In recent weeks, it has been impossible to miss the protests taking place in Israel against proposed judicial reforms laid out by the country’s new extreme right-wing government, which is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who himself has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust dating from his previous term in office. Protesters have numbered in the tens and even hundreds of thousands, with Israelis across the political spectrum rallying for what is, in their terms, the fight for Israel’s democracy.
However, aside from a small showing of anti-occupation and pro-Palestinian protesters (many of whom were harassed or had their Palestinian flags seized), one notable group of Israeli citizens was largely missing: the Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCIs) who make up 20 percent of the country’s population. As Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, recently said, “Very few [Palestinian] Arabs participate in the protests, because the protests are only about Jewish democracy not substantive democracy. The demonstrators demand not to harm the courts, not to harm the legal advisors, not to harm the committee to appoint judges. But they don’t call for equality between Jews and Arabs. There is no such call by the protesters. Or to end the occupation or against the Jewish Nation State Law or against racism.”
Indeed, racism against PCIs has been codified into Israeli law, with around 65 laws that discriminate either implicitly or explicitly against Palestinians, even against those who hold citizenship in Israel. Notably, in 2018, Israel passed Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which states: “The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.” It then goes on to say, “The realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People.”
Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories has rightfully been an area of much analysis when it comes to discrimination, domination, and violence. But the repercussions of Israeli laws like this one that directly target Palestinian citizens of Israel lead to worse health outcomes, a largely segregated and inferior education system, and lower socioeconomic indicators. As such, many of the recent reports arguing that Israel’s actions amount to the crime of apartheid when it comes to Palestinians do not limit their findings to Palestinians in the occupied territories, but also discuss PCIs as well.
Many of the recent reports arguing that Israel’s actions amount to the crime of apartheid when it comes to Palestinians do not limit their findings to Palestinians in the occupied territories, but also discuss PCIs as well.
One sector where these discriminatory policies is immediately apparent—not to mention deadly—is in crime rates found within Palestinian communities in Israel. For decades, crime rates in Israel’s Palestinian communities, which are concentrated in the northern parts of the country, and especially in so-called “mixed” cities that have both Palestinian and Jewish residents, have been rising, with many locals decrying the lack of state action on the problem. Although Palestinian citizens of Israel are often touted as evidence of the vibrancy of Israeli democracy, the significant disparities between them and their primarily Jewish Israeli fellow citizens, including in incidents of domestic crime and violence, should be recognized as a significant indicator of their overall inferior and discriminatory treatment by the state in which they reside.
The Status of PCIs
Most Palestinian citizens of Israel are those who remained within the borders of the newly established Israeli state after the Nakba in 1948, as well as their descendants, and they number around two million people today. These people were not afforded citizenship, however, until 1966, after being forced to live under military rule. Some of these citizens were eventually able to serve as judges and politicians, and in other high-ranking positions. And PCIs can also vote in Israeli elections. Yet they have had little effect on the state’s policies toward Palestinians, not just those governing the occupied territories, but even policies regulating their own communities. For example, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked international criticism in 2015 when, in an effort to whip up support on election day, he warned Israelis that, “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls,” a sign of how deep the sentiment runs among Israel’s leaders that Palestinians are not truly a part of the country’s political process. Indeed, until 2021, Palestinian Arab parties had never been included in a governing coalition. Few Palestinian politicians have served in ministerial positions in the government, and when they do they are subject to racism from their own colleagues, such as when current Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in 2021 told his Palestinian Arab colleagues that they are “here by mistake—because [former Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.”
Few Palestinian politicians have served in ministerial positions in the government, and when they do they are subject to racism from their own colleagues.
Such statements seem to confirm what many already know: that the current marginalization of Palestinian citizens of Israel is by design, as they disrupt the vision of Israel as a state where self-determination is “exclusive to the Jewish People” as outlined in the aforementioned Basic Law, and because they also counter the oft-touted fiction that the land of Palestine was largely empty prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, or that it had some population of Levantine Arabs with no specific Palestinian identity.
