Israel’s Gang Violence Has Become Endemic

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants the Shin Bet to deal with spiraling violence. That’s a path fraught with risk.

Bloomberg Opinion — Israel’s Shin Bet is sometimes compared to the FBI. Its job is to protect national security from espionage, cyber-attacks, political assassinations and enemy terrorism. Unlike the FBI, the Shin Bet does not fight domestic crime.

That job belongs to the police. But the police have come under increasing criticism for a failure to halt, or even dent, an unprecedented wave of violent crime in the country — one whose victims, and perpetrators, are nearly all Arab.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has declared the gang-driven violence a national emergency. Criminal gangs now threaten entire Arab towns and cities from the Galilee in the north to the Negev in the south. They shake down businesses, traffic in stolen goods and weapons, smuggle drugs and, in some municipalities, funnel funds from crooked local politicians. Citizens who could be caught in random gunfire and or hurt by the gangs are afraid to cooperate with the police.

Criminals have always existed in Arab communities, but they have never been so ruthless. Most of the gang members fit a profile familiar around the world: young, poor, uneducated and without obvious prospects. They also do business with Jewish gangs, especially in towns with mixed populations, which raises concern among mainstream Israelis.

Bennett does not want to be seen as weak on crime or willing to cede sovereignty to gangs of criminals. He has, therefore, decided to call in the Shin Bet as an agency with means and methods not granted to Israel’s police and which is under the prime minister’s sole control. It can deploy spy technology, arrest and hold suspects without bringing charges and subject them to prolonged interrogations -- all under a blanket of security and censorship.

The prime minister should tread carefully. The Shin Bet is a quasi-military organization, designed to fight complex battles against Israel’s enemies. Arab criminal gangs do not fit that description. They may be murderous, but they are still Israeli citizens.

At his swearing in ceremony in the prime minister’s office, the new Shin Bet chief, Ronen Bar, made it clear he understands the problem. “I hope that at every decision-making crossroad we’ll have the power, courage and wisdom to correctly balance [security and civil rights] and that we will be capable of judiciously fulfilling the principles of a democracy that is defending itself.”

Bar did assure the prime minister that he would be glad to help out in any legal way he can. He promised “to study” the problem and look for ways to “bolster the police.” It wasn’t a brush-off, but it also wasn’t the war cry Bennett was hoping to hear.

Bennett’s frustration is understandable. Israel’s national police department has a well-deserved reputation for failure and corruption. It ranks low in public esteem and even lower in the professional judgment of the Shin Bet. The agency’s previous head, Nadav Argaman, reportedly declined to partner with the police because he feared the cops would unwittingly reveal sources, expose methods and botch operations. Just last May, police forces stormed the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem in pursuit of Palestinian rock throwers, a decision that sent tremors through the Islamic world and touched off a two-week long rocket barrage by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza on Israeli cities.

Traditionally jealous of its turf, the police are happy for Shin Bet to supply some help with combatting gang violence, so long as the police remain in control. It is doubtful the Shin Bet will accept that. It is also possible that such an arrangement would be illegal. When Bennett first floated the idea, he was advised by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit — the man responsible for putting former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on trial for corruption — that using the Shin Bet to fight civilian crime would be taking it out of its lane.

When Bennett ignored him, Mendelblit reiterated his position in a letter to the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. “It must be made clear that the handling of crime is not within [the Shin Bet’s] purpose and role.” The question could well wind up in court.

Apart from the matter of legality, involving the Shin Bet could strengthen the conviction of many Arabs that they are not real citizens. “When Jewish crime syndicates were active in Jewish cities, the Israeli state never turned to the intelligence service or the Shin Bet,” said the Arab mayor of Umm al-Fahm, Samir Mahameed. The United Arab List faction in the Knesset shared this opinion.

Other Arab lawmakers, such as coalition member Mansour Abbas, have not ruled it out as a last resort. Of  course, crime-fighting alone is not going to solve the problem of gang violence. Largely due to Abbas, the upcoming national budget, expected to pass next month, doubles the allocation to Arab communities to 35 billion shekels ($10.8 billion).

The Shin Bet would, without a doubt, be able to deal more effectively than the police with the epidemic of violence. But such success could be the beginning of a dual system of law enforcement. It could also tempt future prime ministers to use the agency promiscuously to solve problems outside its purview. That is the road to a police state. It’s not a first step that Bennett should want to take.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.