Between the Lines – June 2001
Dominating the front pages of Israeli newspapers for the past two months has been evidence that last October, as world attention was focused on the violence of the Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, police snipers were carrying out execution-style killings of their own citizens. All 13 victims were Arabs, suggesting to many that the motive for the killings was racist.
The evidence has emerged in hearings before a judicial inquiry known as the Or Commission sitting at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, which has been examining the deaths, as well as severe injuries to hundreds more Palestinians. The testimony of police witnesses shows that the police force lied for many months about the fact that it used live ammunition against Arab demonstrators in the country’s north. Individual officers have also admitted that they were ordered to use entirely different tactics when dealing with Israeli Jews who staged similar violent protests.
But most controversially of all, the inquiry has heard that the northern police commander, Alik Ron, whose outspoken views on the Arab minority are often described as racist, personally directed the shooting by police snipers. One of his senior officers has told the inquiry that it was the first time he had ever known of a policeman being told to open fire on Israeli citizens. Critics are now accusing Ron of implementing a shoot-to-kill policy.
Not surprisingly, the Or Commission is already being dubbed Israel’s Bloody Sunday inquiry after the continuing investigation by the British government into the shooting of 14 unarmed Catholics in Northern Ireland in 1972. The apparent similarities are so strong that some of the lawyers representing the Irish families are advising the Palestinian lawyers involved in the Galilee inquiry.
Evidence not yet presented to the inquiry is equally damning. Ballistics experts have confirmed that in dealing with the Arab minority, the police used high-velocity rifles firing small-caliber bullets that can inflict wounds particularly difficult to treat. And a riot control expert who conducted an Amnesty investigation has also concluded that, even though the Palestinians were not armed, the police treated them like a military foe, using tactics and weaponry more suited to putting down an armed insurrection.
The conclusion has come as no surprise to Hassan Asleh, whose son Asil was one of the 13 killed. On the cover of a hospital report into the 17-year-old’s death are stamped the words “Enemy Operation” [This is a translation from Hebrew identifying that the victim was killed in an operation committed by the “enemy”, usually referring to Palestinians and Arabs outside Israel]. It is a bitter rebuke to a family proud of Asil’s enthusiastic involvement in international campaigns to promote peace between Palestinians and Israelis. “I and most other Arabs have no doubt this was an execution,” says Mr Asleh. “Asil’s only crime was that he was an Arab in a Jewish state.”
The site where Asil was killed is marked by a fading black shroud hanging from an olive tree close to the main road in the village of Arrabe in the Galilee. Here, on October 2, Asil sat watching villagers demonstrate in support of their Palestinian brothers in the West Bank and Gaza, who had just launched the Intifada in the ’67 Occupied Territories.
The protests here and elsewhere in the Galilee were nothing out of the ordinary. Each year on March 30, Arab citizens of Israel participate in a ritual of confrontation with the authorities known as Land Day. Israel’s Arabs go on strike in their villages, often burning tires and throwing stones in demonstrations against five decades of discrimination and the confiscation of their lands by the state.
But what marked October’s events as different was the police response. In Arrabe, an unmarked convoy of policemen abandoned their position several hundred yards away, out of range of the stone-throwers, to drive directly at the demonstration. Asil, one of the slowest to react, ran for cover into an olive grove but stumbled and fell. Witnesses say that, as he lay face down on the ground, a policeman stood over him and shot at close range. Doctors later found a bullet wound in the back of his neck.
In the aftermath of the Galilee clashes, then Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and his security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, praised the police. They claimed that Arab rioters were on the point of storming Jewish settlements and that the death toll would have been much higher had the police not shown restraint. The official verdict was accepted uncritically throughout Israeli Jewish society. Commentators in the media uniformly denounced Israel’s one million Arabs as a “fifth column”. The community, they said, had finally been unmasked as collaborators with the Palestinian enemy.
However Barak, threatened with an electoral boycott by a fifth of the population in the coming February elections, promised to establish an inquiry to rake over the ashes of October’s events. Paradoxically, the inquiry under Justice Theodor Or began its hearings in mid-February, days after Barak’s defeat at the polls. The inquiry is still in the early stages of its investigation but plenty of shocking revelations have emerged in the first weeks.
For example, the testimonies of police officers called to the town of Umm al-Fahm, where three people were killed have exposed glaring failures. Unit commanders have admitted that they did not try to address demonstrators through loudspeakers, or equip officers with protective gear such as riot shields. Instead, from the outset they fired rubber-coated steel bullets. According to an investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, even these rubber bullets were of a type normally reserved by Israel for use against ‘terrorists’.
Furthermore, for five months, everyone from the Prime Minister down was insisting that no live ammunition had been used. Yet as soon as police officers gave their testimony the official line crumbled. Surprised by the inconsistencies, Justice Or forced the release of post-mortem reports which confirmed that two of the three killed in Umm al-Fahm had been hit by live fire.
The police defense for using live ammunition is far from reassuring. Commanders say officers were forced to resort to live rounds when they ran out of tear gas and rubber bullets. However as one demonstrator who wished to remain anonymous said, “The police entered our village to break up the protests. No one was in danger until they arrived. So if they ran out of equipment why didn’t they just pull back? They didn’t have to stay and start shooting with live ammunition.”
