The conflict, criminality, and the police

There appears to be, on both sides of the green line, a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the one hand, and criminality on the other. While, in the long term, ending the conflict is the only way of breaking the link and reducing criminality, in the short term, both sides are in dire need of better policing to reduce criminal activity.

The link is hard to prove statistically. Is there more violence within Israeli society–road rage, kids bringing knives to school, husbands killing wives, gratuitous murders–because of 38 years of occupation and the tensions and violence they have engendered? Or are there alternative causes, such as poor immigrant absorption, poverty, and perhaps a culture of permissiveness? Are criminal gangs running loose in Jenin and Ramallah because the conflict has destroyed normal Palestinian societal safeguards, or is the corruption of the Arafat years to blame?

Intuition tells us there must be a link between an extended conflict in which so many members of both societies are exposed to violence, and a rise in domestic criminal activity. On the other hand, kids bring knives to school in America and criminal gangs run loose in Columbia–all without the kind of existential conflict we two peoples suffer. Indeed, one could conceivably argue that the intensity of our conflict might steel the two civilian populations to exercise greater discipline in their daily lives. Moreover, according to a recent Palestinian PSR poll, while the occupation and its evils are cited as important background factors for lawlessness, the thrust of the current internal Palestinian discussion of law and order issues is on Palestinian responsibility for poverty, corruption, and internal anarchy.

Even allowing for the intuitive perception of a link, ending the conflict might not immediately sever that link (or prove its existence), since powerful violent impulses planted by the conflict could linger for years. One way or another, the conflict must not constitute an excuse for avoiding better law enforcement and crime prevention on both sides.

Here we encounter a paradox. The Palestinian police force is, on paper, huge–one of the largest per capita in the world. The Israel Police is small, one of the smallest per capita in the western world. The former is so large because the Palestinians were allowed by the Oslo Accords to have only police, no army. Yasser Arafat manipulated this provision to establish no fewer than 12 armed organizations, including intelligence and personal security units, and to play them off against one another to a point where none are efficient. He politicized the judiciary and nurtured corruption. Israel, unwisely, decimated some of the Palestinian forces during the recent intifada. Now the government of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is trying to pick up the pieces and consolidate them into three efficient police-type forces, thus far without spectacular success.

In contrast, the Israel Police is small and getting smaller, apparently because Israeli society, through its governments, has always insisted that we need to concentrate our energies on our many external enemies and that we have no particular law-enforcement problem. In 1995 we had 3.6 police officers for every thousand Israelis; now we have 2.6 per thousand. The police, including the prison service, receives only two percent of the national budget. Imagine a force of 27,000 (of whom 7,000 are in compulsory military service or in the Border Patrol) having to assign 5,000 men and women to guard the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif compound and 7,000 to physically remove settlers, during the approaching disengagement. Very few police will be available to deal with everyday crime inside Israel this August, to say nothing of the road blockages and other provocations settlers will attempt with little fear of police interference.

This points to one clear area of linkage between the conflict and law-and-order issues in Israeli society. It is an internal Israeli link: the setters’ anti-disengagement campaign is to no small extent predicated on the conscious and premeditated violation of laws, usually non-violently or using low-level violence, with a fascist/anarchist fringe prepared to invoke murderous violence. Because the police and the IDF, backed by a succession of Israeli governments, have for years coddled the settlers at the expense of law and order in the West Bank and Gaza, the lines of confrontation are not clearly drawn. After having allowed, and financed, so many illegal settlements, and having looked the other way when settlers inflicted violence on Palestinians, we should not be surprised when settlers now direct their violence at Israeli society.