“I believe that in two months, people will start to feel that things have changed — that’s my vision. I’m not talking about a year,” Yoav Segalovitz told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.
Before entering politics, Segalovitz served in some of the Israel Police’s most sensitive posts, heading up both the Lahav 433 unit, which investigates corruption, and the police intelligence division.
Arab Israeli communities have long suffered government neglect, and over the past few years, violence and organized crime have dramatically spiked. The violence is stoked by a tide of illegal weapons that have flooded communities, mostly stolen or sold from Israeli military bases.
While homicides in Jewish Israel have averaged around 38 per year since 2016, some 96 murders were recorded last year among Arab Israelis, though they constitute just one-fifth of the population.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly stated his commitment to ending the tide of violence in Arab Israeli communities several times in recent years. But despite government efforts, organized crime and violence continued to rise.
“Did the previous governments get this done? The answer is no. I personally hope that we, this government, will bring about concrete results,” Segalovitz said.
The bodies have continued to pile up on the new government’s watch. In the last month alone, 14 Arab Israelis have been killed in apparent violent homicides, according to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, among them a chef in Qalanswa, a young teenager in Kfar Qasim, and a crime boss in Jaffa.
“We need to see a different kind of activity by the police — in terms of their presence and their aggressiveness against criminals. It will happen soon,” Segalovitz pledged, adding that he expected to present operational plans by early August.
An Arab municipal official who recently met with Segalovitz, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and other members of the new coalition to discuss the bloodshed said he was “very cautiously optimistic.”
“There’s definitely a new atmosphere, and an intent to act, not just talk. The new ministers are talking about new joint actions, building joint teams with Arab municipalities to tackle the problem. It’s clear they are more attentive to this issue, and there’s a determination to do something about it,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“During the last government, there were plenty of programs and proposals and plans, but nothing ever got implemented. We’d have these meetings, and then sit down to write the next steps, and it was like they hadn’t heard a thing,” he said.
The official favorably contrasted what he deemed the new officials’ “seriousness” with the attitude of their predecessors, although he said there were enduring gaps with the government.
“Barlev, Segalovitz and their team immediately got down to the details, and they told us, ‘We’re not interested in getting headlines. We’re here to work,’” the official recalled.
In an outline proposal shown to The Times of Israel, Segalovitz called for dramatic expansion of law enforcement’s capacity to conduct investigations targeting organized crime.
In the short term, his proposals range from getting Israel’s tax authorities to investigate money laundering crime rackets to establishing a working network of public security cameras in Arab towns — many of which, according to a 2020 government report, are disconnected.
Segalovitz also hopes to see immediate legal changes to crack down on the flood of illegal weapons that are fueling the crime wave: for example, steep increases on the fines for illegal weapons possession and a mandatory minimum sentence.
Arab Israelis have long charged that the police possess the tools but lack the willpower to stop violence and crime in their communities.
“When a young man is killed in Jewish towns, we see a far more intense effort to solve the crime than when a shooting incident happens in our Arab towns,” Wadi Ara’ara Mayor Mudar Younes, who directs the National Council of Arab Mayors, told The Times of Israel last year.
Segalovitz disputes the claim, arguing that police are present in Arab communities. The problem, he argues, is that other state institutions are not.
“The police are there, the police are present. The problem is that in general, the main government body that is present in Arab society is the police,” to the exclusion of well-funded welfare and social institutions, he said.
“Fighting crime is not just about catching perpetrators. It’s about reducing people’s motivation to join this cycle: it’s about informal education, finding people gainful employment; it’s even about establishing sports facilities and playgrounds,” added Segalovitz.
The deputy minister said that some new programs would be funded in the upcoming national budget, which is scheduled to be voted on in the coming months. Others could be funded “very soon” without waiting for a legislative battle, he said.
But Segalovitch’s plans also takes him into ground likely to be difficult for many Arab Israelis to embrace. A key cornerstone of his program aims to provide employment for young Arabs by expanding their participation in so-called National Service programs after high school.
Many Arabs see participating in National Service, a government-run program parallel to their Jewish counterparts’ mandatory time in the military, as anathema.
Another one of the more controversial proposals Segalovitz said he would consider was the potential use of the Shin Bet security service to fight the rising tide of violence.
The intelligence agency mostly operates against Palestinian terror activity over the Green Line. Its methods are invasive and ruthless, but seemingly effective in cracking down on violent terror attacks against Israeli civilians.
“We are at a point in the fight against organized crime and violence in this country that constitutes a state of emergency. In a state of emergency, you need emergency measures, and you use all of the tools,” Segalovitz said.
“One of the tools, perhaps, as in the past, in places where the law allows it, would be the intervention of the Shin Bet. But all according to the law — there’s nothing out of the blue here. Again, in an emergency situation, you take emergency measures. We cannot leave the situation as it is,” Segalovitz said.
The use of the Shin Bet would likely be enormously controversial among Arab Israelis and civil liberties advocates alike.
A recent Channel 12 report cited a quoted as police officer as saying that the leaders of Arab organized crime groups were West Bank Palestinians who had collaborated with the Shin Bet. The anonymous officer accused the shadowy security agency of protecting the collaborators despite their criminal activity.
“The criminals who are currently leading serious crime in Arab society are mostly Shin Bet informants, and in this situation, the police’s hands are tied because those informants, who enjoy immunity, cannot be touched,” the senior officer reportedly said.
Former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon warned that deploying the Shin Bet to fight Arab organized crime within the Green Line could have devastating consequences.
“Back in the 1990s, when Jewish organized crime organizations were developing, we were also asked to step in, and we said, ‘We can’t do this, it would lead to a police state,’” Ayalon said in a phone call earlier this year.
Segalovitz acknowledged that even the Shin Bet, if deployed, would not be a cure-all: “Nothing is a magic bullet, not even the Shin Bet. This is a nation of laws, and you need evidence to convict criminals.”
Crisis of trust
Arab Israelis often feel caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, many agree that they need the police to uproot organized crime from their cities and towns. But deep mistrust pervades the relationship between Arabs and law enforcement. Many say officers treat them more like security threats than citizens, and some see the police as part of the problem.
A generation of Arab Israelis recalls the so-called October 2000 events, in which 13 Arabs were shot and killed by police during violent protests at the dawn of the Second Intifada. Others recall more recent instances: 17-year-old Mohammad Kiwan, a young man from Umm al-Fahm allegedly shot dead by police under murky circumstances in May.
During the IDF’s recent Guardian of the Walls operation in Gaza, ethnic rioting swept Israel’s mixed cities, with Arabs and Jews viciously attacking one another. In response, police embarked on a massive crackdown across the country, arresting over 2,000 Arab Israelis and a few dozen Jews suspected of involvement — only to release the vast majority without charges.
Law enforcement officials defended the operation as a necessary response to the violence that wracked Israel. Some Arabs viewed the campaign of arrests as an assault, and some charged that police had beaten them while they were in detention.
“The crisis of trust has deepened since the operation, especially in mixed [Jewish-Arab] cities. The mass arrests of hundreds, and even thousands — even in October 2000, we never saw anything like that,” said the Arab municipal official.
Segalovitz agreed that the last few months have been challenging. But he emphasized that he viewed cooperation with the local Arab leadership as key to success.
“It is simply intolerable that children and teenagers are terrified to leave their homes in Arab towns, and it’s not because of the police — it’s because of criminals. As soon as we realize we have a shared mission, I believe it will not be an issue,” Segalovitz said.