As Murder Plagues Palestinian Towns in Israel, the Killers Are Rarely Caught

In neighborhoods rife with poverty and discrimination, many question the commitment of authorities to track down the criminals

As Murder Plagues Palestinian Towns in Israel, the Killers Are Rarely Caught
A Palestinian girl watches as Israeli soldiers conduct a security operation in the village of Aqraba, east of Nablus on May 3, 2021 after a suspected Palestinian gunmen carried out a drive-by shooting at a nearby junction, leaving three Israeli civilians wounded, one of them in critical condition / Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP via Getty Images

The video is short but grim: It shows a white car stopped at an intersection. Suddenly, a black vehicle pulls up alongside it. One of its doors is flung open, and a man holding a gun emerges briefly to fire several shots before fleeing the scene.

The low-quality video was taken in Haifa on Sept. 23, and the man who was shot in the white car, 30-year-old Husam Othman, was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Three days earlier, Fadi Grifat, 24, was shot in his car in the northern town of Zarzir by another unknown shooter. A week after that, in the city of Acre, Khaled az-Zawi, 38, was shot and critically wounded while sitting in a coffee shop. He later succumbed to his injuries.

The pattern is painfully familiar — men, mostly young, are gunned down, often in broad daylight, in Palestinian towns or mixed cities inside Israel. Police rarely seem able to stop these crimes or catch their perpetrators. Many residents believe this inability to solve such crimes is an intentional act by Israeli authorities, aimed at ensuring Palestinian communities are mired in crime and poverty, unable to fight for their civil rights and end state discrimination that has contributed to the gun violence epidemic plaguing these neighborhoods.

According to nonprofit organizations that promote Jewish-Palestinian equality, such as the Lydd-based Abraham Initiatives, the violence is primarily carried out by organized crime groups and street gangs that recruit the dissatisfied, unemployed youth of Palestinian neighborhoods and towns inside Israel. But deadly family feuds have also contributed significantly to these violent incidents. Easy access to firearms has played a part in domestic abuse cases and the so-called honor killings of women by family members.

Most guns in Palestinian society are stolen from the Israeli army, smuggled from neighboring Jordan or made by small manufacturers in the West Bank. Some are stolen from police, private security firms, and private cars and homes, as well as from West Bank settlements, according to Gun Free Kitchen Tables Campaign, a coalition of civil society groups working to disarm homes and streets.

Since the beginning of this year, approximately 100 Palestinian citizens of Israel have been killed by gangs or criminals, as Israeli police turned a blind eye to gun proliferation or neglected to pursue crime as the crisis spread throughout towns and villages. Last year, 97 Palestinians were killed, whereas less than half that number of people were killed in the Jewish community, according to the Abraham Initiatives.

The absence of law and order and the impunity with which criminals have acted for so long has fueled the violence. This has raised questions about the authorities’ willingness to stem the violence in Jewish communities but not in Palestinian ones. This year, for example, Israeli police have solved more than 70% of murders in Jewish communities, compared with 23% in Palestinian ones. Police say this is partly due to a lack of trust on the part of Palestinian communities, leading many citizens to seek alternative solutions for justice. Many Palestinians believe the police have little incentive to solve these murders as they remain confined to Palestinian villages and towns — for now.

“The Israeli police did a good job of going after organized crime in Jewish Israeli towns, and they did this by making sure there were adequate police stations or that there was confidence in the police. In the Palestinian sector, they didn’t. And not only did they not go after organized crime, but they let it fester,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer from Haifa and a former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The proliferation of guns and increased deaths in Palestinian communities and police reluctance to fight these crimes have become an excuse for the government to involve the Shin Bet (Shabak), the country’s notorious internal security and intelligence apparatus.

Some believe that the Shin Bet is now being called in over fears that the violence in Palestinian communities could spill over to Jewish ones. “There is a big possibility that the crime and violence against Palestinians will target Jews next, so suddenly, the issue has become a security one, because the guns may well turn against Jewish citizens,” said Amal Orabi Hussein, coordinator of the Combating Violence in Arab Society project at Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab research and advocacy group.

The move to involve the Shin Bet has become a contentious one, leading to criticism even from those who believe that policing these communities is needed.

“If the police wanted to crack down on crime, they’re perfectly capable of doing so,” said Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List in Israel’s Parliament, who has long advocated for more policing in Palestinian communities. “The police are very capable of cracking down on crime when an Arab kills a Jew,” he added, speaking at a demonstration on Sept. 25.

Some rights groups believe that involving the Shin Bet only reinforces the treatment of Palestinians as second-class citizens who are perceived as a security threat. “The government’s decision to expand the unlawful use of the Shin Bet against Palestinians within the Green Line is yet again proof that Israel views its Palestinian citizens as alien enemies, and the decision represents a direct continuation of the military rule exclusively imposed on these communities between 1948 and 1966,” said Suhad Bishara, a senior lawyer with Adalah, The Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel, which specializes in land and planning rights.

“It is illegitimate and discriminatory, effectively creating two separate law enforcement systems: one for Palestinian citizens and another for the rest of the population. The government is exploiting the recent spike in crime to surveil and brutalize Palestinian citizens with some of the state’s most violent and invasive tools,” Bishara added.

Some activists agree, citing the inability to monitor the Shin Bet, which enjoys certain liberties that are not extended to the police force. “If the police want to search someone’s house, they have to go to court and get a warrant,” said Hana Amoury, a resident of Jaffa and an activist in the struggle against crime and weapons proliferation in Palestinian communities within Israel.

