UMM AL-FAHM, Israel (Reuters) - On the rundown streets of Umm al-Fahm, an Israeli-Arab city of 50,000, locals in smoky cafes are reluctant to speak. Violent crime at the hands of drug gangs is rife here. Reprisals are common. Israeli Jews rarely set foot in the city.
“The gangs are in control,” said a man who refused to give his name, standing beneath two security cameras that he said were pointless since the police rarely came.
Cities like Umm al-Fahm illustrate a stark division within Israeli society: the growing lawlessness in parts of the Arab community, which makes up 20 percent of Israel’s population and frequently complains of discrimination.
With murder rates and other criminal activity far higher among Arabs - 59 percent of all murders are committed by Arabs, police records show - the government is hoping a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar plan to bolster policing will tackle the problem and put Arab municipalities on a better footing.
As well as extra policing — at a cost of $500 million — there is a proposal for a general boost in spending in Arab areas, where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line, double the national rate.
In a signal of its commitment, the national police in April promoted an Arab Muslim officer to its second highest post, for the first time in its history, and has announced plans to build more police stations and recruit more Arab officers.
But the residents of Umm al-Fahm say they have seen no change so far, and there is little optimism. Weeks after Deputy Commissioner Jamal Hakrush’s promotion, two Umm al-Fahm men were murdered hours apart. Much of the crime is Arab-on-Arab.
Still, new recruits to the police service say they are keen to get to grips with the problem.
“One of the reasons that made me join the Israeli police is the increasing amount of violence in Arab society,” said Kamal al-Asadi, a trainee at the police academy.
Ahmad Jamal, 51, sells sporting goods near the scene of one of the murders in Umm al-Fahm. A neighboring street vendor was shot in the legs last month over a parking dispute.
“Police can’t solve this problem. It comes from us and only we can solve it,” he said. “There isn’t any dialogue between neighbors any more.”
Jamal has coached a local boys soccer league for decades and seen an increasing number of former players fall into a pattern of crime as they enter adulthood. He partly blames a breakdown of traditional Arab society, and some experts agree.
In Umm al-Fahm there’s little confidence in the police as mediators. Patrols within the city are rare. It’s one of Israel’s largest Arab cities but there are no hotels — no one wants to stay. Locals fear nighttime, describing armed men stalking the streets, drug dealers gathering in souped-up cars and bursts of gunfire in the early hours.
Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu of the Abraham Fund Initiative, an Israeli NGO that promotes equitable policing, said crime among Israeli Arabs has been rising “gradually, but significantly”.
Human rights organizations say “over-and-under” policing, in which police are less responsive when it comes to Arab-on-Arab crime yet employ tough measures in response to threats against Jews, are partly to blame.
The Israeli police hope recruiting more Arabs will help. There is an effort to sign up more Bedouin, Druze and Israeli-Arab officers. But a study by the RAND corporation commissioned by the Israeli government warned diversifying the force wouldn’t be sufficient. The think-tank pointed to U.S. cities with majority black police forces that saw little improvement.
So far, Arab recruitment drives have been mostly limited to increased advertising, but a police spokesman said departments would eventually meet with communities to build support.
“This isn’t a month-by-month effort,” he said. “This will take years.”
Reporting by Sleiman Jad; editing by Luke Baker and Dominic Evans