A 45-year-old Arab man was murdered in Nazareth recently – it was the 116th violent death this year in Israel’s Arab communities, and the third in that same week. This is more than merely a domestic rise in crime. According to a recent media report, an Israeli police official said the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group has been working overtime to smuggle weapons to Israel’s Arab communities. Their goal is to overthrow the Israeli state. But Israel’s Arab community is clearly the victim.
The Islamic Republic of Iran and its violent proxies have left a trail of death and destruction throughout the Middle East in recent decades. Through proxies and direct action, Iran has inserted itself in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The result has been catastrophic in each case. Economic collapse, food insecurity, the rise of organized non-state actors, and bloodshed are hallmarks of Iran’s hegemonic designs on the region.
Israel has long been the Islamic Republic’s top target. But this particular tactic is a new one. What’s not new: Iran is willing to sacrifice Arabs in its long-term goal of destroying the Jewish state.
Israel is trying to get a grip on this new challenge. The Israeli police official reportedly described a several fold increase in weapons smuggling attempts from Lebanon almost exclusively via Hezbollah. Officials called it a “strategic threat,” noting that the weapons were mostly destined for criminal organizations to be used against Israel’s Jews and to overthrow the state.
The effort to flood Israel’s Arab communities with weapons comes on the heels of the domestic unrest and sectarian violence that occurred during the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip this May. While rockets were hurtling into Israeli airspace from Gaza, riots broke out in the heart of Israel’s “mixed cities” with significant Arab and Jewish populations. The strife became so intense that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a state of emergency in the town of Lod.
Inspired by this sectarian strife, Hezbollah now seeks to arm Israeli Arabs in a bid to make their riots more lethal. But the Israelis are intent to stop this. Since the May unrest, Israel has thwarted numerous smuggling attempts from Lebanon. In June, Israel circumvented a smuggling operation with 15 handguns, ammunition, and 80 pounds of hashish. In July, Israel thwarted an attempt to smuggle 43 weapons and more than $800,000 worth of ammunition from Lebanon. And in October, Israel’s Border Police foiled another weapons and drugs smuggling operation from Lebanon. Israeli security forces identified Hezbollah as the primary suspect behind this activity.
Weapons are still getting through, however. And the impact has been catastrophic. Though Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population, they account for 70 percent of the country’s homicides this year. Murders in the Arab sector have jumped from 58 in 2013 to 116 and counting in 2021.
There will, of course, be those who claim that Israel shares some of the blame. Lower government spending in Arab towns have certainly exacerbated the problem. However, there are other causes that might help explain the high levels of violent crime among Israeli Arabs, including clan or family rivalries. But the problem has reached a crisis level thanks to the Iran-backed Hezbollah’s effort to flood Arab streets with weapons.
In the aftermath of the Gaza War and the accompanying riots, Israel recently increased its efforts to tackle intra-Arab violence. The coalition agreement with the Islamist Ra’am party included $770,000 to tackle violence and crime in Arab society. Israeli police hope to triple their Muslim officers in the next three years. In September, Israeli police created an undercover unit to combat crime and violence in Arab Israeli communities. And in November, Israel conducted the largest seizure of illegal weapons in the country’s history. Though Israel has seized 15,000 illegal weapons, an estimated 400,000 remain.
On a policy level, Israel’s Ministerial Task Force to Fight Crime and Violence in Arab Society held its first meeting in October. That same month, Israel’s cabinet approved a multi-year plan to combat violence in the Arab sector. More efforts will be needed. But Israel’s attempts to combat this worrying trend will come up short if they do not address the role of Iran and Hezbollah.