Munah comes from a non-normative, even broken, home. Her parents are divorced. Her father, a Palestinian who got involved in drug offenses and sexual harassment, was imprisoned for 12 years after which he returned to the West Bank. Her mother is not present in her life.
Munah and her two sisters were defined as youth at risk. All three ended up at some point in closed institutions for youth under the aegis of the Israel’s Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry. From this point of departure, the path to the world of crime, participation in street gangs and entanglements with the law was short. It seems that the most striking fact in her resume is that she is not in jail – at least for now.
Today, Munah (a pseudonym, as with all the other names of the young women interviewed here) is 20 years old and living at home, as a result of the rehabilitation program she underwent. She had been arrested for drug trafficking but was convicted ultimately of drug possession as part of a plea deal, which also gave her hope for a different future.
Now she lives with her two sisters in a poor apartment in one of the worst neighborhoods of Haifa. There is a television, two sofas and between them an ashtray bursting with cigarette butts. Next to the cluttered and dirty kitchen are a few cartons and several empty liquor bottles. Munah sits in the corner and begins to tell her story.
Her “romance” with the world of crime began on the street, which is also the case with a growing number of young women in the Israeli Arab community (nearly 400 criminal cases were opened against female Arab minors last year alone).
She was 16 years old when she left the boarding school run by the Social Affairs Ministry’s youth department and discovered that her life had no framework or supervision. A local criminal approached her and offered to take her under his wing – all she would have to do was perform a few tasks for him.
“If someone would have dragged me into this forcibly by the hand, I would not have taken that path,” she says now. “But as a young woman who knew nothing of the world, this friendship provided me with everything I wanted, or in other words – everything I had been missing since childhood.”
What had she been missing? Nice clothes, the possibility of going out for fun and other indulgences that cost money. Suddenly they were all at hand, even for free.
This story sounds familiar, even very familiar to one senior counselor at a closed institution for youth who spoke with Haaretz. “The girls get involved in all this from a place of innocence,” she says. “They want the attention they didn’t get from childhood on, and when someone comes and provides it, they are capable of doing anything for him.”
But scholar Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, claims that the picture is larger and much more complex than that, since the motives of the young women in question are not only tied to a desire for a more luxurious lifestyle, but indeed to the desire to simply survive.
“Girls who have the highest chance of falling into crime are those who come from families known to the welfare authorities. We are talking about parents who have no formal education, who are unemployed and also about single-parent families,” Dr. Haddad Haj-Yahya explains. “These young women have a huge burden on their shoulders and most of them make their foray into the world of crime out of sheer distress and as a last resort.”
Yet when they realize what got themselves into and that their lives may be in danger, many times it is simply too late.
Munah: “At first I wanted to flee from this world to a place that was as far away as possible, but I was so scared. These people are capable of doing anything. I saw how they terrorized others, even criminals like themselves. In my case, I just had no one to protect me.”
Without any protection or a realistic possibility of escaping, as time passed, Munah realized that she was completely at the mercy of the gang she ended up with, like all the other young women she met there.
It no longer amounted to fulfilling some task or another: The women had to recruit “new members,” while “delivering drugs, moving things from one place to another, tracking people down, transferring money to bank accounts, and collecting information on other criminals or police activity,” she says. “Many of the young women also open a bank account in their own name and launder money for others.”
But these young women do not just become embroiled in criminal activity, but become its victims in the full sense of the word. Indeed, Munah notes that part of their role is to provide the criminals they work for and their friends with sexual services. The only difference between them and prostitutes, she says, is that they are not paid for those services, as they are told that it is part of the “friendly relations” the members share.
“They are the weakest link in the already weakest part of the chain,” says the counselor at the youth institution. “They undergo sexual, physical and mental violence.”
A problem of inaction
Haddad Haj-Yahya’s doctoral thesis, prepared in collaboration with the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research facility, and The Portland Foundation, which works to improve Arab-Jewish relations via economic means, deals with this exact subject: the factors that lead young men and women in Arab society to turn to crime. To be precise, she focused on one factor, which she terms inaction.