It is well known that poor education, low socioeconomic status, and a lack of social services are all tied to higher crime rates. The various forms of “compound discrimination” experienced by PCIs have been catalogued by human rights groups such as Adalah, outlining many ways that PCIs are placed in exactly the types of underdeveloped conditions—including lack of access to land; lack of action to address poverty, educational disparities, food insecurity, and health inequities; inequitable treatment in the criminal justice system; and low levels of political participation—that lead to lower quality of life and higher rates of crime.
Increasing Crime Rates within PCI Communities
While many have been pointing to rising crime rates among Palestinian Arab communities for decades, the rates in recent years have risen at an undeniably alarming rate. In 2018, an estimated 67 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed as a result of intra-Palestinian violent crime. In 2021, the number nearly doubled, to 128. Many of these incidents have been captured by security cameras and videoed by bystanders. While the vast majority of the victims (about 84 percent) are men, an increasing number of Palestinian women have also been affected by the increasing violence, albeit for different reasons.
The lack of land available to PCIs, an issue tied to the dominant policy of Israeli land seizures that are typically associated with the West Bank, is often considered one of the causes related to increasing violence within PCI communities. Palestinian localities have seen significant amounts of their land seized by the state and fewer building permits issued, and are less likely to benefit from urban planning. This has led to overcrowding and a scarcity of resources that fuels tensions between families and clans over small parcels of land, which in some cases lead to violence.
Another driver of crime is the discrimination PCIs face in the Israeli banking system, where they are subject to higher interest rates on loans than Jewish Israelis. Their requests for loans are more frequently deemed “risky”, and are thus more frequently denied. And their loan applications are also often rejected on the basis of their having insufficient collateral, which is the case among many who have been unable to build a home due to the Israel Land Authority’s having denied them permits, or who were forced to build a home without a permit. Lack of access to banks is also a significant problem for PCIs. Because of this, many people in need of funds to start a business or merely to help with household expenses turn to loan shark operations that are run by criminal organizations, that charge extremely high interest rates, and that impose harsh consequences for missed payments, ranging from threatening calls to, in some cases, murder.
An increase in firearms within Palestinian communities has allowed what may once have remained minor skirmishes to escalate into violence and murder.
Meanwhile, an increase in firearms within Palestinian communities has allowed what may once have remained minor skirmishes to escalate into violence and murder. There are an estimated 60,000 unlicensed guns within PCI communities (though some estimates place the number substantially higher), and the rate of shootings is 17.5 times higher in Palestinian localities than in predominantly Jewish ones. Many of these guns are stolen from the Israeli military and police, or from private security firms; others are smuggled in through Jordan, or even manufactured in the West Bank. At the same time, high unemployment rates and lower wages among PCIs, along with a lack of meaningful outlets to expend their time and energy due to low social investment has had a predictable outcome: large pockets of disaffected youth with limited opportunities ahead of them and with easy access to guns have helped lead to higher crime rates.
Increased policing (the most commonly recommend approach to quelling PCI violence) is insufficient to tackle crime in these communities, which first require a dismantling of the discriminatory policies and practices imposed on them. However, evidence suggests that a lack of investment by Israel’s police force—both financial and in terms of time and energy spent—is another issue contributing to high crime rates. This deficit is well illustrated by former Minister of Public Security Omer Bar-Lev’s comments in 2021, highlighting what he called “the prevailing assumption that as long as [Palestinian citizens of Israel] are killing each other, that’s their problem.” This is not just an assumption, however, but is apparent in practice as well. In 2021, Israeli police solved 71 percent of murder cases involving Jewish victims, compared to just 22 percent when the victim was Palestinian. Victims’ family members argue that despite Israel’s state-of-the-art security apparatus, the authorities seem incapable of solving crimes that, in many cases, were caught on bystander video, or that were almost undoubtedly captured by Israel’s robust infrastructure of surveillance cameras. In 2021, Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, demanded, “Can the Israel police really not overcome a bunch of criminal gangs? Of course it can, but to put it simply, it treats us as its backyard.”
