JERUSALEM (Oct. 28)
Israel’s Cabinet on Sunday unanimously endorsed the report of a three-member investigatory panel that placed most of the blame for the Oct. 8 Temple Mount riots on an Arab mob it said was incited by Moslem clergy.
The report singled out for sharp criticism some top-ranking police brass, whom it faulted for failing to foresee trouble on the occasion and for not deploying their forces accordingly.
But while it referred briefly to “uncontrolled” or “indiscriminate” firing by the police, it essentially justified the use of live ammunition in the melee, which left up to 20 Palestinians dead and 150 wounded.
The exact number of fatalities remained uncertain three weeks after the riots. Police put the count at 19 or 20 fatalities, while a Palestinian human rights group that originally counted 21 dead revised its figure to 17 last week.
Whatever the number, the Cabinet was split over whether any of the police commanders should be relieved of their duties or otherwise disciplined for mishandling the situation.
But no action has been taken against anyone yet, and chances seemed to be fading Sunday night that anyone would receive more than the public reprimand contained in the panel’s report.
Police Minister Ronni Milo, who must eventually make the decision, told the Cabinet he would seek further consultations before acting.
Milo and possibly Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir are expected to meet separately with the three ranking police officers directly criticized by the commission.
They are national Police Inspector General Ya’acov Terner; the southern regional police commander, Rahamim Comfort; and Arye Bibi, the Jerusalem district commander of police.
None has spoken to the news media since the commission’s report was issued Friday.
CABINET BACKS POLICE
Whatever shortcomings the panel might have found on their part, the three ranking officers and the police in general would seem to have powerful support in the Cabinet.
Housing Minister Ariel Sharon told a radio interviewer that, as far as he was concerned, no “personal conclusions” needed to be drawn from the commission’s report. He concurred entirely with its main finding that the Moslems on the Temple Mount instigated the violence.
Transport Minister Moshe Katsav said that, in his opinion, no heads need roll, even though the panel found serious technical errors on the part of the police.
Health Minister Ehud Olmert was the most vocal among the ministers in insisting that personal blame should be assessed. He said the tragedy could have been avoided if the police had been properly prepared.
But Defense Minister Moshe Arens argued that now is not the proper time to draw “personal conclusions.”
Sharon agreed with him, as did Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i, Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan and Avner Shaki, the minister of religious affairs.
While Shamir offered no opinion, the prime minister is said to oppose any measures against the police.
Policemen’s wives demonstrated outside the Prime Minister’s Office in support of the police while the Cabinet was in session.
They demanded that nobody be fired or disciplined and that the rules be changed to allow police to shoot to kill in life-threatening situations, instead of first firing a warning shot and then aiming at the legs of their adversaries.
They blamed that procedure for the death of Shalom Charlie Shloush, a 26-year-old police trainee who was one of three Israelis stabbed to death by a Palestinian laborer in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood on Oct. 21.
Political observers said Sunday that whatever pressure there might have been to dismiss or take disciplinary action against some top police officers has eased, because world opinion seems largely to reject the conclusions of the Israeli investigation.
According to these observers, government circles thought a report that cracked down on the police and recommended dismissals would blunt the U.N. Security Council’s anger at Israel for rejecting its two resolutions urging the Jerusalem government to cooperate with a U.N. investigation of the Oct. 8 events.
But since the report did not urge such action, there would be little gain to a crackdown, the observers said.
PRAISE FROM U.S. JEWISH GROUPS
The commission, appointed by Shamir on Oct. 10, was headed by reserve Gen. Zvi Zamir, a former chief of Mossad, Israel’s top secret intelligence agency.
Its other members were Haim Kubersky, a former director general of the Interior Ministry, and Ya’acov Ne’eman, former director general of the Finance Ministry. They did not have the power to subpoena witnesses, nor were their recommendations to be binding.
Judged by its content, their report seemed to rely heavily on the testimony of members of the security forces.
The panel apparently attached little importance to the testimony of the few Arab who appeared before it, including Palestinian nationalist leader Faisal Husseini and Sheikh Mohammad Sa’id el-Jamal, the deputy mufti of Jerusalem. Both were jailed immediately after the riots and released last week with no charges brought against them.
The commission said that many of those on the Temple Mount at the time of the riots refused to testify, including members of the Moslem Supreme Council.
In New York, American Jewish organizational leaders praised the report and said it attested to the strength of Israel’s democracy.
Typical was the statement released Friday by Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body that represents 46 national Jewish organizations in the United States.
“The report of the Zamir commission reaf- firms once again Israel’s distinction as a strong, vibrant democracy that does not shrink from self-examination and self criticism. The honesty and candor of the report give the lie to Israel’s critics and enemies,” Reich said.
“In particular, the report reflects shame on the United Nations Security Council, which rushed to judgment without taking into accounts the basic facts –that an unprovoked, vicious attack against peaceful Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall, launched by Palestinian supporters of Iraq and the PLO, and incited by fanatical Moslem fundamentalists calling for ‘jihad,’ or holy war, caused a melee that led, tragically, to deaths and injuries,” said Reich.
LIVE FIRE JUSTIFIED BUT ‘UNCONTROLLED’
A statement by Arden Shenker, chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, lauded “the timeliness and credibility of the report issued today by the Zamir commission.”
“The thorough and serious manner in which the Zamir commission fulfilled its mandate underscores, once again, the vitality of Israeli democracy,” Shenker said.
Among the panel’s main findings were that:
The religious leaders who incited the Moslem worshipers on the Temple Mount are principally to blame for the tragedy.
The police commanders failed in not deploying a large force, which would have deterred the rioters.
The General Security Service (Shin Bet) did not give police advance intelligence warning of the explosiveness of the situation.
The use of live ammunition by police who stormed the Temple Mount was justified, but there was “uncontrolled use of live fire.”
While much of the report was devoted to the failure of police intelligence and therefore inadequate preparedness, relatively little attention was given to the painful question of whether live bullets had been necessary.
The only section dealing with that subject states that in order to rescue soldiers trapped in the police station on the Temple Mount, the “use of fire — rubber bullets, tear gas and then live ammunition — in the face of the stone-throwers was unavoidable.”
But in other sectors, “only those policemen who were attacked and whose life was in danger had full justification to open fire,” the report said.
“The use of live ammunition was done without a thorough control by the commanders,” it concluded.