JERUSALEM, March 11 (JTA) A commission probing last fall’s riots, in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed by police, is exposing the raw nerves that first provoked the deadly clashes.
Last October’s riots most of which took place in the Galilee as an expression of Israeli Arab solidarity with the nascent Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip left many Israelis questioning the loyalty of the nation’s Arab population.
From the perspective of the Israeli Arab community, the police actions that resulted in the 13 deaths only intensified the feeling that Israeli Arabs are subject to discrimination in the Jewish state.
Since then, Israeli Arab solidarity with the Palestinian uprising has only grown, and “the blood of 13 Arab Israeli citizens is still fresh,” according to relatives of those killed in the riots.
Under pressure from the Israeli Arab community and Jewish doves, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak created a state commission of inquiry, headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Orr, to look into the October events.
Barak apologized for the deaths of the 13 shortly before the Feb. 6 elections for prime minister. The move was widely seen as an attempt to court Arab voters.
In addition, former Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who oversaw police operations in the Barak government, sought to distance himself from top police brass.
The Arab community was not mollified, however, and its boycott of the elections contributed to Barak’s landslide defeat at the hands of Ariel Sharon.
The commission is still in the early stages of its work, but the fact that police officials find themselves under interrogation for the deaths of the 13 has provoked some criticism from Israeli Jews.
The inquiry’s findings likely will determine the professional fate of Commissioner Alik Ron, who as head of the police force’s northern command was responsible for dealing with the October riots.
In recent years, Ron has been among the foremost voices warning of the radicalization of Israeli Arabs and the growth of support for Muslim fundamentalist groups. Israeli Arabs, in response, claim Ron is a racist who treats Arabs with unnecessary harshness.
Conspiracy theories about Ron abound in the Arab community. Just after the riots, for example, Arab teen-agers in Kafr Manda told a reporter that Ron himself appeared at the scene of a particularly intense clash at the entrance to the village and urged his men to use live ammunition against the Arab rioters in order to save money on tear gas.
Ron has stated in recent weeks that his hands are clean and that, given the extent of the rioting, police could not have acted differently. He also insists that police acted in self-defense in those incidents that resulted in the 13 deaths.
This is precisely one of the points the commission will have to determine.
Arab human rights groups are concerned that the panel will whitewash events or even justify the police actions.
But Israeli legal expert Moshe Negbi disagrees, saying the commission has a broad mandate from the government.
Negbi and other supporters of the commission point out that in the first two weeks of the hearings, commission members toured the sites where the killings took place and went into painstaking detail to find out where police had shot from and why.
Arab observers fear that even if the commission finds some police actions unjustified, it may conclude that the riots caught police unprepared and that this would be used to explain the strong police reaction.
They likewise fear the commission may determine that police were justified in believing the Palestinian uprising was spilling into Israel from areas under Palestinian control and that the police reaction therefore was understandable.
Some legal experts estimate it could take months, perhaps even a year, before the commission delivers its findings.
That means that the commission will still be in session when Israeli Arabs mark Land Day on March 30. A day of protest against Israel’s allegedly discriminatory land use policies, recent Land Day demonstrations have been more violent and confrontational.
Israeli Arab leaders first claimed the October riots were “peaceful protests” against the Israeli response to Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The demonstrations quickly took on a more violently nationalistic tone, however, as groups of Arabs began trashing banks and government buildings in their cities, chanting “Slaughter the Jews” and “With blood and fire we will redeem Palestine.”
Rioters blocked roads including a major highway connecting Tel Aviv to the Galilee pulled Jewish drivers from their cars and beat them, and set forest fires across the Galilee. The Israeli military considered evacuating one kibbutz whose Arab neighbors were marching on it with firebrands in hand.
Seeing the backlash from Israeli peaceniks and Jewish residents in the Galilee, who suddenly feared to eat or shop in Arab areas, a few Arab leaders allowed that they may have crossed the line of permissible protest.
Since then, however, those voices have faded amid the community’s portrayal of the dead as innocent victims of Jewish security forces who place little value on Arab life.
In fact, even at this early stage of the proceedings, it seems the Arab population will settle for nothing less than a full indictment of all police officials involved in the 13 deaths.
Any leniency the commission shows police may well be countered with a strong Arab reaction that could further inflame relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews.
Hassan Jabarin, director general of the Arab civil rights group Adala which insisted on gathering and filtering all Arab testimony to the commission told JTA that “there is the absolute truth and the legal truth.
“As far as we are concerned, the facts speak for themselves. Thirteen Israeli citizens were killed in cold blood by police forces,” Jabarin said. “That is the absolute truth. It is now up to the commission to find the legal truth.”
The value of the commission has been the subject of debate in the Israeli media.
Right-wing columnist Nadav Haetzni argued in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that “nothing good could come from the commission,” which he said Barak created as part of a “surrender to the leaders of Israel’s Arabs, and whose purpose was to bribe politically the Arab voters and buy power with their votes.
“Eventually, like everything else in the political career of Ehud Barak, everything went wrong,” Haetzni wrote. “He paid the ransom, but did not receive the benefit” in terms of Arab support in the February elections.
On the other hand, Yosef Elgazi wrote in Ha’aretz that many Israelis have forgotten that 754 Arab citizens were arrested in the last three months of 2000 for their role in the riots, 171 are still in custody and many already have been sentenced.
“The Arabs are paying for their deeds, but the security officers only now are being asked to account for their acts,” Elgazi wrote.