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Arab citizens in Israel bemoan lack of policing

TIRA, Israel — When residents of this once-sleepy Arab village gathered to protest recent gang-style shootings in their community, anger quickly focused on the Israeli police.

Residents raised signs reading, “Police are terrorists.” Local leaders recited a familiar list of complaints: Police treat Arabs like second-class citizens; they fail to prosecute many criminals and don’t seize enough illegal weapons; they can’t be trusted.

Given the animosity, the protesters’ next demand was somewhat surprising. They called for the Israeli government to assign more police to Tira.

“There’s no other solution anymore,” Tira Mayor Mamoun Abdul Hai said later of this 22,000-resident community. “We can’t handle it anymore. We don’t have the money and resources to do it ourselves.”

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A recent increase in killings and gang violence in Israel’s Arab cities and towns is forcing Arab Israelis to rethink past resistance to welcoming police into their communities.

Arab Israeli communities last year accounted for 67% of the 135 homicides nationwide, 70% of attempted homicides and 52% of all arson attacks, according to government figures. Yet Arabs represent only about 20% of Israel’s approximately 8 million people.

As violence has increased over the last two years, Arab Israelis say police and government have failed to respond adequately, reflecting what Arabs call long-standing discrimination against Arabs in Israel. In addition to less police protection, Arabs say they receive unequal funding in education, housing and other services.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently acknowledged that Arab communities have turned into a “Wild West.” Arab leaders, meanwhile, say the government has failed to devote sufficient funds to dismantle gangs behind a wide range of crimes, including a string of tit-for-tat killings tied to powerful rivals.

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Critics say that if such problems were plaguing Jewish communities, the government would not hesitate to act.

“Our towns are disaster areas,” said Jamal Zahalka, an Arab Israeli member of the Knesset, or parliament. “The only thing that will solve this is a political decision to crush it.”

In Tira, 18 people have been shot to death in the last two years. Residents say the violence has shattered their sense of security. People rarely venture outside late at night anymore. The sound of gunfire is common.

“It’s easier to get a gun here than a falafel,” said community activist Bashar Iraqi, a co-founder of the Darna Center, which tries to discourage youths from joining gangs or participating in violence.

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Tira resident Nora Jabeali, 51, who lost two brothers and a nephew to shootings over the last few years, said law enforcement officials have not prosecuted anyone in those slayings.

“As long as it’s Arabs killing Arabs, they just don’t care,” she said.

The mayor said that in November the city will open its first police station since the 1970s.

Israel’s relationship with its Arab minority has always been complicated and tense. Until the 1960s, many Arab Israelis lived under military rule, despite their citizenship.

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In October 2000, as Palestinians in the West Bank waged a second intifada, Israeli police killed 13 Arab Israelis as they rioted in support of the uprising. Trust on both sides collapsed.

“The October 2000 event demonstrated in a harsh way that the Arab minority is seen by the police as almost an enemy,” said Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, co-director the Abraham Fund, an Israeli group that promotes coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

Today there’s “a growing understanding that the police need to close the gaps between the level and quality of service provided to the Jewish majority and the Arab minority,” said Beeri-Sulitzeanu, whose group now works as a consultant to Israeli police.

Those gaps remain wide. Jewish communities sometimes have two or three times as many police officers per capita as do Arab ones, and Arabs are underrepresented on the police force, said Badi Hasisi, director of Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology.

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Police officials say they are trying to improve security in Arab neighborhoods by opening new stations, such as the one in Tira; redeploying officers; and working with community leaders. In November, a team of Israeli police officers will travel to Southern California to train with the Los Angeles Police Department and learn about its community policing program, enacted in the city after the 1992 riots, Beeri-Sulitzeanu said.

But some worry that the police have not been given sufficient resources to tackle the crime gangs that have entrenched themselves in communities such as Tira and nearby Taiyiba.

In May, when police tried to crack down on one crime family that had installed its own security cameras to spy on the local police station, officers encountered private guards with Kalashnikov rifles. One guard was killed by police in a subsequent shootout.

Gangs routinely block public roads around their compounds with piles of dirt and debris. Police dismantle them, but the barricades are rebuilt a few days later, police and residents say.

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Police officials say efforts to crack down on the gangs have been complicated by the lack of cooperation from the public. A few months ago, arsonists torched the site of Tira’s soon-to-open police station.

“In Tel Aviv, when something happens or you witness a crime, you don’t hesitate to call the police, but people don’t do that here,” said police spokesman Eran Yehuda.

Many residents say they are too afraid to cooperate with police because those who do are often attacked or killed by the gangs.

Some analysts say it’s unfair to blame police because the problem is rooted in the poverty and lack of opportunity in Arab communities. A recent report by the Taub Center and Tel Aviv University found that Arab unemployment during the first half of the year was 11%, about twice the rate for Jews.

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“The police,” said Guy Ben-Porat, a public policy professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, “are the ones who have been left to pick up the mess that other institutions have left.”

edmund.sanders@latimes.com


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