Al-Ahram Weekly – 11 September 2003
Wissam Yazbak, at rest in a Nazareth cemetery, cannot tell the story of what happened to him nearly three years ago, on the night of 8 October 2000. That evening a mob of several hundred Israeli Jews from the neighbouring town of Nazareth Ilit marched on the eastern quarter of Nazareth, many armed with guns and chanting “Death to the Arabs”. As the mob attacked the first Arab homes, Nazareth’s mosques called on local residents to defend their town. In the pressure cooker atmosphere of the first days of the Intifada, when communal war between Israel’s Jews and Arabs was in the air, the residents made their way uphill from the centre of town to the road that separates the Jewish and Arab Nazareths.
The police were on the scene before there was time for the two sides to clash, with officers separating the armed Jews who wanted to invade Nazareth from the unarmed Arab youths who were there to protect their homes. The police, standing between the two sides, were far from neutral, however. They stood with their backs to the Jewish mob and had their guns trained on the Arab crowd. After a lengthy stand-off, police commanders and local Arab leaders persuaded the Arab youths to leave the site first. Yazbak was among a group of young men who formed a human chain, with their backs to the police, to push the crowds downhill. Seconds later, after what witnesses described as a burst of automatic gunfire, Yazbak lay dead and a handful of other youngsters were fighting for their lives. All had been hit in the back.
No investigation was launched into Yazbak’s death. His body was sent from the English Hospital in Nazareth, where surgeon Dr Nakleh Bishara says he felt a bullet lodged at the back of Yazbak’s brain, to Ramban Hospital in Haifa. The bullet felt by Dr Bishara should have spoken for 25-year-old Yazbak. It should have told anyone who cared to investigate that the round was fired by a policeman, not by an Arab gunman as the police argued for many months. It should also have proved that the police were using live ammunition, a claim made by Arab protesters at the time but angrily denied by both the police and the government. And most importantly of all it should have helped identify the policeman who killed Wissam Yazbak in cold blood. Although the bullet was removed at Ramban and passed on to the Justice Ministry’s Mahash unit, which investigates alleged abuses by the police, it lay in their offices unexamined. Instead Mahash hurried to corroborate the police account: Yazbak had been killed by Arab gunfire and therefore there was no reason for the unit to investigate.
It was a colossal lie, one of many that served to cover up what one police sniper would later term in official evidence a “shoot to kill” policy by the police in handling protests in the country’s north in October 2000 in support of the Palestinian Intifada. Yazbak was one of 13 Arab citizens killed in four days of clashes with the police in the Galilee; hundreds more were injured. But even in Yazbak’s case it will apparently never be known who pulled the trigger. Most of the other forensic loose ends in the official account of what happened in the first week of October 2000 will also never be sorted. That is clear after the Or Commission of Inquiry into the 13 deaths published its 800-page report last week, three years after the events it describes. Justice Theodor Or’s long deliberations possibly reflected his fears of unleashing yet more ethnic anger.
Although the report found grave errors made by police commanders and by the two most senior politicians of the time, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his joint public security and foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, it did almost nothing to help solve the “mysteries” surrounding the deaths. Those like the Yazbak family hoping for revelations from the inquiry were sorely disappointed. Even though the country’s top officials from the time were found guilty, to varying degrees, of allowing police officers to use rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition as a first line of defence in controlling the demonstrations, the families described the report as a “whitewash”.
Hassan Asleh, whose 17-year-old son Asil was shot dead from close range after he had fallen to the ground in fields by the town of Arrabeh, accused the commission last week of ignoring evidence the families had submitted in the absence of official investigations. “The commission completely ignored these files,” said Asleh. “Had they wanted to, they could have used them. It was a complete disappointment. Despite our disappointment with Israeli law and Israeli judges, we had hoped this commission would act differently. But it did not. Israeli law is two-faced. One face for Jews, another for Arabs.”
The commission began its work in February 2001 in a very different atmosphere. The families’ expectations were high after they won their battle for a commission of inquiry into the deaths. Barak, who had wanted to establish a low-level “clarification committee” that would have had almost no powers to investigate the events, eventually acceded to the families’ request, fearing that if he did not he would lose all Arab support in the impending general election (which he did in any case). A heavy burden was placed on Justice Or’s shoulders: for the first time, a judicial inquiry was effectively being asked to act as umpire between the competing claims of the country’s two main ethnic communities.
