Al-Ahram Weekly – 25 October 2001
The spotlight of Israel’s judicial investigation into the killings of 13 Palestinian civilians last October, at the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, has shifted its focus from the police to the political leadership. The early sign of this shift were that the minister responsible for the security forces at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was distancing himself as much as possible from the actions of his police officers. Five months of police testimony to the Or Commission have brought revelations of execution-style killings by officers and the deployment of a sniper squad, which is usually used against terrorists.
Ben-Ami’s main adviser, Yossi Melmad, who testified before the commision last week, claimed that Ben-Ami had told the country’s police commissioner on several occasions to order his forces in the Galilee to hand over their firearms. Melmad also said Yehuda Wilk had been told to use water cannon rather than live and rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Wilk, he said, had ignored him.
In earlier testimony to the commission, several senior police officers, including the then commanding officer in the Galilee — where the shooting took place — Alik Ron, claimed that they resorted to live ammunition because they had run out of tear gas and rubber bullets. They also accused the Public Security Ministry of depriving the Galilee force of funds to buy riot control equipment such as water cannon. But Melmad said the force’s existing budget was sufficient for such purchases.
Ron has made much play of warnings he says he gave before the Intifada to senior politicians, including Ben- Ami, that there were likely to be riots by the Arab population in the region under his command. The question facing the commission is whether Ben-Ami and then Prime Minister Barak were negligent in ignoring Ron’s warnings or whether the police commander’s brutal tactics contributed to the outbreak of the riots he predicted.
Naturally both sides of the equation — the police and politicians — appear eager to blame each other.
Ron, who appeared before the commission last month, was unable to throw light on many of the events of last October, despite being the commanding officer on the ground. It was a familiar performance — many of his officers have suffered from a severe bout of amnesia when asked about the moments when Arab deaths or injuries occurred.
A group of patrolmen, questioned about the slaying of 17-year-old Asil Asleh in the village of Arrabe, for example, could not explain his death, even though they chased him into an olive grove where he was shot at close range in the back of the head. One officer, Ovadia Hatan, referred to the death as “a mystery.”
There is little doubt that what has in effect amounted to a police boycott of the inquiry has exasperated Justice Theodor Or. He has criticised several commanders over the testimony and accused one, Chief Superintendent Yaron Meir, who was in charge in the town of Kfar Manda, of “giving untrue answers”.
But after two days of questioning, Ron did make several revelations.
First, he admitted that he brought in the snipers to shoot at demonstrators in the town of Umm Al-Fahm on 2 October. It was the first time snipers had ever been ordered to fire on unarmed citizens inside Israel. Ron, however, said he did not seek, or need, approval from his superior, either from Wilk or from Ben-Ami.
Second, he claimed that he did not know that later in the day the team of snipers moved on to Nazareth, where they also shot at protesters. This evidence was particularly surprising given that Ron once commanded the snipers’ unit. It also contradicted evidence from the commanding officer in Nazareth, Moshe Waldman, who said Ron gave him the snipers, and testimony given by the head of the snipers’ squad.
Third, Ron maintained that he knew of only two locations where live ammunition was fired, even though police officials have admitted that there were at least eight such areas.
Fourth, he admitted that when the police realised no one was armed at Umm Al-Fahm he changed his orders to include anyone carrying a slingshot as an appropriate target for live ammunition fire. He argued that live ammunition was more accurate than rubber bullets and, therefore, less dangerous when used correctly. However, he admitted that snipers used more lethal bullets, 0.726 milimetre calibre, when 0.22 milimetre ammunition was available. He also agreed that he failed to warn the crowds that police were about to open fire.
Fifth, Ron denied the accounts of some of the snipers that he personally ordered them to fire at targets. Instead, he claimed that he gave a general order to shoot at anyone using a slingshot more than once and then to fire only at their legs. He denied that anyone else was shot at, even though the inquiry has a videotape showing a demonstrator holding a stone being struck by a bullet at the time the police were stationed too far away to be hit by stones.
Sixth, he said police had not investigated the events, or written up reports, because they were “tired” after the demonstrations.
The commission was openly critical of Ron’s account, with Justice Or even suggesting to him that he did not report the use of snipers to his superiors because he may have thought it “best to keep quiet about it.”
That view was supported last week by the evidence of Yehuda Bakhar, head of the police’s operations division. He said he could not understand the reason for bringing in a team of snipers, which were normally used in life- threatening situations. Asked by Justice Or whether a slingshot was considered a live weapon, he replied: “No.”
However, Ron has powerful allies in Ariel Sharon’s government who have little sympathy with the Barak era. The Public Security Minister, Uzi Landau, has referred to the commission’s appointment as a politically motivated “mistake,” a reference to the fact that Barak established the inquiry in the hope of winning back Arab votes in the Israeli elections earlier this year.
After his testimony, Ron was supported by Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit, who called him “an honest and courageous police officer.” Deputy Interior Minister Gideon Ezra threatened to resign should action be taken against Ron.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 25 October 2001