Show caption Aisha Hujayrat holds a picture of her son Ammar Hujayrat, three, who was killed by a stray bullet while playing in a playground. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum Israel ‘The police don’t care’: gun violence engulfs Israel’s Arab community Number of Palestinians killed rises year on year as firearms stolen from Israeli military proliferate on streets Bethan McKernan and Quique Kierszenbaum in Bir al-Maksur Mon 21 Feb 2022 14.52 GMT Share on Facebook
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There has been a break in the rain, and the sun is shining on the orange groves of Bir al-Maksur, a quiet Bedouin village near Nazareth in Israel’s north.
Three-year-old Ammar would have loved splashing in the winter puddles outside the Hujarat family’s home, his aunt said. But two days before, the little boy was shot and killed in a playground by a stray bullet fired during a car chase, and the grieving family is trying to make sense of the way his life ended.
“The police don’t care what happens to Palestinians so [the gangs] know they can kill children while they are playing and nothing will happen. We are so angry,” said Ammar’s cousin, Imam, as she sat with his mother, Aisha. Still numb with shock, Aisha cradled her hands in her lap, eyes red from crying.
Ammar was the first victim of 2022 claimed by the gun violence epidemic engulfing Israel’s Arab community: last year, a record 127 people lost their lives, and the numbers have risen year on year since 2013. At the same time, illegal firearms on the streets have proliferated. Some estimates put the number at hundreds of thousands of weapons, mainly stolen from Israeli military depots or smuggled over the Jordanian border.
The gang violence means people in Israel’s 2-million-strong Arab minority are far more likely to be killed by fellow Arabs than Palestinians in the West Bank are by Israeli security forces. The prevailing assumption in the police to date, as one senior Israeli official put it, has amounted to: “As long as they are killing each other, that’s their problem.”
Abir Hatib holds a picture of her son Mohammad Hatib, 22, from Qalansawe, who was killed when a masked man broke into the house and opened fire. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum
About 20% of Israel’s population of 9 million people identifies as Arab, encompassing Bedouin and Druze as well as Muslim and Christian Palestinians. In theory, they are granted the same civil and political rights as Jewish citizens; in practice, these communities face severe institutionalised discrimination.
In Arab and mixed-ethnicity neighbourhoods across the country, the gun violence crisis is a grim illustration of the issues facing minorities living in the Jewish state.
Organised crime networks are deeply embedded in Arab society, who turn to mob bosses for loans when Israeli banks refuse their applications. Corruption and extortion in local politics is rife, as are protection rackets.
The community distrusts and fears the police, leading Palestinian citizens of Israel to turn to traditional methods to solve disputes such as the sulha, a conflict resolution mechanism – in this context usually between rival clans or families.
But with young Arab men the worst hit by the unemployment crisis caused by Covid-19, the streets are now full of well-armed foot soldiers willing to carry out hits for their bosses or, for the right price, wage someone else’s vendetta. The result is tearing at the social fabric that sustains these marginalised communities.
Over the last month, the Guardian met more than a dozen people in the central city of Lod and towns around Israel’s “Arab triangle” who have lost innocent loved ones to gun crime.
In Rambla, Mohamed Abu Muamar’s wife, beloved local teacher Sharifa, was killed by crossfire in August 2020 as she stood at the kitchen sink in the family’s second-floor apartment. She was found after the couple’s two-year-old tried to get her to wake up. “I can’t work, I am struggling with the children. I can’t even go back into the apartment now,” he said. “It’s too painful.”
Other killings are calculated acts of brutality. In May last year, Chitam al-Wahwah’s youngest son Anas – an 18-year-old star student and volunteer with the ambulance service – was shot and killed in his car while she sat in the passenger seat, in what was apparently retribution for the wrongdoings of a distant member of the family.
And sometimes feuds escalate thanks to the widespread availability of guns. In Qalansawe, neighbours Abier Hatib and Zahya Nasra lost their teenage sons, who were close friends, after members of a rival clan opened fire on a group of young men hanging out one weekend last March. The fight had originally started, months before, over a parking dispute.
Killings of women by their partners and other male family members are also on the rise.
“Most of this community was badly affected in 1948 [after the war surrounding Israel’s creation]. People were displaced, thrown into poverty. They had to start all over again, so of course there is crime,” said Fida Sh’hade, a local council member in Lod and one of several Arab women across Israel helping organise victims’ families into a vocal new political lobby called Mothers for Life.
“What is happening now is the reality of what happens when schools, jobs, opportunities for a whole people are withheld.
“About a decade ago, the police cracked down on the Jewish mafia, put the heads of the families in jail. Israel has the best security infrastructure in the world but the police can’t catch some Arab teenagers with guns, inside our own country? Come on. It shows exactly how much we are valued as citizens.”
Only about a quarter of Arab murder cases were solved last year, compared with about 70% of murders of Jewish citizens – a disparity Israel police said in an emailed statement reflects that homicide investigations are “fraught with challenges”, including “lack of cooperation on the part of citizens”.
Muhamad Abu Muammar holds a picture of his wife Sharifa Abu Muammar, who was killed by a stray bullet while preparing a bottle of milk for her baby in her kitchen. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum
All of the families the Guardian met, however, said their offers to help with investigations or entreaties for information on the progress in solving their cases had gone ignored. Abu Muamar, who agreed to testify against his wife’s killers, faced death threats from the gang, but nothing in the way of help from police except a roadblock at one end of his street.
Israel’s new coalition government – which for the first time includes an Arab party – has made combating crime in the Arab community a central promise to the public, budgeting 1bn shekels (£230m) for more police stations in Arab towns and a special unit dedicated to Arab community affairs.
In an interview, however, the Israeli cabinet minister for public security, Omer Barlev, who holds responsibility for policing, acknowledged it would take time for people to “really be convinced there is a change”.
“In the last six months there has been a 30% jump in the number of people arrested and brought to trial,” he said. “Things were never done before with the intensity we are doing it today.”
For victims who are organising and supporting each other through Mothers For Life, the umbrella group bringing Arab women’s voices to the forefront of politics for the first time, change cannot come quickly enough.
In Bir al-Maksur, Ammar Hujarat’s home village, the family home was full of neighbours, relatives and strangers from far and wide who had come to pay their respects.
“The solidarity from all these people, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, is the only thing keeping me strong right now,” said Aisha, the child’s mother. “I believe in the good of people. I never expected this would happen to us … I hope this anger will do something. The killing has to stop.”