Inquiry opens into October riot deaths

JERUSALEM, Feb. 20 (JTA) — A commission examining the killings of 13 Israeli Arabs by police during riots last October is exposing the unhealed wounds between Arab and Jew in Israel.

During the first day of proceedings on Monday, the father of one victim lunged at a border police officer suspected of shooting the youth. The victim’s mother fainted and the officer, among four called to testify Monday, was hustled out of the room.

The outburst caused the hearing to be suspended for over an hour and underscored the high emotional voltage in which the proceedings are being conducted.

The bereaved families demand that the commission mete out what they consider “justice” to those responsible for the deaths, though the Israeli Arab community is skeptical that the panel will do so.

This skepticism is born of long-held grievances among Israel’s 1 million Arabs over discrimination they face in the Jewish state — in job opportunities, education and infrastructure development in towns and villages.

The October riots expressed these deeply felt frustrations. Yet they also were an expression of growing Israeli Arab solidarity with their Palestinian brethren across Israel’s border.

What began as demonstrations of solidarity with the nascent Palestinian uprising quickly turned violent, as Israeli Arabs waved Palestinian flags, blocked main highways, attacked Jewish drivers, chanted “Slaughter the Jews” and set fire to banks and post offices, among other things.

The riots threatened to undermine the delicate fabric of Arab-Jewish coexistence in the Galilee. While Arabs felt the police reaction showed that the state does not value Arab life, many Israeli Jews felt their Arab neighbors had been exposed as a fifth column.

Israeli Jews, too, are demanding “justice” from the commission — which, according to the daily Ma’ariv, would require the commission to “investigate and punish both the Arab” Knesset members “who incited the demonstrating public and the lawbreakers who blocked roads and burned petrol stations and stores.”

The daily Yediot Achronot doubts that the commission would succeed.

“It is difficult to assume that the Arab public will accept their conclusions, whatever they are,” the paper wrote. “The commission will be unable to heal the human wound” between Jews and Arabs in Israel that “first opened up 50 years ago; it won’t even be able to bandage it.”

All sides agree that the police who confronted the rioters were greatly outnumbered, but Israeli Arab leaders say the police did not have to react with gunfire, even with rubber bullets.

With emotions raw, the Arab community rejected the government’s initial plan to have an independent panel investigate the incidents, demanding instead a commission of inquiry.

Dr. Mahmoud Yazbek, a relative of one victim, said he views the work of the commission as a test of the entire Israeli legal system.

“We cannot ignore the fact that just now, the Israeli legal system gave the ridiculous sentence of six months community service to a man responsible for the death” of a Palestinian youth who had been stoning his car, Yazbek said. He also referred to the recent release from jail of Yoram Skolnik, an Israeli who served only eight years of a life sentence for shooting a bound terror suspect.

“The life of an Arab is much cheaper than the life of a Jew,” Yazbek charged.

The commission is headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Orr. Its other members are Professor Shimon Shamir, a former ambassador to Egypt and Jordan; and the deputy president of the Nazareth district court, Jarrah Sahel, an Israeli Arab.

Families of the victims, bearing pictures of their loved ones, packed the courtroom in the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem for Monday’s hearing. The proceedings focused on events surrounding the Oct. 1 killing of 21-year-old Rami Gara during disturbances at the village of Jatt.

Villagers who testified claimed that Gara, who died after being hit in the eye by a rubber bullet, was not taking part in disturbances at the time but was watching from a nearby gas station.

During the proceedings, a number of contradictions emerged in border police officers’ testimony about the nature and execution of their mission.

One officer testified that two other officers at the scene were ordered to shoot a demonstrator in his legs to disperse the crowd. Two other officers, as well as commander Said Abu-Rish, testified that the order was to arrest a demonstrator.

However, when Abu-Rish was asked why policemen opened fire with rubber bullets, he said he lacked other means of crowd dispersal such as tear gas. He also said that after a long day containing riots, it did not occur to him to use the public address system at his disposal.

Testimony also was contradictory as to whether Murshad Rashad, the border police officer suspected of shooting Gara, fired from beyond the 60-yard limit at which rubber bullets are not lethal. Rashad said he fired from a distance of more than 80 yards, and after coming under a hail of stones.

Another officer, however, said Rashad was 15 yards away from demonstrators when he fired.

Tuesday’s session was less heated, as commission members heard testimony regarding the killing of two residents of the Arab village of Umm al-Fahm. However, the commission agreed to let certain officers answer questions without revealing their identities, both for security reasons and concern for the officers’ safety.

The commission proceedings are expected to continue for about six months.

Arab leaders and activists expressed some disappointment with the initial hearings.

“We hoped for more from the commission,” said Hassan Jabarin, an attorney for the Arab human rights organization Adalah, which gathered testimony from Israeli Arabs. Jabarin complained that the commission did not allow the families or their lawyers to cross-examine witnesses or allow the organization to submit clarifying questions.

Families of the victims also complained that the commission did not agree to their request to begin the proceedings later in the morning, as many travel to the Jerusalem sessions from homes in the Galilee.

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