In Israel’s Arab Communities, Gun Violence Surges

When the shots rang out, the young soccer player was in line at a butcher’s shop in an Arab town in northern Israel. Struck in his leg, he tried to flee, he said. But a black-clad masked gunman chased him, firing into his legs at point-blank range, smashing bones, crushing muscle and severing blood vessels.

A talented midfielder, Nabil Hayek, 19, was one of four people injured in the assault in late July, victims of a surge of gun violence within Israel’s Arab communities, much of it linked to loan-sharking and protection rackets run by Arab crime organizations.

These gangs have proliferated over the years, preying on a population that has long faced discrimination and has limited access to bank loans. But Arab officials say the situation has deteriorated — and many put the blame at least in part on the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which they say has done little to fight crimes against Arab citizens since taking power late last year.

Many people have no option but to take loans from the gangs and are at their mercy when they come to collect. Unemployed young men are also lured by easy money into becoming gang foot soldiers and enforcers.

“Our youths have no work; the banks don’t give loans, so you go to the black market,” said Wajdi Hassan Jabarin, the deputy mayor of Umm al-Fahem, an Arab city in northern Israel where at least nine people have been killed this year. “Then you are their hostage.”

Making the situation even more volatile, a proliferation of weapons, many of them stolen by criminals from army bases, means that personal disputes among ordinary Palestinians often turn deadly and lead to lengthy clan vendettas. And the gangs are now targeting local politicians and candidates in the run-up to municipal council elections in the fall.

At least 155 Arab citizens of Israel have been killed by members of their own community so far in 2023, double or even triple the number of such homicides for similar periods in recent years, according to official data and the Abraham Initiatives, a Jewish-Arab advocacy and monitoring group. The youngest victim this year was 1 year old.

After a slight drop in the rate of killings under the previous administration, the number of victims has soared under Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government, making this year the bloodiest on record for the Palestinian Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of Israel’s population.

Many Arab officials say that despite this spiraling violence, the Israeli authorities are prioritizing fighting crime in Jewish areas and neglecting Palestinian ones.

“We can raise awareness, but it is not our job to fight crime or to collect weapons,” said Mr. Jabarin, the deputy mayor of Umm al-Fahem. “That’s the job of the police.”

This has also been one of the deadliest years for Palestinians and Jews in the occupied West Bank. About 180 Palestinians have been killed, mostly during clashes with the Israeli military, but there have been far fewer victims of criminal violence than inside Israel.

Mr. Hayek says he does not know why the butcher’s shop was targeted by the gunmen in the assault, which took place in the town of Sakhnin in the hills of Galilee, and that he pleaded for his life as one of the attackers trained his gun at him.

“I shouted ‘No! Stop! I’m nothing to do with this!’ But he didn’t listen,” Mr. Hayek whispered as he lay in a hospital bed at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem two weeks after the attack.

Mr. Hayek had a promising future on the soccer field. He joined Bnei Sakhnin, a popular Arab-Israeli club, at the age of 6 and played on the children’s and youth teams. The shooting occurred two days before he was to play his first game with the adult team.

Now, his future as a player is uncertain. His doctors managed to save his left leg from amputation, but, said Ron Karmeli, the head of the vascular department, “We are fighting at this point for him to be able to use it.”

Mr. Hayek’s relatives believe he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that he was a victim of mistaken identity.

“He’s a soccer player; he has no connection to the crime world,” said Allam Hayek, Nabil’s father, who was keeping vigil at the hospital.

The police said an investigation into the attack was continuing and that suspects had been detained and subsequently released by the court. Most shooting cases in the Arab community remain unresolved.

The previous governing coalition, made up of parties across the political spectrum that opposed Mr. Netanyahu, battled gun violence in Arab society with a program to make arrests and confiscate weapons. The ministry overseeing the police also worked with other ministries and Arab councils to address socioeconomic problems, like the dire lack of housing and youth programs, and to tackle financial crime. After years of steadily increasing homicides, there was a drop in the number of victims, to 106 in 2022 from 126 in 2021.

Arab officials and experts attribute this year’s spike in violence at least in part to what they described as the new government’s abandonment of many of those efforts.

The hard-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, announced this month that he was freezing funds previously promised to local Arab councils for development programs, pending the creation of a new mechanism to ensure that they did not end up in the hands of “criminal or terrorist elements.”

In explaining the increase in killings, Arab officials also cite internal gang wars and revenge attacks against Arabs suspected of cooperating with the police.

Many Arabs put some of the blame for the rise in violence on the new ultranationalist minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted of anti-Arab incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist organization.

“Ben-Gvir promised governance, but he is busy dealing with crime that affects Jews, not Arabs,” said Fida Shehada, a former city council member from Lod, a crime-ridden mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel, and an advocate for victims’ families.

Mr. Ben-Gvir has said he would fight crime in Arab society by hiring more police and setting up a national guard, a plan that critics say could result in him running a personal militia.

Nevo Cohen, a strategist working with Mr. Ben-Gvir, said that the minister was continuing the anti-violence program of the previous government, and that his Jewish Power party had advanced legislation against protection rackets. “In time, more results will be seen on the ground,” Mr. Cohen said.

Local officials said gang warfare was behind a particularly brazen shooting one afternoon in June that killed five people, including a schoolboy, Rami Marjiye, 15, at a carwash owned by his cousin Naim, in Yafa al-Naseriye, a village of Muslims and Christians near Nazareth.

“It was like a war zone,” said Maher Khalyleh, the head of Yafa’s council. “This was a massacre.”

Many Arabs in Israel say they are scared to testify as witnesses to such crimes or otherwise cooperate with the Israeli authorities.

“If I leak information, maybe I’ll be the next target,” said Imran Kinane, a former mayor of Yafa and a relative of one of the carwash victims. “If you put one guy away, this guy has a whole army behind him. Then you have to deal with the whole army.”

“Jews pay taxes and get security,” he said. “We pay protection money to gangsters just for our own safety, and we really don’t feel safe here at all.”

Mr. Kinane said trust in the authorities was so low that people now pay crime gangs to step in and mediate disputes, including the notorious Jarushi clan, whose activities are widely reported to include extortion, contract killing and trading in illegal drugs and weapons.

“There’s a joke in the Arab community,” he said. “Dial 100 for the police, 101 for an ambulance and 102 for Jarushi.”

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