“A young Arab man or woman who has no structure in their life and no potential employment options will be more tempted to find their way into the world of crime,” she says, noting the high rate of the phenomenon among people aged 19 to 24 in the Israeli Arab community: about 33 percent as compared to 14 percent among Jewish Israelis.
Zainab Atrash, a counselor and coordinator of a community organization that fights violence and crime in Arab society, confirms those conclusions. She explains that young Arab women do not typically fall into a life of crime because they are forced to.
‘They don’t raise suspicions with the police. Most of them have no record. They also don’t complain to the police about what happened to them.’
“In most cases, we are not talking about coercion on the part of the criminal elements, but circumstances that force that life on the women,” she says, noting the rise in school dropout rates and in the number of at-risk youths in the community in question, especially among girls.
And there are other reasons: for example, “something that happened in the family during childhood,” adds Atrash, who also founded a program against violence in schools on behalf of the Ministry of Education. “The more broken families that enter this circle, the more we find young men and women ending up in crime.”
Lina is a good example. At age 13, she was sexually assaulted – just one of the harrowing experiences she endured during her teenage years. But what came after the assault was even worse, in some ways, even if she didn’t realize it at first: Three and a half years later she was a member of a criminal organization that traded in weapons, an activity that also led to a conviction in August 2020.
She was charged, among other things, with mediating arms deals and providing the means for perpetrating a crime. In her sentencing, however, Judge Yoel Eden of the Be’er Sheva District Court decided to sentence Lina to only nine months of community service. “There is no dispute over the fact that her personal circumstances are special,” Eden wrote, “dating back to her childhood and up until today.”
‘He seemed to be an intelligent, well-groomed man with money. He had a luxurious Skoda car, and he impressed all the girls.’
Today Lina, who is in the process of rehabilitation at a treatment center, describes the plot line of her life as a “black script”: “I am not even able to recall all the details of what happened to me. I was frightened of them [her criminal bosses] and felt a loss of self-respect.” It all started, she says, “with imaginary and false love. With the promise of money and a life of luxury. But within that, there were insults, psychological damage and even sexual abuse.”
Lina emphasizes the fact that the exploitation of young Arab women like her does not only occur in the criminal organizations’ business activities, but frequently takes the form of severe sexual exploitation, which remains hidden. “I saw a lot of sexual abuse. The girls are silent because their fear is twofold: They are scared of the criminals and also of the greater society that will not accept them or understand what they went through.”
Approximately 40,000 youth (ages 12 to 17) in Israel’s Arab community were defined as being at risk in 2017, when the Social Affairs Ministry last compiled data on the subject; 37 percent were girls. Since then, experts estimate, the numbers have grown significantly. “We are talking about five years ago,” says a source familiar with such young people. “How many have been murdered since then – how many families have been destroyed? The situation is constantly getting worse.”
Young women from broken and poor families in the community, where there is often violence, become what can be called “natural candidates” for involvement in criminal activity. This is especially true today, when women in general and teenage girls in particular have become “legitimate players” – a new trend in Arab society.
“In the past, criminal organizations did not use women or young girls. It was perceived as a weakness and as disrespectful,” a criminal from the so-called Triangle (of Arab locales in northern Israel) tells Haaretz. “But just as there are no red lines for criminals today, in the violent and murderous sense, they have no red lines when it comes to these girls.”
The fact that women are not usually suspected of criminal involvement is an advantage for the organizations. “They don’t raise suspicions with the police. Most of them have no record,” says the veteran youth counselor. “They also don’t complain to the police about what happened to them. There are two reasons for this: fear and the fact that they don’t want to cause harm to the person they loved. Most of the young women who are recruited become emotionally attached to a certain person in the organization or the group, and there are those who take advantage of that. “
This is also the story of Diana, a 19-year-old woman from the north. About a year and a half ago she began to hang out locally with a group of young people every week. She was immediately attracted to one of them.
