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Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, 3 - 9 May 2001, Issue No.532

The skeleton in Israel's closet

Israeli police mowed down 13 Palestinian citizens of the "Jewish state" early last October. A lot of dirty linen is emerging from the inquiry, writes Jonathan Cook*

Israelis have been reading disturbing revelations about their police force for the past two months. Dominating the front pages of newspapers is evidence that last October, as world attention was distracted by the violence of the Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, police snipers were quietly 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, the Or Commission, examining the deaths, as well as severe injuries to hundreds more Arabs. The testimony of police witnesses shows that the 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 also staged violent protests. Only batons and water cannon were used against the worst Jewish riot.

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 now accuse 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 into the shooting of 14 unarmed Catholics in Northern Ireland in 1972. The apparent similarities are so strong that some of the lawyers who represented the Irish families are advising the Arab lawyers involved in the Galilee inquiry. The families of the Irish victims have been offering their personal support too.

Evidence not yet presented to the inquiry is equally damning. Bullet cases collected at the sites of the shootings suggest to ballistics experts that the police used high-velocity rifles firing small calibre bullets that inflict wounds particularly difficult to treat. The few post-mortems carried out by the authorities have confirmed that such weapons were used against the Arab minority. And a riot control expert who conducted an Amnesty International investigation has concluded that, even though the Arab protesters were not armed, the police treated them as though they were a military foe, using tactics and weaponry more suitable 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 on the 17-year-old's death are stamped the words "Enemy Operation". It is a bitter rebuke to a family proud of Asil's enthusiastic involvement in international campaigns to promote peace between Arabs and Jews. "I and most other Arabs have no doubt this was an execution," says Asleh. "Asil's only crime was that he was an Arab in a Jewish state."

The site where Asil died 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 2 October, Asil sat watching villagers demonstrate in support of their ethnic kin, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, who had just begun their uprising in the territories.

The protests here and elsewhere in the Galilee were nothing out of the ordinary. Each year on 30 March -- in a ritual of confrontation with the authorities known as Land Day -- Israel's Arabs go on strike, often burning tyres 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, the prime minister of the time, 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 by almost every Jew in Israel. 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.

The story might have ended there but for one inconvenient fact -- unlike the Palestinians, Israel's Arabs are citizens of the Jewish state and have the vote. Barak, threatened with an electoral boycott by a fifth of the population, made a commitment he is almost certainly now regretting. He promised to launch 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 investigations but plenty of shocking revelations have emerged in the first weeks. The testimonies of police officers called to the town of Umm Al-Fahm, for example, have exposed glaring failures. Unit commanders have admitted that they did not try to address demonstrators through loud speakers, or equip officers with protective gear such as riot shields. Instead, from the outset they fired rubber-coated steel bullets -- and of a type normally reserved by Israel for use against terrorists.

Police witnesses also soon started contradicting the official line that no live ammunition had been used. Days later the inquiry forced the release of medical reports proving that two of the three killed in Umm Al-Fahm had been hit by live fire.

The response from the authorities was evasive. For months everyone from the prime minister on down had been insisting that the 13 dead were victims of rubber bullets. Confronted with the new evidence, Alik Ron told reporters that he did not think it significant. And Ben-Ami, the security minister who had been insisting for five months that Arab claims about live ammunition were a slur against the police, said he was "surprised" by the new information. "No one ever told me, upstairs, of this detail," he added.

The police have yet to explain the inconsistencies. But their defence 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.

No one in the Arab community is buying that explanation. 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, however, was still to come. 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 2 October Ron had changed the order 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 authorisation 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 died, 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 that Arab residents pose a threat to their safety.

Many Arabs see Reif's attitude as typical. Azmi Bishara, a leading Arab member of the Israeli parliament, says that the police killings are evidence of a widespread racism within Israeli society that values Jewish lives above those of Arabs. He said, "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 Arab neighbours, throwing stones at cars and individuals and burning properties, including mosques and restaurants. But police officers who attended those riots have confirmed 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, even though the Jewish mob was so violent that a policeman was killed. Later, water cannon were brought in to quell the protests.

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 Arab community and who has not enamoured himself further by describing the inquiry as a "slap in the face" to the police.

Some Israeli Arabs, 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 an emergency meeting with the prime minister Ehud Barak and security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on the evening of 1 October, the night before most of the shootings. 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. Given the tense atmosphere of those early days in October, as Israel perceived itself under assault on three flanks (in the West Bank, Gaza and the Galilee), such a theory is not as fanciful as it sounds.

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 centre of town firing into the crowds of demonstrators below. At one point, presumably when someone is hit by their fire, they stop to slap each others 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 Jane's defence magazine, confirms that bullets collected and traded by local children like marbles are spent live rounds.

And there is the failure of the authorities in the weeks following the October clashes to carry out any investigations. No effort was made by the police or independent officials to compile evidence of what happened at any of the locations where demonstrators were killed or injured. An attempted cover-up is also suggested by the fact that no post-mortems were carried out except at 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 lead to a reconciliation between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Few Arabs are so confident. Azmi Bishara's home near Nazareth was attacked by a Jewish mob on 8 October 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: "I fear Israelis are not yet ready to confront their role in what happened in October. 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? Israel is still a Jewish state and until it becomes a state of all its citizens -- Jews and Arabs -- we will continue living in fear."

* Jonathan Cook is a British journalist who writes for the Guardian and the Observer newspapers.

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