Barak testifies to riot panel

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. (Brian Hendler File Photo)

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. (Brian Hendler File Photo)

JERUSALEM, Aug. 20 (JTA) — The commission probing the Israeli Arab riots of October 2000 has concluded its public hearings with testimony from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Barak is the most senior of 14 Israeli officials to receive letters from the commission warning that the panel’s conclusions might be used against them. On Tuesday, he became the last of more than 430 people called to testify during the public hearings. Barak denied claims that he failed to accurately read the mood in the Arab sector and adequately prepare police for a potential outbreak of violence. Instead, he accused Israeli Arab politicians of inciting the crowd to violence. Following the conclusion of Barak’s testimony, the panel will begin reviewing the material it has gathered and drawing its recommendations. Barak himself ordered the creation of the Orr Commission after Israeli Arab leaders rejected his initial proposal for a public panel to investigate the events, in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed by police fire during several days of rioting. Some previous sessions were marred when victims’ relatives attacked police officials who were testifying. This prompted the commission to install security measures, including a closed-circuit viewing system and a physical barrier between observers and those testifying. In the letter he received from the commission, Barak was warned on five points: • that he failed to adequately prepare police for the potential violence; • that he instructed police to reopen major roads in northern Israel using “any means” necessary, regardless of the risk; • that he did not take steps to calm the situation during the first two days of rioting; • that he did not request updates on civilian casualties; and • that he did not insist on orderly documentation of his directives. During Tuesday’s hearing, Barak rejected claims that he failed to assess how the nascent Palestinian intifada in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could spill over into Israel’s Arab sector. Days after Palestinian violence began in late September 2000, Israeli Arabs rioted, closing off major highways, dragging Jewish drivers from their cars and beating them, chanting “Slaughter the Jews” and burning and destroying property. Thirteen Arabs were killed in clashes with police. The Arab public and leaders criticized the decision to use force against the rioters. Barak said he had given thought to developments in the Israeli Arab public that underlay the protests. An evaluation of the situation was made on Sept. 29, 2000, just after the Palestinian intifada began, he said. Barak said he was aware that the intifada might reverberate with the Israeli Arab public, but said there had been no professional assessment of the potential scope of such a development. “I was aware that there could be concern for an outbreak of riots of the kind I was already familiar with, like Land Day,” he said, referring to Israeli Arab commemoration of a 1976 incident in which protesters also were killed by police. Before the October 2000 riots broke out, however, “there was no intelligence assessment or specific assessment that we were on the verge of something we never saw before,” he said. Barak blamed a “separatist Arab group with nationalist political demands” for the violence. Among others, he named the National Democratic Alliance headed by Knesset member Azmi Bishara, the Bnei Kfar movement and the Islamic Movement. The Arab leaders have fought any attempt to investigate their alleged incitement to violence, saying the commission must only investigate the police and Israeli officials. Barak also said that a report about Arab society being on the verge of “explosion” was not unique to that sector, saying similar warnings had been issued about relations between religious and secular and rich and poor in Israel. Barak rejected claims he instructed police to use “any means” to reopen the major roads, saying it contradicted his policy that every effort be made to restore calm. Regarding his use of those terms in a radio interview on Oct. 2, 2000, Barak said, “No police officer gets his orders from the prime minister on the radio.” Barak also denied involvement in the decision to use police snipers or rubber bullets against rioters. He said he first learned that snipers had been used from then-Cabinet minister Yuli Tamir, who raised the issue a week later during a Cabinet meeting. Even before becoming prime minister, Barak said, he was aware of some of the grave problems in the Arab sector and the socioeconomic gaps between the Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations. Barak said he worked to address those issues, but that they were not the only matters on his agenda at the time. In addition to Barak, 13 other Israeli officials have received warning letters that the conclusions of the panel may be used against them.

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