu. He is ultimately responsible for whatever his ministers do,” he said.