Lethal clashes in Kfar Qassem underscore police-Arab tension...

Lethal clashes in Kfar Qassem underscore police-Arab tensions

July 24, 2017

On June 6th, tensions between Israel’s police and Arab citizens erupted in Kfar Qassem, when what began as an individual arrest escalated into violent protests by residents and the fatal shooting of a 27-year-old Arab man by police security. The events and their aftermath underscored longstanding tensions and mistrust between Israel’s police and Arab citizens, and the complexity of resolving them, against the backdrop of a rising tide of violent events in Arab localities. 

Many in Arab society feel that the police do not view Arab citizens as a constituency to be served, or worse, that police see Arab society as an enemy population to be contained. The rise in violent crime is seen in part as a result of decades of inadequate policing. Since the beginning of 2017, there have been 39 murders in Israel’s Arab society, five of them in the span of two weeks in May and June, and two of these in Kfar Qassem. This is out of the 55-60 murders in Israel as a whole. In addition, 44% of women murdered in Israel since 2011 have been Arab citizens, the Arab population makes up only 21% of the population as a whole. 

A police presence does exist in Kfar Qassem, in the form of a mini station that is slated to become a fully operational station under a NIS 2 billion plan to enhance policing in Arab society launched in 2016. Despite this presence, and in light of rising crime rates, Kfar Qassem residents have established an informal patrol to make up for the lack of trust in, and effectiveness of, local policing. 

On the night of the protests, police arrested a well-respected local resident and member of the informal patrol while checking licenses at a police traffic stop following several shooting incidents in the city. According to the police, “the man resisted arrest and some 50 others also attacked officers.” The Mayor of Kfar Qassem said police used unnecessary force—one of the ongoing complaints about policing in Arab society—saying they used a Taser against regulations.  When the man was taken away, “hundreds of protesters began to riot at a police station,” setting police vehicles on fire and throwing stones. A night guard at the police station opened fire, killing local resident, Mahmoud Taha, before reinforcements arrived to disperse protesters. 

On the day following the clashes, Israel’s Chief of Police Roni Alsheich held a late-night meeting with Arab MKs and the mayor of Kafr Qassem in an effort to quell tensions. “But that meeting will only serve as a temporary bandage to the larger problem,” said Avi Dawidowicz, former commander of the Israel Police Internal Audit Unit and a lecturer in criminology at Ariel University. He explained that the “perception that the police are [part of] the national government and not part of the community,” exacerbates state-minority tensions and makes even small incidents potentially explosive.

Taha’s death was indeed mourned in Arab society as an instance of police violence against Arab citizens. The Arab High Follow-Up Committee issued a statement condemning the police, placing responsibility for the murder on both the government and police force, and called a general strike throughout the country. At the same time, police accepted the security guard’s account of events, in which he said he feared for his life. Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan (Likud) blamed Arab demonstrators who “seek to terrorize anyone who would help police increase their presence in the communities” 

Following these events, President Rivlin touched on the need for both sides to take responsibility to address burgeoning crime in Arab communities, and provide a sense of security for Israel’s Arab citizens. He called for “complete cooperation between the sides, between the security and law enforcement forces in the State of Israel, whose duty it is to provide a sense of security to every citizen, and between the Arab political and civilian leadership.” The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) issued a detailed report also focused on the tension between the call for additional policing by Arab citizens, and that the “introduction of a police presence into Arab communities is perceived as an infringement on the Arab sector’s only autonomous space in the state.

INSS called for a “restraining constructive approach by the government and the Arab leadership.” Citing the wider context of state-minority relations that have been “exacerbated in recent years by government policy toward the Arab population,” they suggest that police perceptions of Arab society may be influenced by an aggressive trend in political and legislative discourse. 

Civil society organizations involved in these issues also issued statements emphasizing the need for police to prioritize and enhance Arab personal security. Sikkuy issued a statement condemning the killing and stating “clashes between the police and demonstrators should never end with deaths of civilians”. The Abraham Fund Initiatives stated clashes “follow years of under-policing” in Arab localities and saying “the central story [is] the need for effective policing to address violence in the town.” The Abraham Fund released a special report in July 2017, based on a poll conducted during May and June. According to the report, 54% of Arabs feel there is a problem of violence in their localities (compared with 12% of Jews); 61% of Arab society is “unhappy” with levels of policing in their localities (compared with 53% in Jewish society) and only 36% of Arab society believes it is the police’s responsibility to maintain security, and 32% believe it is the family’s role (compared with 63% and 1% of Jewish society respectively). 

Further reading:

Israeli-Arabs seek more policing but don't trust police, survey indicates - The Jerusalem Post - Eliyahu Kamisher - 7.11.17

Matza, Doron and Elran, Meir; “Jewish-Arab Relations following the Kafr Qassem Incident: The Danger of the Slippery Slope” INSS Insight No. 939, Institute for National Security Studies, June 18, 2017.

A vicious cycle - Israel Hayom - Maj. Gen. Yaakov Borovsky (ret.) - 6.7.17

Law, order and the conflict - The Jerusalem Post - Editorial - 6.6.17



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