Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

Or Commission report amounts to ‘balancing act’

The Daily Star – 5 September 2003
After a wait of three years, including 12 long months of silence as the final report was being drafted, the Or commission of inquiry into the shooting dead of 13 Arab citizens in the Galilee by the Israeli police at the start of the intifada issued its verdict this week.
Theodor Or’s 781-page report, published on Monday, severely criticized several senior police officers, including the former national police chief, Yehuda Wilk, and his commander in the Galilee, Alik Ron, as well as reprimanding the former prime minister Ehud Barak and his public security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami.
All were implicated to varying degrees in the decision to allow police officers to use rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition as a first line of defence in controlling demonstrations in the country’s north.
In a “balancing act” designed partly to shift some of the blame to the Arab community itself, the judicial inquiry also lashed out at three leading Israeli Arab politicians, Azmi Bishara and the heads of the two wings of the Islamic Movement, Abdel-Malik Dehamshe and Sheikh Raed Salah, for creating an ideological atmosphere that incited the crowds. No action, however, was recommended against them.
Among the police, both Wilk and Ron, it was recommended, should be barred from holding senior domestic security positions again and two other officers, Moshe Waldman and Guy Reif, in charge in the towns of Nazareth and Sakhnin, should be dismissed from the force. It was recommended that another senior officer, Benzy Sau, in charge at Umm al-Fahm, should be barred from promotion for four years.
At the political level, Ben Ami was made to shoulder the bulk of responsibility. It was recommended that he not be allowed to hold the post of public security minister again. Barak, who was criticized at length for failing to meet Arab leaders and to offer clear guidance on how to handle the protests, should not face any action, according to Or.
The commission was weighed down from the start with a heavy burden: For the first time, a judicial inquiry was effectively charged with acting as umpire between the competing claims of the country’s two main ethnic communities. Or said that the relationship between Jews and Arabs was the “most sensitive and important domestic issue facing Israel.”
While the police commanders and government ministers argued that they had been forced to crush what they described as a virtual insurrection, the Arab community claimed excessive and lethal force had been used by a racist police force, and sanctioned by the government, in handling what were at the outset largely non-violent protests.
Or concluded that there was indeed a general culture of racism inside the police force, which perceived Arabs as the enemy, and blamed successive governments for failing to “create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discriminatory or unjust phenomena.”
He also identified a chaotic operational structure within the police force.
However, he balanced the criticisms with attacks on the Arab community saying “illegal and undesirable phenomena” had taken root there – a presumed reference to illegal construction common among Arab citizens because of their difficulty in obtaining building permits. Demolitions enforced by the authorities against Arab homeowners were a flashpoint with the local police in the months leading up to October 2000.
The commission’s long deliberations reflected its fears of unleashing yet more ethnic anger. It took evidence from 349 witnesses over nearly two years of hearings.
The report, however, was greeted with widespread indifference from both Israeli Jews and Arabs. Although the families of the dead lambasted it for being a “whitewash,” and the police rushed to defend their lost honor, the wider Arab and Jewish publics had long lost interest in the conclusions.
This was not because the subtext of Or’s hearings – relations between Jewish and Arab citizens – had become irrelevant. Quite the opposite. It was a sign of just how entrenched the divisions now are. Most Jews are convinced that the Arab population is traitorous, and most Arabs have reluctantly come to the conclusion that they will never be accepted as equal citizens.
And for this, Or can take at least a share of the blame.
In the first days of the intifada – as protests erupted on both sides of the Green Line, the pre-1967 border – Israeli commentators universally equated the unrest of the country’s 1 million Arab citizens with that of the Palestinians. The former, it was generally agreed, had been unmasked as a fifth column.
The Israeli Jewish public – under the illusion that Oslo had been a genuine peace process and that the prime minister of the time, Barak, had made generous concessions at Camp David in June 2000 – lapped up the message. In Tiberias, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Jews attacked anyone who looked Arab, and damaged Arab homes, businesses and mosques.
In fact, the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab citizens came out on to the streets with very different agendas. The Palestinians, frustrated by the failures of Oslo and Camp David, were demanding a state. The protesters were backed by lightly armed security forces, who were slowly dragged into a confrontation with the Israeli Army.
The Arab citizens, on the other hand, took to the streets in a kneejerk show of sympathy with the Palestinians, their anger aggravated by five decades of gross discrimination. They adopted their usual methods of protest: general strikes, marches inside their communities and tire-burning at the entrances to towns and villages. Only around the town of Umm al-Fahm did youths start out with a more aggressive approach, throwing stones at cars passing on the neighboring Wadi Ara road.
None of these protesters was demanding a state or carrying weapons, apart from the odd slingshot and stone. Nevertheless, the police – including the Border Police, which also operates inside the Occupied Territories – responded with the kind of force usually reserved for the West Bank and Gaza.