“There are guidelines, regulations and laws that limit the possibility of police to do whatever they want. We have zero ways to monitor what the Shabak does. This is absolutely not something that a democratic country should be doing,” Amoury said.

In Jewish communities, a combination of policing and economic measures has been used to fight criminal activity, which could easily be applied to Palestinian neighborhoods as well. “A few years ago they had a fight against Jewish organized crime, and they did not use the Shabak in order to fight organized crime groups in Netanya or Bat Yam,” Amoury argued.

Some have questioned how Israel, with its advanced technology, has not managed to detain gang members after authorities were able to swiftly find and capture six Palestinian political detainees who had escaped from Gilboa prison in early September.

“Look at what happened to the political prisoners when they escaped. Six prisoners were caught within two weeks. When they want to catch someone, they can absolutely do that,” said Rami Younis, a filmmaker from Lydd. “What they need to do is allocate funds, effort and energy to solve these crimes. When there’s something that deters me as a criminal from doing a crime, I would think twice before committing one. But right now it’s like the Wild Wild West.”

The city of Lydd, which lies about 9 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, has long been synonymous with drugs and criminal activity. “In the 1990s, Lydd became a drug capital. I remember watching TV one night and seeing this Israeli police official calling it the drug capital of the Middle East. Crime, shootings, murder. You name it,” Younis said.

“Way before it became fashionable, we were murdering each other in Lydd. What we’re seeing right now in all of [the Palestinian territories of] 1948 is something that started in the 1990s in Lydd, but back then it was only in Lydd.”

Younis attributes the violence to historic trauma dating to the Nakba in 1948 and the massacre at Dahmash Mosque, which resulted in the deaths of 400 Palestinians and the mass expulsion of Lydd’s residents. Palestinian citizens now account for 30% of the population in the mixed city, but Israeli authorities have facilitated concerted efforts to control the city’s demographics. Construction of a wall separating the largely Palestinian neighborhoods from the Jewish ones, settlement in Lydd by religious Jews (supported by the state) and rampant house demolitions in Palestinian neighborhoods further inflamed the sentiment of discrimination. An example: In December 2010, Israeli authorities destroyed six homes in the Abu Tuk neighborhood of Lydd, displacing 67 members of the extended Abu Eid family, 27 of them children.

“If you want to understand how the Nakba is still ongoing, then look at Lydd, a city that was traumatized in 1948. Tens of thousands of people were expelled from there, thousands were killed and [thousands displaced],” Younis said. “Then, 70 years after, we still see home demolitions that belong to Palestinians, we still see settlers that are moving into the city to Judaize the space, and we still see Palestinians living in poverty.”

Authorities have acknowledged that years of neglect have factored into this alarming spike in killings and the frightening reality of life inside Palestinian communities. “The situation regarding violence in the Arab sector has reached the red line,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Oct. 3 as he chaired a new ministerial task force to address the issue. “The problem was pushed aside and neglected for years until it reached outrageous proportions, as we have seen over the past year.”

No longer able to look the other way, the Israeli state decided to deploy a task force that includes the Shin Bet.

While the violence is attributed to well-armed organized crime groups involved in loan sharking and “protection” rackets that prey mostly on disenfranchised youth, it also has spilled over to deadly fights over petty grievances such as parking spaces or land disputes and family vendettas.

Some Palestinians believe that Israeli authorities intentionally want the gun epidemic to proliferate in their societies to break their social fabric. “This is the result of purposeful neglect on the part of the state, to make sure that Palestinians in Israel live effectively in ghettos,” Buttu said. “And so they did this by, for example, not investing in anything to do with youth and youth education, addressing and tackling youth unemployment, making sure that you have proper outlets for everything from sports to all activities.”

Systemic discrimination toward Palestinians in everything from housing to employment has limited the opportunities to escape poverty, such that it has become entrenched, making their neighborhoods fertile ground for crime.

The 2011 Admissions Committees Law allows for Israeli Jewish communities in the Naqab and in the Galilee to reject applicants for housing based on “social suitability” and the “social and cultural fabric” of the town. This means that Palestinian citizens of Israel and other marginalized groups can have their applications for housing rejected based on their race, religion or ethnicity. According to Adalah, this “legalizes the principle of segregation in housing between Arab and Jewish citizens and permits the practice of racism against Arab citizens in about 434 communities, or 43% of all towns in Israel.”

Houses and plots of land in Israel are prohibitively expensive, and mortgages are difficult to come by and involve a convoluted process, leading many Palestinians to turn to organized crime groups for loans, which carry high interest rates.

“These are criminal ecosystems with economic and financial arms, providing pseudo-banking services,” said Orabi Hussein.

With 36% of Palestinians in Israel living under the poverty line, “many cannot afford the official banking services and cannot get housing loans. So what happens when the bank doesn’t give you one? The black market will.”

Very few murder cases related to organized crime are solved (less than one-quarter), which critics attribute not only to police neglect but also to a lack of faith and trust in state authority figures among Palestinians. “The roots of this issue [not trusting police or state] lies in the fact that we are part of the Palestinian people,” Amoury said. “We are part of the national collective that has a conflict with the state. We fought to remain on our lands, but we remained as part of the enemy group, and this perception of the state of us as part of the enemy group did not change.”

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy