KIRYAT ATTA, Israel — The roll call was startling for a class preparing to take Israel’s police academy exam: Mohammad Hreib, Ghadeer Ghadeer, Munis Huwari and Arafat Hassanein, dressed like a hipster and named after the Palestinian leader, whom most Israeli Jews view as a terrorist.
“How did they even let you in?” an astonished colleague asked Mr. Hassanein, 20.
The unusual roster is the result of an Israeli push to recruit into its police force Arab Muslims, who are both vastly underrepresented in its ranks and vastly overrepresented among criminal suspects and victims.
Arab Muslims are currently 1.5 percent of the 30,000-member national police force, and the right-wing public security minister seeks to increase that number in three years by adding 1,350 new ones. Many would work in Arab cities and towns, where the ministry has promised to open 12 new police stations. (There are seven in such areas now, out of 70 across Israel.)
The deep-rooted tension between Israel’s police and its 1.7 million Arab citizens — about a fifth of the population — in some ways mirrors the flaring problems over race and policing in the United States. This spring and summer, the public security minister, Gilad Erdan, traveled to London and to New York — where Hispanics make up about 27 percent of the Police Department, African-Americans 15 percent and Asians nearly 7 percent — to study those cities’ experiences with diversifying and sensitizing their forces and with using body cameras to address complaints of police abuse.
“They are not going to disappear, and hopefully we are not, either,” Mr. Erdan said in an interview, referring to Arabs and Jews.
Alongside the recruitment drive, he promoted a rare long-serving Muslim officer to deputy commissioner, the second-highest rank on the force, holding him up as an example of how high an Arab could ascend in the force. The challenge, he acknowledged, is how to enlist this new population sensitively — to do it “for them and not against them.”
Many Palestinian citizens said they felt that Mr. Erdan was pressing forward with the recruitment of Arab officers because the violence that was wreaking havoc in their communities had begun to impact the wider Jewish society. They bitterly noted that Mr. Erdan’s plan was announced only after Nashat Melhem, an Arab-Israeli, opened fire on bar patrons in Tel Aviv on Jan. 1, ultimately killing three people. But Mr. Erdan denied that was the impetus for the plan, saying it had been in the works long before the attack.
Building trust is his challenge. Many Arab citizens identify primarily as Palestinian, not Israeli, and see the conservative government, especially its security forces, as hostile to their interests. They are suspicious of a broader government program to invest $3.8 billion in infrastructure, education, housing and other services in Arab communities — an effort to better integrate the residents, who suffer more poverty and unemployment, into society.
The police recruitment has unleashed a particular conundrum for an Arab population that has not quite recovered since officers fatally shot a dozen Palestinian citizens of Israel and one from Gaza during violent demonstrations at the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. The feeling on the street is that the disproportionate violence afflicting Arab communities is the result of deliberate police neglect.
“The police don’t care for the Arabs,” said Amneh Freij, whose son Suhaib, 24, a professional soccer player, was fatally shot in January last year in Kafr Qasim. Adding to their sense of powerlessness, Ms. Freij’s husband, Mohammed, is the deputy mayor of Kafr Qasim, an Arab town of 22,000 in Israel. His position made no difference, they said.
Mr. Freij’s killer has not been caught. Had the victim been Jewish, Ms. Freij said as she wept in a recent interview, the police would have worked harder to find a suspect. “You would pluck him from between the eyelashes of the townspeople,” she said.
Mr. Erdan acknowledged the Freij family’s grief, and said having more Arabs on the force would help solve such cases in the future because they could better understand local crime structures and gather intelligence and evidence.
There are plenty of cases to work on. Mr. Erdan said 60 percent of Israel’s murders occurred in Arab communities, triple the Arab proportion of the population, along with more than 40 percent of traffic accidents. The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a group that promotes the coexistence of Palestinian and Jewish citizens, said an examination of prosecutions last year showed that Arabs were charged in 58 percent of all arsons, 47 percent of robberies, 32 percent of burglaries and 27 percent of drug-trafficking cases.
While Arab leaders are concerned about crime in their communities, they also complain that police use excessive force. In 2014, Arabs staged a daylong strike to protest the fatal shooting by officers of a 22-year-old as he retreated from their vehicle after banging on its windows with what looked like a knife, and this January, a young man was shot dead and his father beaten during a drug arrest.
And so the sight of an Arab in an Israeli police uniform is, still, visual shorthand for a collaborator, and many argue that the police need reform, not recruits. A popular Arab-Israeli website refused to run the police force’s recruitment commercials.
Jamal Hakroush, the deputy commissioner of the Israeli police, lecturing academy recruits who, like him, are Arab Muslims. Credit Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
“More police isn’t the solution. Changing the mentality of the police is,” said Ayman Odeh, who leads a bloc of Arab lawmakers in Israel’s Parliament.
Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, a co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which has led its own initiative to improve relations between Arabs and the police, said there was a contradiction in a government that had been vocally hostile to Arabs while presenting a large budget to improve their lot.
“It’s this conflicting trend — very positive on one hand, very destructive on the other,” he said. The government “is unhelpful — I’m trying to be gentle here — in its rhetoric and action when it comes to the place and collective rights of the Palestinian minority.”
Since the recruitment initiative was announced in April, about 700 Arabs have applied to the police force. Jamal Hakroush, 59, the newly promoted deputy commissioner, said about 200 were expected to make it.
The first hurdle is the entrance exam, which many Arabs have struggled with because of its emphasis on Israeli civics and Hebrew, topics that often get short shrift in Arab-Israeli public school curriculums. So the police created special prep courses for potential recruits, including intensive Hebrew lessons, like the one that Mr. Hreib, Mr. Ghadeer, Mr. Huwari, and Mr. Hassanein took this summer.
These recruits will be bused together to exams, on the theory that they will do better in groups. For their physical exams, they are instructed in Arabic, not Hebrew.
The applicants in class here at an abandoned police barracks in northern Israel have a mix of motivations.
Ahmad Sarhan, 22, said he was inspired by a relative on the force. “My cousin was a shepherd. Now look at him: He has a house,” Mr. Sarhan said. “He has a future.”
Thekra Darwish, 22, said working as a policewoman would help her fight for equality for Arabs. “If we had a Palestinian state, we would serve that one,” she said with a shrug. “But we are here.”
Aisha Dahleh, 26, a social worker, wants to help resolve crimes plaguing her town. If selected, according to Commissioner Harkoush, she would be the first ever Israeli police officer who wears a Muslim head scarf.
“There will be those who say, ‘She is a girl, she is religious, she is an Arab, she is a Muslim — and she works with the state,’” Ms. Dahleh said. “But I know my goals.”
Mr. Hakroush is simultaneously leading a charm offensive with Arab mayors to raise support for the recruitment drive. On a recent day in Taibeh, a town with a particularly violent reputation, he met the mayor, Shuaa Mansour, inside his bulletproof office.
Over coffee and pastries, Mr. Mansour said he would reluctantly support the plan. “Whoever has an alternative to the police — bring it,” Mr. Mansour said. “We have no alternative.”
Guy Ben-Porat, a professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev who has researched race and policing, said that for decades, the Israeli police and Palestinian citizens mostly sidestepped each other, with tribal elders reconciling conflicts among Arabs instead. As the influence of such elders eroded in modernizing communities, some, like Kafr Qasim, organized their own security patrols.
These volunteer patrols functioned like neighborhood watch groups, mostly cracking down on young men speeding, blasting music and harassing teenage girls. But they could not prevent the killing of Suhaib Freij, even though he was the son of Kafr Qasim’s deputy mayor.
Mr. Freij, sitting in a living room crammed with his son’s soccer medals, was dubious about the prospects for change, but still offered a small voice of support for the new police initiative because, as he put it, “you have to try and try.”
“There are police now,” he noted, referring to a newish police station in Kafr Qasim, “and the incidents happen and happen and happen.”