On the heels of last summer’s Israel-Gaza war, tensions between Jewish and Arab citizens within Israel have escalated significantly. In such a context of deep divisions, the extent to which police internalize fair and effective policing—and that citizens see that as a reality—are crucial factors in preventing a downward spiral of violence. Supported by a USIP grant, The Abraham Fund Initiatives (TAFI) has been tackling this issue through its Arab Society-Police Relations Initiative

Israeli police officers on a study tour of the Arab town of Kfar Qara, participating in The Abraham Fund Initiative's Arab Society-Police Relations Initiative
Israeli police officers on a study tour of the Arab town of Kfar Qara, participating in The Abraham Fund Initiative's Arab Society-Police Relations Initiative

Intercommunal violence has spiked since last summer, in Jerusalem in particular, and deeply strained relations are evident throughout the country. Despite the heightened tension, TAFI has continued to pursue an intervention strategy it developed more than 10 years ago to build sustainable relationships based on mutual trust and respect between the predominantly Jewish police force and Arab citizens of the country. The organization also works to equip police officers and their leaders with the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively serve the diverse needs of Israeli society through fair and culturally-sensitive policing practices.

While nearly 4.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, 1.6 million Palestinian Arabs live in Israel. The police in Israel have tended to relate to the country’s Palestinian Arab citizens more as a security concern than as citizens in need of effective policing. Arab populations in Israel are therefore often under-served by the police, which leaves room for increased levels of crime and violence. 

However, during times of heightened intergroup tension around the country, the same communities see patterns of “over-policing,” in which police are seen to be overly-aggressive or unnecessarily violent when managing crime. That further alienates the state’s Arab citizens and deepens the divide between Jews and Arabs around the country. 

TAFI’s initiative aims to develop models of participation, cooperation and partnership between the police and the Arab communities they serve. It takes a holistic approach to this challenge, employing a combination of diversity and cultural sensitivity training, joint educational programs for neighboring Arab and Jewish communities, and international training seminars for police staff. 

Based on the model of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Community Police Liaison Committee, the Abraham Fund also created joint Police-Community Advisory Councils that convene local Arab community leaders and police representatives. These councils offer a platform on which participants can establish relationships and open dialogue between police and civilians. 

The councils also provide oversight of police stations that serve Arab towns, helping to combat crime, familiarize the police with the towns, and improve the quality of police services in Arab communities. 

The Abraham Fund has employed cultural sensitivity trainings to help equip police with the tools, multicultural skills, and awareness needed to serve a diverse society. Components of these trainings range from tours of Arab communities in Israel to screening films like Ajami, which is set in an Arab neighborhood in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area and explores the complex dynamics inherent in the mix of Israel’s cultural and religious identities. 

For many police officers, these programs are the first time that they are exposed to Arab narratives in Israel, says Anton Goodman, director of development at TAFI. 

The training is intended to build a deeper “understanding of Palestinian citizens of Israel as a citizen population, rather than an internal security threat,” Goodman said. ”When combined with culturally-sensitive policing practices such as changes in terminology, increased cultural familiarity, and communication with the communities, there is the potential to significantly change the way police interact with Arab citizens of the state.”

Evidence of progress

Since the inception of the project, The Abraham Fund has made substantial progress and the results are evident on the micro and macro levels. TAFI developed the project as a response to the tragic events of October 2000, when at the outbreak of the Second Intifada, clashes between Israeli police and demonstrators resulted in the death of 12 Arab citizens of Israel. In the wake of this incident, TAFI understood that a fundamental reform of relations between the Israeli police and the Arab public was needed. 

USIP has supported the project since May 2011. TAFI’s work has resulted in 177 hours of police training that engaged 3,030 participants, 71 hours of educational tours with a total of 240 participants, as well as domestic and international seminars that engaged more than 900 participants.

The anger and frustration that began to boil over into protests in Arab communities in Israel in the summer of 2014 has marked a trying time for Jewish-Arab relations in the country, but has provided a means by which to measure the impact of TAFI’s work building relationships between Arab society and police. 

Protests began when, in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers by Palestinians in the West Bank, three Jewish Israelis carried out a brutal “revenge killing” of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem. When the war with Hamas immediately followed these events, protests continued against Israeli actions in Gaza. 

The distinction in the way that police approached the 2014 demonstrations and riots in Arab communities in Israel, as opposed to the way they handled similar events in 2000, has been noted by police officials and their rank and file, as well as by Arab citizens. Rather than aiming to quell and disperse the protesters, the police acknowledged the right of the Arab citizens to protest, often creating a safe space in which the demonstrations could take place.

  For example, the police took such affirmative steps as allowing road closures that they had previously viewed as illegitimate, and set up roadblocks at a significant distance from the demonstrations to prevent conflict with any potential opponents seeking to disrupt the protests. 

At several demonstrations, Arab community leaders were seen crossing the demonstration lines to consult with the police, leveraging the relationships that had been built over time to calm tensions and ensure that protests largely remained nonviolent. 

According to Goodman, these demonstrations serve as a litmus test for the evolving relationship between the communities and the police, one in which police are learning to stand back, set up safe and designated spaces for protest, and allow Palestinian citizens of Israel to exercise their rights.  Police Deputy Commissioner Nissim Mor acknowledged the value of TAFI’s interventions at an Abraham Fund event.

“Without the bridge-building and development of working relationships, the events of the summer would have been even worse than the crisis of October 2000,” Mor said.

The November police shooting of Arab-Israeli Kheir al-Din Hamdan in the town of Kfar Qana in northern Israel demonstrated that significant challenges remain. However, the Abraham Fund hopes that this initiative will continue to produce marked changes in police engagement with the Arab communities they serve, both at the level of practice and in overarching policy. Such a fundamental shift in relations has the potential to not only heal the ongoing rifts in Israel, but to provide a model that might be replicated in similarly-divided communities around the world. 

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