Justice Or, in his final report, noted that relations between Jews and Arabs were the “most sensitive and important domestic issue facing Israel”. But Barak managed to sabotage the inquiry from the outset. He skewed its remit so that it was forced to investigate not only the behaviour of the police and the government but also of what were described as “inciters” among the Arab leadership. The inclusion of the “inciters” clause presumed for Justice Or, before his hearings had even begun, that there had been incitement — and only Arab incitement. It also reversed all precedents set by commissions of inquiry, which are charged only with investigating the failures of state officials not public representatives.
It became clear early on in the proceedings that Justice Or would take Barak’s imposed terms of reference seriously, despite legal challenges. He and the two other panelists — the academic Shimon Shamir and Arab district court judge Hashem Khatib — questioned the country’s leading Arab politicians intensively. Jewish politicians who might just as easily have been questioned for incitement, particularly Ariel Sharon whose visit backed by a massive police presence to the holy site of the Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem triggered the Intifada, were excluded from the post-mortem. For this reason, the Arab public’s confidence in the Or Commission quickly evaporated. By the time Or released his report last week, there was general indifference among the wider Jewish and Arab publics to its conclusions. This is not because the subtext of Justice Or’s hearings — relations between the Jewish state and its Arab citizens — has become irrelevant. Quite the contrary. It is a sign of just how entrenched the divisions now are.
Most Jews, including Sharon himself if recent public outbursts are to be believed, are convinced that the Arab population is disloyal; and most Arabs have reluctantly come to the conclusion that they will never be accepted as equal citizens. And for this, Justice 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 one million Arab citizens with that of the Palestinians. The former, it was generally agreed, had been unmasked as a fifth column of the latter. The Israeli Jewish public — under the illusion that Oslo had been a genuine peace process and that Barak had made generous concessions at Camp David in June 2000 — lapped up the message. In Tiberias, Nazareth, Jersualem and Tel Aviv, Jewish mobs attacked anyone who looked Arab, and damaged Arab homes, businesses and mosques. But their response was based on a profound misunderstanding. 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 Palestinian 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 knee-jerk 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 tyre-burning at the entrances to towns and villages. Only around the town of Umm Al-Fahm did youths start out more aggressively, throwing stones at cars passing on the neighbouring 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.
Justice 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. Instead, he allowed Barak’s “inciters” clause to extend his deliberations to the behaviour of the Arab leadership. Last week he sought to “balance” his harsh criticism of the police and government with equally firm rebukes against 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. He concluded that all three created an ideological atmosphere that incited the crowds, although he refrained from recommending action be taken against them (possibly in recognition of the fact that two of the politicians, Bishara and Salah, are already being hounded through the Israeli courts).
But the inquiry’s verbal indictments of Bishara, Dehamshe and Salah will serve to reinforce to the Jewish public the sense that its grievances against the Arab population are justified. Justice Or, in the words of the Adalah Legal Centre, which defended the three Arab politicians, has provided the grounds needed to “blame the victims”. Furthermore, his reluctance to draw any conclusions for three years has only given time for such a distorted impression to become settled in the public mind. But artificial balance was not the only, or even main, fault in the methodology of the inquiry. 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 demonstrators.
The failure to identify the other police culprits was the result of a decision taken both by the police in the wake of the deaths not to initiate investigations and by the medical authorities not to insist on post-mortems. It was compounded by the decision of the Mahash investigations team to freeze its own limited inquiries until after Justice Or reported. And it was compounded again by Justice Or’s decision not to examine forensically 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, when they were noticed, were highlighted by Or but little attempt was made to dig deeper for the truth. Justice Or did identify both a culture of lying and of racism in the police force. But in his report he had not a word to say against the Mahash investigators who had lied on behalf of the police. In fact, during the hearings he employed two of them to help sift the evidence.
In another sign of huge indulgence towards Mahash, Or has requested that the unit reopen the investigations it failed to carry out three years ago. Its officials are already preparing the public for a low probability of success. “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 whole truth. Many of the seriously injured have plenty to tell investigators if they wanted to listen. In the case of Marlene Ramadan, who was severely wounded when she was shot four times by police snipers while she and her husband were driving home in their car in Nazareth, there are witnesses, evidence and bullets. Mahash, however, has yet to indict anyone. There are also witnesses who saw the policeman who shot from close range into the chest of 57-year-old Ibrahim Sulayman when he tried to reach his car to drive his daughter, Nur, to hospital. She had been shot in the hand moments earlier as the family watched events in Nazareth from their rooftop. The rubber-coated bullet penetrated Sulayman’s chest and lodged millimetres from his heart. The operation to remove it has left him without a spleen or pancreas.