The most embarrassing admission soon followed. A unit commander in Umm al-Fahm, who gave his testimony anonymously from behind a screen, said he had been taking orders, direct by radio, from Alik Ron to shoot individual protesters. He added that during the course of October 2, Ron had changed the instruction that only demonstrators carrying firearms and “endangering life” were to be targeted, and included anyone with a slingshot. Other snipers said they had selected their targets and then waited for authorization from Ron before firing.
Marwan Dalal, one of the lawyers representing the families, said: “It is central to the police case that the snipers only shot at demonstrators who were putting their lives in immediate danger. But if they were waiting for an order from Ron then that cannot be true. And what was Alik Ron doing giving orders by radio to shoot particular individuals anyway? How can he have known over the radio whether his officers were in immediate danger?”
The police are hoping that the inquiry will eventually slip from the front pages of Israeli newspapers. On the orders of the national police commander Yehuda Wilk, all officers now receive legal advice before testifying. Critics accuse the force of coaching its officers to try to halt the flow of damaging evidence.
If that is the purpose, it has not been successful. Guy Reif, commander of the force that entered the village of Sakhnin, where two protesters were killed denied to the inquiry that he shot at demonstrators. But he was subsequently arrested, after it emerged that following his testimony he fired bullets at his own station and threw a grenade. Prosecutors suspect Reif was trying to reinforce impressions among Jews in the Galilee region that Arab residents pose a threat to their safety.
’48 Palestinians see Reif’s attitude as typical. MK Azmi Bishara [Tajamu’] says that the police killings are evidence of a widespread racism within Israeli society that values Jewish lives above those of Arabs.
“The Or Commission is unlikely to address the central issue. For 30 years or more the police and army in this country have been trained to treat all Arabs, including those inside Israel, as the enemy. We may be citizens, we are supposed to have equal rights, but in reality we know that we are not treated the same.”
Bishara and others point to the police response to riots by Jews in the Galilee that occurred at the same time as the Arab protests. In dozens of incidents, the inhabitants of Jewish towns and villages turned on their Palestinian neighbors, throwing stones at cars and individuals and burning properties. But police officers who attended those riots have confirmed to the inquiry that no live rounds were fired at Jewish demonstrators, and only rarely were rubber bullets used. In Tiberias police were ordered to leave behind their guns and use only batons to control the crowd.
But if there was a shoot-to-kill policy, as alleged by Bishara and many others, who ordered it? Chief scapegoat is Alik Ron, already widely despised by the’48 Palestinian community and who has not endeared himself further by describing the inquiry as a “slap in the face” to the police.
Some ’48 Palestinians however, believe culpability may reach higher. Although the full facts have yet to emerge, it is clear that Ron and other police commanders were invited to a security meeting with the then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on the evening of October 1, the night before most of the shootings took place. The next morning Barak gave an interview to Israeli radio in which he said he had “given the green light” to the police to use whatever force was necessary to control the riots. Within hours, the bodies started piling up.
Lawyers representing the families of the dead believe that either the police were given instructions by Barak and Ben-Ami to crack down violently on the protests, or the police misinterpreted their orders.
Dr Stephen Males, a former assistant chief constable of Wiltshire and an expert in riot control methods, visited Israel in October as an independent member of an Amnesty International investigation into the clashes. He concluded that the actions of the Israeli police contravened both international rules of engagement and Israel’s own standard procedures.
“My view was that the police failed in their policing role. They used weaponry and tactics more suitable for an armed conflict than for crowd control. Whereas the military try to identify the enemy and kill it, the police should be concerned with restraining disruptive elements in society within the rules of justice. In Israel, the distinction between military and police strategies appears to have been ignored.”
As the inquiry continues, there are certain to be more embarrassing revelations. Yet to be examined are the events in Nazareth, where some of the worst incidents occurred. The lawyers representing the Arab families have video footage of two police snipers on a rooftop in the center of town firing into the crowds of demonstrators below. At one point, presumably when their fire hits someone, they stop to slap each other’s hands in a celebratory “high-five” gesture.
Photographic evidence compiled by the lawyers will also require explanations from the police. Lampposts and buildings in Nazareth are riddled with bullet holes almost uniformly at head height, despite police claims that officers were ordered to shoot only at demonstrators’ legs. Terry Gander, a ballistics expert for Britain’s defense magazine Jane’s, confirms that bullets collected and traded by local children like marbles are spent live rounds fired from high-velocity weapons.
Israeli authorities will also come under scrutiny for what some critics claim is an attempted cover-up. In the weeks following the October clashes no effort was made by the police or independent officials to collect evidence of what happened at any of the locations where demonstrators were killed or injured. And no post-mortems were carried out on the victims except in Umm al-Fahm, and then only at the insistence of Arab lawyers who accompanied the bodies to hospital. Even these reports were withheld until the inquiry ordered their release.
Many liberal Jewish commentators believe that the Or Commission may eventually heal the huge fracture in relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Few Arabs are so confident. Azmi Bishara’s home near Nazareth was attacked by a Jewish mob on October 8 in a backlash against the Arab protests earlier that week. Among the rioters was Ophir Elbaz, a policeman who had been on duty in Umm al-Fahm during the demonstrations. Although Elbaz has admitted to the inquiry that he attacked Bishara’s and other Arab homes and that at the time he was carrying his police gun, he has yet to be disciplined or suspended from the force.
Bishara said: “How can we believe the Or Commission will begin to change the racism inside Israel when the authorities can’t even take action against this single officer?”