Ten years of blood: Homicide rate trebles in '48 Palestine as Israeli authorities let organised crime flourish

9 min read
10 November, 2023

Kifah Aghbarieh from Umm al-Fahm, a city in Israel's Haifa district, has to keep counting the number of her murdered relatives.

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition, had to delay interviewing her twice in one week after the intended interview dates coincided with shootings targeting female relatives of hers.

Kifah told us about the relentless tragedies devastating the lives of many families, because of a seemingly endless stream of murders, for which no one is being held accountable.

Live Story

To date, Kifah's family have lost eight family members – in just four years. With immense pain, she spoke about the beloved relatives she had lost.

"The murders in our family started in 2019 when my cousin Mahmoud Abu Yasser was murdered outside the Abu Obeida Mosque as he left after praying," she begins.

"After this, in 2020, another relative, Mohammed Ziyad, who was physically handicapped, was killed. He was fasting for Ramadan and was waiting for his daughters so they could go and collect the iftar meal for the family when he was shot dead.

"Sometime after that, Mohammed Nasser was killed, he was an activist and was organising protests against crime and violence. He was murdered in front of his home after participating in a demonstration in Umm al-Fahm. He was only 21."

"Over the last decade, violent crime and homicides in particular have turned into a waking nightmare for Palestinian citizens of Israel"

Kifah adds: "Soon afterwards, my brother, Sheikh Khaled Abu Sultan was killed as he set off for work in the morning. It was one day before his birthday. After this, my parents' cousin, Khalil Abu Madi was killed during the early hours of the morning.

"Then in 2022, my relative Dr Tariq was murdered in front of his wife and his newborn son as they returned from the hospital; he shielded them from the bullets with his body. Then, two months ago, my father's cousin Mohammed Al-Aref, a bus driver, was killed in front of his house. And one week ago, his wife, Umm Haithem, was shot in the head at point-blank range."

Over the last decade, violent crime and homicides in particular have turned into a waking nightmare for Palestinian citizens of Israel (known as the 1948 or '48 Palestinians).

News of one murder after another has become part of daily life for ordinary people, and everyone knows that they or a loved one could be next. Criminal organisations are responsible for the majority of these deaths.

The statistics show a huge rise in the number of victims among the '48 Palestinians in the last decade.

In 2014, there were 52 homicide victims within this community. Five years later, in 2019, the number reached 85 victims.

In August 2023, the number of victims so far that year was 143. There are around 1,600,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Made with Flourish

Reda Jaber, a lawyer and researcher specialising in public law and crime, describes organised crime as akin to a disease or an epidemic — if it isn't dealt with, it spreads exponentially, transcending regional, ethnic and religious borders.

"No one has confronted organised crime in the Palestinian interior (Israel within its internationally recognised borders) or set boundaries for it in the last 15 years — which has strengthened it and increased its societal impact," he says

He adds that the wave of crime being suffered by Palestinian communities in Israel cannot be viewed as a randomly occurring phenomenon: "It has a rationality and operates according to a specific logic. This is based on exploiting weak spots in society and the lack of resistance, which in turn leads to the disappearance of fear among criminals, who feel that they are gaining social status.

"Crime has a cumulative logic — it multiplies when there is no resistance, which explains the drastic increase in the number of victims over time."

"Crime has a cumulative logic — it multiplies when there is no resistance, which explains the drastic increase in the number of victims over time"

Jaber explains there is a class dimension to those involved in organised crime; usually, those who join criminal gangs are from the "bottom rung of society" — they are the most economically vulnerable.

These people have begun to feel as though crime is the way they can compete for existing resources to improve their situation — not just materially, but also in terms of their social standing.

"Those who get involved with [organised] crime are also searching for meaning," he adds, elaborating that "those who fire guns feel important."

Not only that but they find support once they enter the criminal underworld, although, as he puts it, "the world of organised crime is both closed and open. And the only way out is death."

Spreading throughout all the Palestinian towns

Journalist Deiaa Haj Yahia, who has covered violent crime in '48 Palestine for many years says much of the killing relates to revenge operations between different criminal organisations, but the victims are largely innocent members of the families involved.

Live Story

"An argument erupts between members of two families, to do with issues related to organised crime, and then revenge operations develop which extend to the wider family; to relatives who aren't necessarily linked to the dispute and are not connected to the criminal organisations."

