When Violence Dominates Local Arab-Israeli Elections, Democracy Loses

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Arab-Israeli public officials are being increasingly targeted by criminals, hoping to get their way through threats, extortion and force ahead of Tuesday's local elections. Running for office shouldn't cost people their lives

Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90

Earlier this month Adham Hamoud, a devoted civil servant in his role as municipal engineer of a small town in the Galilee, was killed by a gunman who shot at his car.His murder is only the most recent in a series of shooting incidents and violence against local elected officials and civil servants from Arab towns and cities that have been on the rise, as Haaretz has reported, in the last two months ahead of municipal elections scheduled to be held across the country Tuesday.
Before the October 7 attack and ensuing war in Gaza dominated world attention, Israel faced unprecedented levels of violent crime within its Arab communities.
The number of shootings skyrocketed in 2023, resulting in 244 homicides – the deadliest year in the country's history. Then, in the weeks following October 7, as Israel stood in collective shock, the number of shootings and murders in Arab communities dropped. But it was only to be a temporary lull—the war did not put an end to the epidemic of crime in Arab society, and there's concern it might only surge higher still in wake of the social and economic crisis currently unfolding.
Of particular concern is that the crime seems to be increasingly targeting Arab leadership and public servants. The murder of Hamoud, the municipal engineer, in the northern Arab town of Judeida-Makr, should have raised a major red flag ahead of the upcoming local elections, yet it passed with almost no notice in the Hebrew-language media or in statements by government officials.
While police are still investigating the motive and circumstances of the murder, this silence sends a clear message to the criminal organizations: public servants are fair game to target, and there is little chance that a price will be paid for their crimes.
Indeed, we fear a shift is unfolding in the Arab sector in which we will move from a politics of voting to politics of violence—from ballots to bullets—a situation in which threats, extortion and force seek to achieve what cannot be accomplished by democratic means.

The right to vote, a linchpin of modern democracy, is inextricably tied to the right to run for office. Democracy—and, indeed, society as a whole—is under existential threat if public representatives must choose between serving their community and their own safety.
Proper functioning of local government in Arab society is not a luxury. Local government is not only meant to provide municipal services—it is, first and foremost, an arena for instilling democratic values.
Law enforcement agencies have an obligation to do everything in their power to end this scourge of violence, to protect all Arab citizens, including its public figures and those who aspire to be in local leadership. This is the only way to not only end this epidemic, of violent crime but to protect the sacred right and privilege of running for office.

There is no one instant solution here. Israeli society must, however, come together to demand circumstances that permit fair elections and safety in public life. If we bow to organized crime now, we will pay a heavy price moving forward. Despite the heavy burden of the war, we cannot ignore the challenge before us.

In order to rise to the challenge of addressing violence, we must look to policy and budgetary solutions. In 2021, the Israeli government allocated resources as part of a much hailed five-year plan to combat violence and crime in Arab society, known as "Government Resolution 549".

In the last year, however, the program has been faltering. It's not getting enough attention from government ministries and there's a lack of coordination among the ministries that is essential for effective implementation.
Despite the doubling of the number of Arab Israelis murdered in 2023 from 2022 and despite the challenge of protecting elected officials and public servants in Arab communities, funding for Resolution 549 and the other key government program aimed at improving life in the Arab sector are at risk of significant cuts in the upcoming 2024 budget.

The budgets of those two programs are set to be cut by 15 percent, that's at a much higher scale than the five percent cuts proposed for government ministries. The proposed budget cuts are intended offset the massive spending of the ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza.

It must be understood that without appropriate resources, there can be no effective implementation of Resolution 549, a landmark decision which was made and designed to improve law enforcement, dissuade young people away from organized crime, and help local authorities increase their ability to govern.

This decision to reduce the program will have an ominous impact on the future of all citizens of Israel. And yet, even though this is a clear matter of life and death, we continue to see members of the government work against implementing efforts to eradicate organized crime.

To be clear, it's still not too late. It is possible to retreat from the budget cuts and bring this urgent funding back to the public agenda.

The war has brought to the fore the importance of drafting a new social compact in which we understand just how the shared wellbeing and future of all citizens of Israel is interlinked.

We should take advantage of that new collective understanding, borne in the shadow of October 7, that security is a personal and collective fundamental right, and which is the responsibility of the state to enforce. We must protest against the devastating situation of Arab localities in recent years in which citizens are afraid to leave their home after dark, afraid to even send their children to school or to the park or even to sleep too close to windows for fear of the bullets that might pierce them.
We must not allow a situation to arise in which Arab citizens of Israel are afraid to go vote and elect a mayor or local council members, nor one in which candidates themselves fear their act of civic leadership could cost them their lives.


This article was published in Haaretz.com.