The issue of violence and crime facing Arab society in Israel came onto my radar last year when a wave of protests initiated by Arab citizens communities swept across the country. As someone who has a deep interest in how protest movements serve as a force for change, I began following the protests from the U.S., where I was still living at the time. Daily demonstrations, organized street closures, and a general strike were all tactics deployed to demand that state authorities step up and play a larger role in protecting Arab communities.  The protests had begun in response to a sharp increase in the level of violence in the Arab sector. Although Arab citizens only constitute 20% of the Israeli population, they make up 61% of all murder and manslaughter victims in the country. By the time I arrived in Israel in October of last year, 65 Arab citizens had been killed in violent attacks. The increasing level of violence had proved to be a breaking point. Across Arab society, communities organized peaceful actions calling out the police, elected officials, and their own local leaders for failing to combat issues such as organized crime, a proliferation of illegal weapons, and honor killings.
When I began my internship with The Abraham Initiatives, I was excited by the opportunity to see how the popular momentum from these protests could be transferred in new policies and other opportunities for change. I’ve often found that protest movements, and the issues they rally around, disappear from the newspapers once street demonstrations come to an end and the conversations moves into less visible spaces. By working with The Abraham Initiatives, which has been focused on issues around police-community relations and personal security in Arab society for over a decade, I’ve been able to follow the conversation on to the next steps that English-language media is no longer reporting on. Drawing on its years of research and action in this field, the Safe Communities initiative played an active role in the last year, joining other voices to call for the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce that was established in October 2019 to develop a more holistic approach to tackling crime and violence in Arab society. As national and local leaders have taken up the mantle in response, the Safe Communities initiative has also continued its work to address the high levels of distrust between Arab communities and the police and state authorities. While public protests demanding a stronger police response may capture headlines, the challenging work of building trust between Arab communities and the police is the next step in bringing about the lasting social and political change that they are calling for.
Last month, I attended a Safe Communities workshop in Lod, where precisely this type of bridge-building work was taking place. The workshop took the form of a roundtable, bringing representatives from the police, state prosecutors and public defenders together with members of Lod’s mixed city council, Arab representatives from other towns, and community activists from Arab society. The purpose of the meeting was to focus in on the contentious, and unfortunately common, cases in which the police are forced to release suspected criminals because they don’t have the evidence to successfully prosecute them. In many of these cases, people in the community are well-aware of who committed the crime and don’t want the suspected criminal back on the streets. This issue frustrates state authorities, who aren’t able to take criminals off the streets despite their best efforts, while members of the Arab community interpret them as further evidence of under-policing and state neglect. As someone whose knowledge of crime and violence in Arab society is introductory, gleaned mostly from the broad demands of protests and general responses from the state represented in news articles, I appreciated the opportunity to dive deeper into how these issues play out on a daily basis.
The representatives from the police and state attorney’s office started off the day with a panel on legal process of prosecution and how the lack of witnesses from Arab society cripples their ability to successfully carry through cases. One lawyer described working multiple cases in which local residents hid or destroyed potential video evidence of crimes. Without sufficient evidence, they explained, prosecutors are forced to drop cases, and police have to release suspects back into the community. Representatives from the Arab community, however, expressed their fear of retaliation and a lack of faith in police protection for those who would speak up. Though the conversation was marked by plenty of debate and disagreement, the open forum allowed all the actors in these cases to share their professional and personal experience in these cases, a first step towards building understanding.
For me, the workshop was an opportunity to see how the protest movement has been taken up by both state authorities and local leaders since I first started reading about it last year. The Lod Chief of Police was proud to explain the efforts his force has taken to improve community-police cooperation in Israel. Both Jewish and Arab representatives from city council partook in the conversation, demonstrating an awareness that crime and violence in the Arab sector is an important issue for all members of Israeli society. Although no consensus was achieved in this one day, I could see how forums like the Safe Communities workshop constitute important spaces for addressing crime and violence in Arab society. Civil protests may have led to policy changes, but Arab communities will only feel a change in personal security when local actors put in this kind of work to build understanding and trust between themselves and the police. Being a part of this forum made me hopeful that protesters’ voices were heard and that state and local leadership are carrying that popular momentum into a new stage of changemaking.