Al-Ahram Weekly – 12 September 2002
Israel’s lengthy Or Commission ended hurriedly last month, as Arab lawyers produced last-minute evidence of ministerial cover-ups, political intrigues and a secret police document suggesting that commanders had adopted a policy of treating the country’s Arab minority as an enemy since 1994, in what were the early days of the Oslo peace process when Israel was supposed to be reaching a permanent agreement with the Palestinians.
The inquiry, which has been taking place over the past 18 months, has been examining events at the start of the Intifada in early October 2000 when the country’s police force shot dead 13 Palestinian citizens.
Hopes had steadily grown that the Or Commission, which has been taking testimony from witnesses since February 2001, would dig deep into the causes of the violent confrontation between the police and Arab demonstrators in the northern Galilee region.
In the first round of hearings, police evidence revealed that commanders ordered the use of live ammunition against the protesters from the outset. The northern commander, Alik Ron, also admitted sending a team of snipers to the Galilee, the first time such a unit had been deployed against Israeli citizens. As well as the 13 deaths, hundreds more Palestinian citizens were injured by the widespread use by police of live ammunition and rubber bullets during five days of clashes.
Justice Theodor Or, who heads the inquiry, issued letters earlier this year to 14 individuals warning each that they faced grave allegations of misconduct, which they should defend themselves against in a second round of hearings.
The warnings were sent to a handful of the country’s top policemen and, to the surprise of many observers, to the two most senior politicians of the time — Prime Minister Ehud Barak and joint Foreign Minister and Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben Ami. Three Arab politicians were also warned, accused of inciting the demonstrators.
But the second hearings, which began in June and which it was hoped might take the form of mini-trials, largely failed to explore the issues in any more detail than the first round. Each “warnee” could only be questioned by the panel and by lawyers for the other 13 warnees. This meant that the families of the Arab dead had no standing before the commission and their legal representatives no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.
The commission’s decision was severely criticised by a delegation of lawyers from the Irish law firm Madden Finucane, which is representing families of the Bloody Sunday victims — 13 civil rights marchers shot dead by the British army in Derry in 1972 — at the current Saville inquiry. After observing the hearings, the Irish lawyers concluded that the failure to give the families proper representation contravened the internationally accepted standards of a commission of inquiry.
The families’ exclusion was another blow to Israel’s Arab community, which had already been forced to accept that individual blame will probably never be assigned for most of the 13 deaths. It had been assumed early on that as a fact-finding investigation, the inquiry would regard this as its primary task.
Of the 14 warnees, only two are believed to have been directly involved in the killings: police officers, Guy Reif and Murshad Rashed are thought to be responsible for up to three deaths.
Or chose to rush through the evidence at breakneck speed. He cancelled the summer vacation for the participating lawyers and managed to question the warnees and their host of character witnesses in less than three months.
Barak, who was given a particularly easy ride in the first hearings, again avoided clarifying many key issues. The most pressing was the question of what exactly he said at a meeting of senior police and security officials in his home on the night of 1 October.
It is known that the debate centred on police tactics for keeping open the Wadi Ara road, which demonstrators from the neighbouring town of Umm Al-Fahm had closed for much of the day. Ron brought snipers in the next day, 2 October, to Umm Al-Fahm to help open the road and then transferred them to Nazareth. A spate of deaths followed.
In a radio interview on the morning of 2 October, the prime minister stated that he had given the police “the green light for any action necessary” to keep the road open. But during his questioning last month he claimed that the statement had been made merely to restore calm among the Jewish population. In fact, he said, in private he had told the police to exercise their discretion and not to provoke the demonstrators. This account did not tally with Ron’s version. Ron said he was ordered by his boss, Police Chief Yehuda Wilk, who was at the meeting with Barak, to keep the road open at all costs.
It also apparently contradicted the account of the meeting given earlier to the commission by the head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter. Or was obviously impressed by Dichter’s version, which may be one of the factors behind his decision to warn Barak.
What really took place at that meeting will probably never be known. Extraordinarily, there is no written record of it. Barak’s military secretary, Gadi Eizenkot, has said at different times both that no record was taken and that the tape recorder used in the meeting failed to work.
Another issue which Barak was able to skirt was why he refused to meet the Arab leadership before the deaths in October, against the advice of the Shin Bet and his own officials. His explanation was that such a meeting was pointless because “long-term problems would have come up in any such discussion” — a presumed reference to the decades of discrimination suffered by the minority.
The statement directly contradicted his other claim: that the intensity of the demonstrations, the “earthquake” as he repeatedly called it, caught everyone by surprise (though not, according to their testimony, the Shin Bet who had been urging him to meet with the Arab leadership). If as Barak admitted there were serious long-term problems that needed addressing but about which he was not prepared to talk, why was he or anyone else caught off-guard by the ensuing explosion of anger? Finally, there was the issue of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al-Sharif on 28 September 2001, which unleashed the Intifada. Barak testified that he approved the visit in co- ordination with Palestinian officials. But both Israeli police reports and the Mitchell Report, produced by American envoy George Mitchell, rebut this.
The latter, for example, states: “Palestinian and US officials urged then Prime Minister Ehud Barak to prohibit the visit. Mr Barak told us that he believed the visit was intended to be an internal political act directed against him by a political opponent, and he declined to prohibit it.”
The hasty progress of the sessions may have been a reflection of the harsh criticism Or was subjected to at the end of the first stage of hearings, when he issued the warnings. Critics suggested that either he was dragging his feet until the ethnic tensions provoked by the Intifada were spent or that he had failed to understand the urgency with which relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority needed repairing.