It might also be possible to identify the policeman who shot a hail of rubber bullets at Bassem Abu Ahmed, aged 51, after a march in Nazareth protesting against the fatal shooting of a youth, Iyad Lawabny, earlier that day was broken up by police gunfire. When Abu Ahmed took shelter behind a concrete barrier, a policeman spotted him and told him to leave the area. As he fled, the same officer sprayed him with the bullets. A photograph taken a week later shows Abu Ahmed’s back pockmarked with black, purple and yellow bruises. “The hospital staff told me that the force of the bullets had entirely disintegrated the back of my shirt,” he says. “In the picture you can only see 15 of the holes. There were another five on my buttocks.”
These and the hundreds of other victims of police brutality were unlikely to have been impressed by Justice Or’s punishments for those he held responsible. It was recommended among the police that both Wilk and Ron should be barred from holding senior domestic security positions again. Both, however, are now retired. Two other senior officers, Moshe Waldman and Guy Reif, in charge in the towns of Nazareth and Sakhnin, should be dismissed from the force, and it was recommended that another senior officer, Benzy Sau, in charge in Umm Al-Fahm, should be barred from promotion for four years. But Reif has already left the force and Benzy Sau has little need of promotion: he received the high-level posting of commander of Jerusalem district shortly after the October 2000 killings. Adalah is still fighting for the dismissal of Waldman, who after the report was published commented to an Israeli newspaper of the October 2000 events: “In light of their [Arab citizens’] behaviour, one can say, ‘Only 13 were killed’.”
At the ministerial level, Ben Ami was made to shoulder the bulk of responsibility. Justice Or blamed him for not ensuring the police were more prepared for violent clashes with the Arab minority, for not limiting the use of rubber-coated bullets, and for not insisting on reports and investigations into the deaths. It was recommended that Ben Ami not be allowed to hold the post of public security minister again. The penalty 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 Barak, who was criticised at length for failing to meet Arab leaders and to offer clear guidance on how to handle the protests, it was recommended should not face any action.
The criticism will soon pass from the public memory — at least it will if the 1982 Kahan Commission is any precedent. That inquiry held Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacres of Palestinian refugees In Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatilla camps and ordered that he never be allowed to hold the post of defence minister. Since then he has controlled plenty of other ministries, including now the prime ministership. In fact, Barak is in a far stronger position. The recommendation for no action opens the way for him to revive his ambitions to run for prime minister again.
Despite this, the report contained some good news for the Arab population. For the first time an official body admitted that there had been consistent and systematic discrimination against the minority. Justice Or blamed successive governments for failing to “create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discriminatory or unjust phenomena”. Or also concluded that there was a general culture of lying and racism inside the police force, which perceived of Arabs as the enemy.
“The acceptance by Or that lying is a widespread phenomenon in the police force may have significant and positive consequences,” said Marwan Dalal of Adalah. “Traditionally Israelis, including the media, have simply accepted the police version of events even when it seemed highly improbable. That may start to change.” But Adalah is less happy with the light verdict on Barak. They believe the inquiry should have followed the chain of command that ordered the deaths all the way up to the prime minister himself. A key episode Adalah wishes the inquiry had given more weight to is a meeting Barak had with his police chiefs the night before most of the deaths occurred on 2 October. The next morning he told Israeli radio that he had given the “green light” for the police to use whatever means necessary to restore the rule of law. Soon afterwards the bodies started piling up. This meeting possibly holds the key to explaining why the northern police commander Alik Ron brought an 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.
Should Mahash follow through with its investigations on lower-ranking policemen, and bring charges against individual officers, there is every reason to believe nothing more will be done. There are already worrying 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 48 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 also given presidential pardons before they could be indicted. One, Ehud Yatom, was even selected by current prime minister Ariel Sharon to lead the country’s counter-terrorism unit until the decision was blocked by the courts.
Regarding the Or Commission, the chances of implementation being taken seriously in the present political climate look remote. The former public security minister, Uzi Landau, said in February 2002, a year into Justice Or’s deliberations, that the government would not be bound by the inquiry’s conclusions. And there were reports last week that the current police chief, Shlomo Aharonisky, wanted to have any criminal charges resulting from the Mahash investigations into the 13 deaths quashed through preemptive pardons similar to those used in the Bus 300 affair.
Much of the debate in the Israeli media since Justice Or published his report is over his recommendations on new policing practices, such as the banning of rubber-coated bullets and the purchase of riot control equipment like shields and water cannons. Although 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 about the other: Jews believe there is a growing radicalisation 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 Justice 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.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 11 September 2003