At the same time, increased Israeli police presence may not be appreciated within PCI communities. One of many incidents of note came in October 2000, when Israeli police killed 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel and one resident of Gaza who were demonstrating in the streets in solidarity with protestors in the West Bank and Gaza at the onset of the second Intifada. The state’s response to the PCI community’s solidarity was harsh, with the deployment of thousands of police in Palestinian towns, accompanied by special sniper units. The October 2000 events saw the deadliest incidents of state violence against the PCI minority in decades, and cemented the notion among PCIs that despite the peace rhetoric of the 1990s, they were not seen as citizens, but as an enemy population. This understanding was confirmed when not a single official or officer was held accountable for the killings. Trust between PCIs and police rapidly deteriorated, and police pulled back from these communities, leaving a vacuum for organized and petty crime to flourish.
While most PCI men who are victims of violence are killed due to organized crime or interpersonal disputes, women are much more likely to be murdered by their husbands or by a male family member.
While most PCI men who are victims of violence are killed due to organized crime or interpersonal disputes, women are much more likely to be murdered by their husbands or by a male family member. In fact, of 149 women murdered in Israel between 2015 and 2020, 44 percent were Palestinian Arabs. In a few of these cases, domestic violence was already known by authorities to be occurring, and in some cases the victim had even filed a police report against the man who would eventually kill her. The intersection of being a Palestinian in Israeli society and also being a woman within a patriarchal Palestinian society creates “overlapping oppressions” for PCI women, which are exacerbated by lower education and socioeconomic status among Palestinian men, which increases the potential for domestic violence.
Is Justice Possible for PCIs?
In 2019, in response to criticism aimed at police and the government for not working to reduce crime and improve conditions in Palestinian localities, then Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed that, “Arab society is a very, very violent society. It’s because in their culture, disputes—rather than ending with a lawsuit—end with a knife or weapon being drawn.” Such statements are emblematic of the racism against Palestinians that is embedded in much of Israeli politics, and does not indicate any interest in meaningful intervention by the Israeli government to meet the public safety needs of 20 percent of its population.
Indeed, Israel has shown that it can tackle organized crime through a mix of policing and economic investment, as it did with Jewish organized crime groups in the early 2000s. With communities composed largely of PCIs, however, economic and social neglect has continued, while the state pushed for not local police but the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence service, to respond. Not surprisingly, many PCIs viewed this as yet more evidence that they are seen as second-class citizens who are perceived as a security threat, and not as full-fledged Israeli citizens deserving the same access to education, adequate living conditions, economic security, and safety that is afforded to everyone else.
In 2021, Israel launched an Arab Community Crime Prevention Division under then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. With limited authority, the initiative did create a police advisory council of representatives from the PCI community, as well as a team meant to identify areas of contention within Palestinian areas. However, a year on, no effect on actual crime rates had been seen; nor did the solve rate for crimes improve. After its first commander, Israel’s first Muslim chief superintendent, was forced to resign following leaving the scene of a crime without making an arrest or reporting the incident, he was replaced by a previous deputy commander of the West Bank who speaks no Arabic and who previously oversaw the evacuation of the village of Umm al-Hiran, which resulted in a police killing. And in 2023, new National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir dismantled the department altogether. Since he took office, murder rates in Palestinian communities in Israel have increased, which Ben-Gvir reduced to incidents of “Arab crime.”
It is clear that Israel’s view of PCIs as second-class citizens has limited its ability—and its desire—to provide them the services they need in order to live and thrive.
It is clear that Israel’s view of PCIs as second-class citizens has limited its ability—and its desire—to provide them the services they need in order to live and thrive. Israel’s dehumanizing treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is well documented, and can easily be traced to Israel’s goals of seizing land and dispossessing Palestinians to cement its territorial domain and expand its sovereignty. But its treatment of PCIs, including its lack of investment in dealing with crime in their communities, is a less explored aspect of Israel’s discriminatory and violent policies toward Palestinians, and is just as central to its broader project of settler colonialism.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Rafael Ben-Ari