Israeli Arabs let down by riot commission

JERUSALEM, June 4 (JTA) — Behind a thick glass wall that protects witnesses from audience attacks, the state commission investigating the deaths of Israeli Arabs in clashes with police last October resumed its discussions this week.

The testimonies were suspended for three months after a bereaved Arab father beat up a police officer who testified that he shot demonstrators at the entrance to the Arab town of Sakhnin early last October.

The glass wall is intended to let Israel’s Arab minority see how justice is carried out, while preventing the audience at the commission hall in Jerusalem from further attacking witnesses. Relatives of Arab youngsters killed in the riots twice attacked policemen whose testimony enraged them during hearings of the state commission that they themselves had demanded.

Many Arab Israelis view the wall as much more than a safety measure, however, describing it as a metaphor for their relations with the state and its Jewish majority.

In the eyes of many Israeli Arabs, the glass wall emphasizes that Israeli Jews see their Arab fellow citizens primarily as a security risk. It demonstrates the distance between the Arab minority and the Jewish state’s establishment. And it is a reminder of the glass ceiling that prevents Arabs from thoroughly integrating into Israel’s society.

To many Israeli Jews, however, the glass wall is also highly symbolic, erected as a necessary defense. Like last fall’s riots themselves — when Arab Israelis demonstrating solidarity with the nascent Palestinian uprising attacked police forces and passing Jewish drivers — the security concerns embodied by the glass wall have been borne out by events, some Israeli Jews argue.

More than anything, the wall is a reflection of the deepening division between Israeli Jews and Arabs following last October’s riots. Thirteen Arabs and one Jew were killed in mass demonstrations that continued through the first week of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, deepening Arab citizens’ sense of estrangement and alienation from the state.

A public opinion poll published last week — the first scientific poll of Israeli Arabs since the riots — shows the depth of the alienation.

Like other polls taken in recent years, this one shows a continuing reversal of the Israelization of the country’s Arab sector that was apparent through the mid-1990s.

Only 33 percent of the 1,202 Arab citizens surveyed said the term “Israeli” best defines their identity, compared to 63 percent in 1995. Only 35 percent said they feel a stronger affinity to Israeli Jews than they do to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, compared to 50 percent six years ago.

Almost half — 46 percent — said they reject Israel’s existence as a Zionist state, compared with 35 percent in 1995. A majority of 58 percent said that the intifada had distanced them from the state.

Opinion polls among Israeli Jews show a parallel resentment toward the country’s Arab citizens. Resentment can flare into hatred that sometimes is expressed in verbal or physical attacks against Israeli Arabs.

Many of those attacks are not even reported to the police because Arabs prefer not to rock the boat. Human rights organizations, lawyers and Arabic newspaper editors report that Arab citizens hesitate to file complaints when harmed.

“Such things happen almost every day. People would call me to consult or commiserate, but they are very often afraid to go ahead and complain,” says Awny Banna, who runs the Haifa office of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

The state commission headed by Supreme Court Judge Theodor Orr was supposed to help bridge the rift between Israeli Arabs and Jews. Eight months after the riots and four months after public hearings began, however, the commission has emphasized the rift and, possibly, even deepened it.

Much of the Arab public’s frustration stems from enormous expectations. Israeli Arabs expected the commission to focus not only on the circumstances and results of the October riots but on what they claim were the causes of the violent protest — years of alleged police brutality and government discrimination.

However, the commission is not attempting to dig into such deep wounds, and therefore now is being perceived as alienated from the Arab public, says Arab Knesset member Azmi Beshara.

Israeli Arabs hoped the commission would renew their sense of affinity with the Israeli left, and they hoped to use the hearings as a podium to recount their claims of injustice to the international community. They also viewed it as the closest thing possible to a tribunal that would hear their indictment against the Jewish establishment.

Indeed, late last January, the Arabs’ umbrella leadership body, the Higher Monitoring Committee for the Affairs of Israel’s Arab Public, presented the Orr panel with a collection of testimonies regarding the October events.

As he handed them the files, Monitoring Committee Chairman Muhammad Zeidan told commission representatives that he was submitting an indictment against the state of Israel, in the name of a million Arab citizens.

Some Israeli Jews, on the other hand, have been disappointed that the panel appears to be dealing only with Arab grievances and has not yet thoroughly investigated alleged incitement by Israeli Arab leaders, who they believe spurred the crowd to violence.

In addition, they note that Arab groups were empowered by the commission to collate testimonies from Arabs, rather than have the commission’s fact finders directly interview the witnesses.

The three members of the Orr panel did hear some disturbing testimonies about the use of police force, including live ammunition against unarmed civilian demonstrators. They heard testimonies from senior police officers about sharpshooters orders to fire live bullets at Arab youngsters carrying slingshots.

One border policeman said he received orders to shoot rubber bullets at inciters demonstrating in Umm al-Fahm — the center of the riots — when he clearly was not in a life-threatening situation.

That same policeman testified that a few days later, on Yom Kippur — when he was off-duty — he participated with hundreds of Jewish rioters in a violent anti-Arab demonstration in Nazareth. Two Arabs were shot dead when clashes erupted after that demonstration.

Despite such shocking testimony, Israeli media have highlighted the atmospherics of the hearings, such as Arab relatives assaulting witnesses, or tension between Arabs and police officers in the audience.

Rather than shifting the focus from Arab violence to police brutality, as the community expected, Arab leaders feel the Orr Commission perpetuates the Jewish perception of Israeli Arabs as a violent threat.

“Unruly behavior of Arabs at the commission was very damaging to us, but the glass wall will further deepen the damage, as a perpetual statement that the presence of Arabs in the audience is somehow dangerous,” says Hassan Jabareen of Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which informally represents the bereaved families before the commission.

As it reconvened this week, the commission continued hearing testimonies on the clashes in the Arab towns of Sakhnin and Arabeh, where four Arab youths were killed by live bullets.

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