The rise in violent crime and its victims is reflected in the nature of the crimes being committed. Prior to the year 2000, Palestinian society within Israel had not witnessed the institutionalisation of organised crime and its prevalence as is witnessed in Palestinian areas today.

Pre-2000 the crime rate was low and comparable to elsewhere across the Israeli state. However, after 2000, criminal gangs started expanding their activities in light of the lack of prosecution by the Israeli police forces, who had previously clamped down on criminal gangs operating from within Jewish-Israeli society.

The homicide rate among Arab communities in Israel today is 7.5 times higher than that in Jewish communities according to statistics, despite the fact that they only make up 20 percent of the population.

"Those who were in their twenties while working in Jewish organised crime are now in their forties and are managing operations in the Arab community"

Yahia says that elements which have come to form a major part of the Arab crime scene "came out of the heart of criminal gangs in the Jewish communities," where they were working as sub-contractors or hired killers, he explains.

When the Jewish criminal organisations were suppressed, these individuals redirected themselves towards Arab society and filled the gap the Jewish criminal gangs had left behind.

They began building Arab organisations, which have expanded massively and now have a presence in almost all the Arab towns in '48 Palestine, he says: "Those who were in their twenties while working in Jewish organised crime are now in their forties and are managing operations in the Arab community."

Yahia says Arab criminal gangs have also been able to exploit developments in technology and society to their benefit.  

"In the past, the activities of criminal gangs largely revolved around weapons and drugs. Today, however, they have expanded operations such as extortion, targeting local councils, as well as bidding on, for example, construction projects. They have also acquired real estate and even forex companies (online currency trading services)".

Kifah Aghbarieh (C-R) holds a poster of her brother Sheikh Khaled Abu Sultan alongside others with pictures of murder victims at a protest against the failure to tackle violent crime in Palestinian communities in Israel [Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty]

A community awash with weapons

The eight victims in Kifah's family were all killed in targeted shootings. She says her family was targeted for refusing to comply with the criminal gangs and their threats.

"As a family, we don't engage with the black market, and we are educated and work in local and regional institutions," she says, adding that they are a religious family who always pray and attend mosque.

"Our family is well-known in the country and plays a role in community work. They tried to subjugate us to control us, but we refused, we will not kneel except to God Almighty."

The steep increase in homicides is accompanied by a rise in smuggled weapons coming into gang possession. In a comprehensive 2017 report by Arab ex-Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, titled "Israeli Police Policies towards Crime in the Arab Community," Israeli police statements gathered indicated that they were aware of huge numbers of firearms that had come into possession of elements in the Arab community, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of items.

"I will continue to be active, I don't care about the criminals, even if they threaten me. My life isn't more valuable than the lives of those who have passed away, and I am content with God's will"

The report also stated: "Victims report receiving threats without being provided protection and with no certainty that criminals will be punished, which has contributed to the rising crime rate — in the absence of a solution to most of the crimes."

The data also revealed most homicides in the last ten years were carried out with firearms, and that the majority of victims' ages ranged from 18-35.

A 2020 study by Baladna, an Arab youth collective in Israel, which investigated reasons Arab youth were increasingly being pulled into organised crime, showed that certain Israeli policies had led to this increase, as well as other causes.

Israeli government policies causing impoverishment of Arab communities, as well as the persecution of those who became politically active in them, were both reasons feeding into pull factors towards the world of organised crime.

The report also highlighted a growing trend towards individualism, and the rising sense among many that owning a weapon is necessary.

Live Story

Murders leave a permanent impact on the victims' families, especially those who become orphans or widows. Kifah says there are 28 orphans in her family due to homicides.

"One of the children in the family asked me, why did they kill my father? (...) I don't know what to answer. What is the fault of these children that they have to live without a father or mother?"

Kifah works to help children suffering the psychological trauma of losing a parent through violent crime. She founded the "Bereaved Mothers" association and actively participates in community events, as well as organising demonstrations, and speaking to the media.

"I will continue to be active, I don't care about the criminals, even if they threaten me. My life isn't more valuable than the lives of those who have passed away, and I am content with God's will."

Jaber says: "For ten years I've been saying that we are going from bad to worse. However, I expect the crime rate will drop next year — because of events inside Israel, rather than for reasons within the Arab community.

"There are Israeli security agencies working to contain the situation so it won't explode politically in the face of the state and the Jewish community, and out of concern over the image and prestige of the state."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: info@alaraby.co.uk