“He seemed to be an intelligent, well-groomed man with money. He had a luxurious Skoda car, and he impressed all the girls,” she recalls now. “I didn’t like him because of his wealth. I knew he was making easy money in illegal ways.” Little by little he introduced her to his friends, whom she says she didn’t like, to say the least. But she was captivated by him.
One day he asked Diana to deliver a vehicle to a young man in the south, for payment, of course. “He gave me a sum of money that I had never had before. He took out a large stack of bills and randomly pulled some out – 2,800 shekels (about $865),” she says, adding that when she got into the car she discovered a considerable amount of cannabis in it, which didn’t faze her. “That’s how it started.”
In those days Diana lived happily, surrounded by a lot of wealth, more than she had known before. The easy money, the fashionable clothing and her improved social life made her forget the worries of the past and any fears that she might end up in jail.
“I would buy clothes for my friends and invite them over every week,” she says, “but after I got caught, they all disappeared.” Not only did her new friends turn their backs on her, but her boyfriend did as well. “He abandoned me and conveyed the message that I should not talk about him in the investigations or even to mention his name. There was a hole in my heart. I knew then that I had been like a tool in their hands – his and his gang’s.”
Today she Diana is participating in a rehabilitation program under restrictive conditions.
Victims of society
A source in the Israel Police notes that according to 2020 data, many young Israeli Arab women are indeed arrested on suspicion of drug offenses. But not only that. They are also implicated in property crimes, assaults and even – albeit in small numbers – weapons-related offenses and conspiracies to commit a crime.
“The perception among the young women themselves has changed in recent times,” says Firas, a social worker and former director of an institution for juveniles in the center of the country, who cites 2020 figures showing a mounting trend toward delinquency among female and male teenagers. “I see in online posts by women images of weapons, songs with threatening lyrics and a general affinity for crime.”
According to him, there is a general atmosphere that sweeps young people in the community into the world of crime. Young Arab women, he asserts, “are a victim of the establishment, of society, of their family, of their school.”
In this context, Atrash, the community program coordinator, points out that not every young Arab woman who gets involved in crime is necessarily recruited by a criminal organization. “There are those who commit certain offences with groups of friends or acquaintances,” she says, “or even by themselves.”
For his part, Firas believes the blame lies with the greater society, and with the authorities. Despite the increase in the numbers of at-risk Israeli Arab youths, there are not enough protective and rehabilitative frameworks for them, he says: “Almost all of society is youth-at-risk. As long as the authorities fail us and there is discrimination against Arabs by the state, crime and violence will continue to grow. Most of the welfare bureaus are simply not functioning. I know boys and girls at risk, but I can’t refer them to anyplace for rehabilitation.”
Even before they consider such programs, if they exist, how does one convince these young people to abandon the world of crime? “What alternative do we have to offer them?” Firas asks, rhetorically. “That’s the problem, there is no functioning alternative that suits the at-risk population in Arab society.”
Israeli Arab society itself is to blame as well for this situation, he adds: “Our own society has a responsibility. Religious leaders, educators, representatives of civil society groups – no one talks about this issue or even bothers to open it up for discussion. If there are no appropriate programs for rehabilitation and care for our youth, we will deteriorate even more.”
Nur, who is now in her 20s, says she feels she’s been abandoned since childhood. Her father was murdered when she was young and her mother disappeared from her life some time later. Even today, Nur still harbors rage and especially distrust vis-à-vis the establishment and society at large – the same society that didn’t support her at all after her father’s murder, which she prefers not to talk about.
Over the years she also found her way to crime. “They were like family to me,” she says, recalling those who drew her in. “We grew up together, and we had something in common. It was very difficult to keep away from them, because many things bind us, and because we all felt protected while together.”
Last year, however, Nur was caught with drugs that were not for personal use – an event changed the course of her life. She had to choose between jail time and a rehabilitative alternative with a severe condition: a complete break from the criminal gang with which she had been associating. She decided to see what was hidden behind door No. 2.
“I didn’t imagine that I could stay away from them,” she says today, “but correcting the past requires sacrifice in the present.” As of today, it seems that Nur has succeeded to make that sacrifice.