Much of the serious investigative legwork in both rounds was done by the Adalah legal centre for the Arab minority in Israel. It represented the families of the 13 dead but was refused official standing before the inquiry in that capacity. It did, however, submit many revealing documents.
One of the most embarrassing incident came during the testimony of Internal Security Minister Ben Ami. Prepared by ministry officials shortly after the 13 deaths, the report was subtitled “Cover-up for the minister”. It suggested that Ben Ami claim that the Arab demonstrators fired guns at the police, an allegation that was promoted for many months in the media but was subsequently shown to be false.
Another official document showed that Ben Ami had told police commanders at a closed meeting in November 2000 that his ministry would support and continue to support all actions taken by the police during the October clashes. This was despite reports in the Israeli media at the time and advice from the Arab leadership that snipers had been used in the Galilee.
Ben Ami later performed an about-turn: during his testimony in November 2001 he tried to shuffle off all responsibility for the deaths by claiming the police disobeyed him. But during last month’s hearings, after he had been advised by his lawyers that by blaming the police he was effectively blaming himself as internal security minister, he again changed his account, this time referring to Wilk as “one of the best police chiefs”.
In the second hearings, Adalah lawyers had hoped they might be allowed to cross-examine the senior policemen and Barak and Ben Ami on behalf of the families. Instead they attended only in their capacity as “defence lawyers” for the three Arab politicians: Tajamu Member of Knesset Azmi Bishara, and Islamic Movement leaders Abdulmalik Dehamshe and Sheikh Raed Salah. Inevitably this forced them to concentrate on countering the commission’s allegations that the Arab politicians provoked or encouraged the clashes in the Galilee.
To help them do this, they produced three expert witnesses, all Israeli academics from Tel Aviv University, who rejected the assumption behind Or’s warnings that the Arab leadership was to blame for the outbreak of violence.
Professor Dan Rabinowitz caused most upset by producing official reports suggesting that the Israeli police had taken a decision after the start of the Oslo peace process in 1994 to treat Arab citizens as a hostile enemy. Consequently police strategies for dealing with protests among the Arab population were framed in military terms. Given the police view that a clash was inevitable, the senior command came to favour an approach that relied on force and guns as a primary means of control.
It may have been no coincidence that at the end of the sessions, after Adalah’s witnesses had produced the only shocks to disturb the smooth progress of the hearings, the legal centre found itself the unexpected target of a state investigation.
The registrar of non-profit organisations, Amiram Bogot, leaked details to the Israeli press of “irregular financial management” at the centre. He also accused it of having been hijacked by Bishara’s party. Bishara is currently on trial charged with supporting a terrorist group, Hizbullah, in an attack on free speech that has heaped international condemnation on Israel.
Adalah has made itself more unpopular than usual with the government by being at the centre of a wave of court petitions against Israeli military activities in the occupied territories. It has accused the state of breaches of international law over house demolitions, family deportations and the use of Palestinians as human shields.
Bogot then launched an investigation of Adalah, which the legal centre claimed was an attempt to discredit it. It added that it had not been first approached by the registrar about his suspicions nor had any documents or information been requested.
The fear among Adalah lawyers is likely to be that with so much mud being thrown around some of it will stick. The legal centre, like other Arab non-governmental organisations in Israel, relies almost exclusively on money from American and European funders, some of them linked to the Jewish left. These donors may pull out if there is any hint that Adalah is not squeaky clean. There is also the danger of a domino effect, as funders withdraw money from all Israeli Arab NGOs.
The Or Commission’s final report is not expected for several more months. Each warnee now has until mid-October to submit additional evidence in their favour.
The report is almost certain to recommend policy changes in the police force, including better training in crowd control, the purchase of new equipment such as water cannon, and possibly the outlawing of sniper teams inside Israeli areas. The northern police force announced in July that it was banning the use of rubber bullets for crowd control following repeated criticism of the practice by Or.
The temptation now will be for Or to spread the blame evenly between the police, politicians and the Arab leadership, thereby effectively suggesting that the deaths were the outcome of a series of misunderstandings that led to an unfortunate escalation of tension.
How much further he will go is difficult to know. The inquiry, like previous commissions, has leant heavily on the advice of the Shin Bet security service, but what information Or received is largely unknown. The Shin Bet was the missing guest at the party: all its evidence was given in camera.
What is clear is that the consistent line of its head, Avi Dichter, was that the Shin Bet alerted the political level to its intelligence asssessment that the Arab minority was in ferment.
However, the significance of this view should not be overstated: for most of Israel’s history, the security services have regarded the minority as potentially treacherous. A series of recent attacks on the rights of the Arab minority, including a decision to revoke citizenship rights in certain cases, have been approved by the Shin Bet.
Or, of course, is not alone. He has the views of his two other panellists, Professor Shimon Shamir and Judge Hashem Khatib, to consider. Khatib, an Arab, may push for a more daring report than one that simply recommends policing reforms. The key vote may lie with Shamir. Two recommendations stand out as particularly urgent.
First Or must call for end to the institutional racism in the police and intelligence services, both of which have viewed Israel’s Arab population exclusively through the prism of security. Lumped in with the Palestinian “enemy” in the occupied territories, the Arab minority is assumed to be a fifth column as soon as it raises its voice against discrimination. This will also require rethinking of the Israeli education system, which still portrays Arabs and Palestinians in a dangerously negative fashion.
And second the consensus among Jewish politicians that the Arab leadership should take no part in the decision-making process at the highest levels, or even be represented in the government, must be challenged. Barak’s refusal to meet with Arab politicians was indicative of a failure to recognise the rights of a national minority and of the huge flaws in Israeli democracy.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 12 September 2002