Arabs in Israel protest unchecked crime as Netanyahu vows crackdown

By Henriette Chacar and Amar Awad

TIRA, Israel (Reuters) - Hundreds of Arab citizens marched on Wednesday in the funeral of a slain community leader, voicing anger at what they say is an Israeli government failure to curb a surge in criminal violence ripping through their communities.

Mourners waved black flags and wore black t-shirts with a photo of Abdelrahman Kashua, the 55-year-old municipal director of Tira in central Israel and father of five who they dubbed "the martyr of reform". His murder remains unsolved.

At least 150 Arab citizens in Israel have been murdered since January, more than double the fatalities over the same period last year and the highest toll since 2014. Advocacy groups keeping records say police have cleared about 8% of this year's cases.

Police say they have stepped up efforts to fight crime in Arab communities.

"Nobody is safe. Our children are not safe. The feeling that dominates our communities is a lack of safety," lawmaker Iman Khatib-Yasin of the Islamic United Arab List told Reuters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said Kashua's murder "crossed a line" and reiterated his pledge to involve the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet to defeat crime in Arab communities, redirecting tools towards citizens that are primarily used to address national security.

Arab citizens, most of whom are descendants of Palestinians who remained in Israel after the 1948 war surrounding its creation, make up about a fifth of the country's population.

They have for decades faced high poverty rates, poorly funded schools and overcrowded towns lacking services and say they are treated as second-class citizens compared with Jewish Israelis.

Many pin the spike in murders on years of neglect and a lack of law enforcement that has emboldened criminal groups.

Dozens gathered outside the local police station after the funeral to protest. They chanted "Police! Police! Our blood is not cheap!" and "Racist state, racist government!"

Netanyahu on Tuesday said all citizens must feel secure and vowed to curb organised crime in Arab society just as, he said, has been done in Jewish society.

But Palestinian citizens say the situation has become even worse since Netanyahu's religious-nationalist government took office in late December, particularly with the appointment of Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister.

Ben-Gvir, whose ministry oversees the police, has past convictions of support for terrorism and anti-Arab incitement. He has since recanted some of his views.

At an Aug. 17 press conference, Ben-Gvir said fighting crime is high on his agenda and there has been a marked increase in police activity, including the seizure of weapons and funds.

(Writing by Henriette Chacar; Editing by Maayan Lubell and William Maclean)