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Arab Riot Commission Grinds Forward, but Many Israelis Wondering What for

November 27, 2001
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It has been nearly a year since a panel began investigating the police killing of 13 Israeli Arabs during riots in October 2000, and many here are questioning whether the effort will amount to anything.

Last week, the two Israelis who stood at the top of the political pyramid at the time of the riots testified before the government-appointed Orr Commission — former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the former minister of public security, Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Their testimony left many observers more suspicious than ever.

Israeli Arabs are concerned that the commission will wind up whitewashing the events. Top police officials are worried that political leaders will shrug off responsibility. The public wonders whether the commission’s findings will help improve relations between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities.

And some Israeli Jews are wondering if the commission will have the temerity to investigate Israeli Arab leaders’ role in inciting their community to violence that ultimately boomeranged.

Neither Ben-Ami nor Barak said much to explain why the 13 Arab citizens of Israel were killed during the riots, which erupted in sympathy with the nascent Palestinian uprising.

Ben-Ami, who had replaced David Levy as foreign minister, was only a part-time minister of public security at the time of the October riots.

He testified that he did not know what was going on because police officials kept important information from him.

Barak testified that police had acted by the book, but should have acted with greater sensitivity and sensibility. He also said the government had received no warnings from intelligence officials of possible riots by the Israeli Arab community.

The state inquiry commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodore Orr, has the power to subpoena witnesses and can recommend legal proceedings against individuals.

The panel is expected to issue its findings within the next six months. They are expected to deal with some key issues:

Could the 13 deaths have been prevented?

Were the rioters to blame, or were police at fault?

If police were to blame, at what level does responsibility lie?

Should any political leaders be blamed?

“I don’t know which way they are heading,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman, director general of the Women’s Association Against Violence. “But I can tell you one thing: I sure hope the commission will not be used to whitewash what happened.”

The commission was set up by the Barak government at a time when the former premier needed the support of Israeli Arabs to be re-elected. The Israeli Arab boycott of the polls last February is seen as a major reason that Barak lost to Ariel Sharon.

The present government, however, has little commitment to the commission. In fact, a number of Sharon’s ministers have spoken out against the creation of the commission, viewing it as a sign of weakness in the face of hostility from segments of the Israeli Arab community.

The Sharon government will not shed tears if the commission comes up with conclusions critical of the Barak government. At the same time, it would be happy if the panel rules that police could not have prevented the bloodshed.

Under neither administration has the commission appeared inclined to question Israeli Arab leaders over their responsibility for radicalizing their community and planting the idea of violence against symbols of the Israeli state.

Whatever the commission’s findings, the government will be left with the problem of mending relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

“The problem is not between Jews and Arabs in this country,” said Touma-Suleiman, “but rather between the Arab population and the political establishment.”

The commission has a mandate to investigate the October 2000 riots and report its findings. But it will not come up with suggestions on how to improve relations with the Arab population. That will be the government’s job.

In his testimony last week, Barak spoke of the difficulty of this factor.

“A democratic, Zionist, Jewish entity cannot accept the vision of a totally different collective identity,” Barak said, referring to growing expressions of Palestinian nationalism among Israeli Arabs.

Part of those expressions are feelings of inequality that have simmered for decades. Part, too, is a growing feeling of identification with the Palestinians since the Oslo peace process led to partial Palestinian self-rule in the adjacent West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The riots began over the Temple Mount,” Professor Yosef Ginat of Haifa University told JTA. “But they soon turned into an outlet of frustration over continued feelings of inequality.”

In an attempt to deal with such feelings, the Barak government committed some $1 billion over four years to help improve Israeli Arabs’ standard of living. That came on top of major investments in the Israeli Arab community over the past decade, intended to rectify past inequities.

Barak’s commitment was put on hold as the Palestinian intifada forced Israel to increase spending on security.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Arab community is facing difficult times.

Unemployment recently reached 10 percent nationwide, but is as high as 30 percent in some Israeli Arab villages. Unemployment among Arab women is somewhere around 70 percent.

In attempting to remedy the situation, the Sharon government will face some political constraints.

Sharon may have to prepare himself in coming months for a fight with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud Party.

Out to protect his right flank from Netanyahu, Sharon will be playing to party hawks. That will make it difficult for him to appear soft on the Israeli Arab community.

In addition, Arab Knesset members who have become increasingly strident in their anti-Israel message show little remorse over how this alienates their constituents from the state.

It appears that reconciliation between the nation’s Jews and Arabs will have to wait for another, more opportune, time.

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