Or’s first and most important task should have been to disabuse the Israeli public of the impression that the country’s Arab citizens were traitors. But his remit was skewed from the outset by Barak: As well as examining the behaviour of the police, Or was told to investigate the “inciters” among the Arab leadership.
So the inquiry’s verbal indictments of Bishara, Dehamshe and Salah have only served to reinforce to the Jewish public the sense that its grievances against the Arab population are justified. Or, in the words of the Adalah legal center, which defended the three Arab politicians, has provided the grounds needed to “blame the victims.”
His reluctance to draw any conclusions for three years only gave time for such a distorted reality to become settled in the public mind.
There are plenty of other failings inherent in the report. As was clear early on in the proceedings individual police officers will probably never be held to account for the 13 deaths. This is the main reason for the families’ anger.
Only in one case is it clear that a Druze Border Policeman, Murshad Rashed, killed a protester, although another officer, Guy Reif, is strongly suspected of shooting dead two of the demonstrators.
The failure to identify the other police culprits was the result of a decision taken by Or not to forensically examine the evidence before him.
Instead, each witness was allowed to recount his evidence with only the three-man panel able to cross-examine him. Inconsistencies were highlighted by Or but little attempt was made to dig deeper for the truth.
It did not help that the police carried out only minimal investigations in the wake of the killings and that the Justice Ministry’s Mahash police investigations unit dropped its own limited proceedings until the end of the commission’s hearings. Although Mahash has now reopened its investigations, ministry officials admit that the chance of getting to the truth are nigh hopeless.
“It is extremely complicated to begin three years later to investigate events in which hundreds of people were involved,” Justice Minister Tommy Lapid told reporters. “The bodies have long since been buried. There are no bullets, no scraps of evidence, and no witnesses.”
This is far from the truth. In the case of Marlene Ramadan, for example, who is still alive after she was shot four times while she was in her car in Nazareth, there are witnesses, evidence and bullets. Mahash, however, has yet to indict anyone.
Equally worrying are early signs that a familiar Israeli political culture of exonerating or rewarding security officials who murder Arabs is reasserting itself. Army officers indicted over the massacre of 47 Arab villagers at Kfar Kassem in 1956 were soon pardoned, and one was later promoted.
And seven Shin Bet officers who participated in the murder of two captured Palestinian hostage-takers in 1984, in what became known as the Bus 300 affair, were given presidential pardons before they could be indicted. One, Ehud Yatom, was even selected by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to lead the country’s counter-terrorism unit until the decision was blocked by the courts.
The former public security minister, Uzi Landau, said in February 2002, a year into Or’s deliberations, that the government would not be bound by the inquiry’s conclusions. And there were reports this week that the new police chief, Shlomo Aharonisky, wanted to have criminal charges resulting from investigations into the 13 deaths quashed through pre-emptive pardons.
Given the continuing racist culture in Israeli society toward Arabs, which Or did not challenge, the chances of individual police officers being brought to justice are negligible.
Or’s punishments too largely lack teeth. The two most senior policemen, Wilk and Ron, are both now retired. Benzy Sau, who it is recommended should not be promoted for four years, has little need of promotion: He received the high-level posting of commander of Jerusalem district six months after the October 2000 killings.
The banning of Ben Ami from ever again holding the post of public security minister is a penalty that will not rest too heavily on him: It was, after all, a job he did not want and which he held while coping with the far more onerous responsibility of being foreign minister.
And the words of criticism of Barak will soon pass from the public memory.
The fact that no action is to be taken against him opens the way for him to revive his ambitions to run for prime minister again.
The failure to follow the chain of responsibility for the deaths all the way up to Barak himself is perhaps the most glaring weakness of the Or report. Barak is known to have held a meeting with his police chiefs the night before most of the deaths occurred. The next morning he told Israeli radio that he had given the “green light” for the police to use whatever means necessary to keep the country’s roads open.
This meeting possibly holds the key to explaining why Ron brought a anti-terror sniper unit, using live rounds, first to Umm al-Fahm and then to Nazareth to quell the protests. Barak’s evasive replies to the commission and missing tape recordings of the original meeting allowed this episode to remain murky.
Much of the debate in the Israeli media has been over Or’s recommendations on new policing practices, such as the banning of rubber-coated bullets and the purchase of riot control equipment like shields and water cannon.
Although doubtless valuable and much-needed innovations, the concentration on these reforms distracts attention from a much more pressing issue. This is the yawning perceptual gulf between Israeli Jews and Arabs: Jews believe there is a growing radicalization of the Arab population, and Arab citizens believe the Jewish majority will never support their right to live in Israel as equals.
Since Sharon’s election, the incitement against the Arab minority has been relentless, with them being tarred a fifth column and a haven for terrorists by leading cabinet ministers, including the prime minister himself.
Implementation of many of Or’s recommendations concerning the Arab population will fall to the ministerial committee dealing with the Arab sector. The man in charge of the committee is none other than Ariel Sharon.

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