Policing the Arab minority: from alienation to cooperation

Daily News Egypt
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LEHAVIM, Israel: Relations between the Israeli police and the Arab citizens of Israel have been a major concern in recent years, especially following the events of October 2000 when during demonstrations the police gunned down 13 Arab citizens. A commission of inquiry formed after the events placed the blame not only upon the police but also on the inflammatory rhetoric used by some Arab leaders. It also underlined the role of long-term discrimination in generating frustrations among the Arab citizens of Israel.

Equality for Arab citizens is a significant challenge Israel has yet to commit to and fair and effective policing is a central aspect of this challenge. Even though some attempts were made since October 2000, they have been too few and with little impact.

One of the main problems the commission identifies is that the police force is not perceived as a service provider by the Arab population but as a hostile element serving a hostile government. The commission was right when it outlined the need to expand community police services in order to improve the general services to this sector.

Improvement of police services will not only contribute to the everyday life of Arab citizens but also signal the commitment of the state and its institutions to this public. From the point of view of the police, successful reforms could yield trust and the required legitimacy to work effectively in Arab neighborhoods.

A study that we conducted on behalf of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, sheds light on the challenges and potential for future reforms. Like minorities elsewhere, Arab citizens feel they are both over policed; stopped and arrested more than others, and under policed; receiving low quality police services inside their neighborhoods. Thus, while the vast majority of the participants (74 percent) have not personally encountered police discrimination, the fact that a majority (77 percent) believes that Jews are treated better than Arabs by the police shows that negative perceptions run deep.

In spite of this lack of trust, however, our study shows that Arab citizens are unwilling to give up on police services, and are willing to cooperate with the police. The majority of the respondents in the study (60 percent) rejected the statement that it is unlikely that Arab citizens will collaborate with police forces in any matter , a fact that strongly suggests that reforms aimed at providing fair and effective police services would be welcomed by the Arab-Israeli public and that they would be willing to cooperate with the police to promote reforms.

Effective policing in a multicultural setting requires cultural sensitivity and a familiarity with the needs of ethnic minorities. A majority of the participants agreed that a police officer who is not familiar with Arab culture and customs cannot perform well when working in the Arab community .

Training of police officers and channels of communication between police and the Arab community are two potential areas for reform. Many respondents agreed that Arab citizens could and should take an active role in training police officers. Similarly, a significant majority agree that police work within Arab communities is much more likely to be successful if it would involve the community leaders.

Recruiting Arab police officers could be a step towards changing the police from within. Political and psychological obstacles resulting from existing tensions and suspicions still prevent many Arab citizens from joining the police. Yet, our findings indicate that a majority of Arab citizens support the recruitment of Arabs to the police forces and that 30 percent would join the police if they were looking for a job.

Interestingly, while 45 percent of the respondents believe that the recruitment of Arab citizens could have a positive impact, this does not necessarily mean that they want to be policed by Arab police officers. Rather, respondents indicated they were more concerned with the fairness and quality of service than with the ethnicity of the police officer.

Experiences from different countries point to the difficulties of adjusting police services to a dynamic multicultural reality and even more so where ethnic tensions underscore many aspects of public life. But while the police are often part of the problem in relations between minorities and the state, they also has the potential to be part of the solution, providing minorities with equality and a voice in policy making.

Arab citizens demand a police force that is both fair and effective in providing security to Arab neighborhoods suffering from high levels of crime. Moreover, they are also willing to cooperate with the police to achieve this goal. To get there we need good will and a determined leadership, both within Arab society and the police.

Fany Yuval is a lecturer at the department of Public Policy and Administration at Ben-Gurion University. Guy Ben-Porat is a senior lecturer at the department of Public Policy and Administration at Ben-Gurion University. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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