Five years after the October 2000 riots that brought Jewish-Arab relations to an unprecedented low, Israel’s Arab population is again on the offensive. The reason for the renewed tension is the decision of the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department not to press charges against any police officers in the killing of 12 Israeli Arabs and a Palestinian during the riots, which broke out in sympathy with the nascent intifada.
The reason: “Lack of incriminating evidence against the suspects.”
The Arab population reacted with rage, saying it showed that the state treats them as second-class citizens. Many Jews agreed.
“A situation in which 13 people were killed and no one is indicted is unacceptable,” said Shimon Shamir, a member of the Orr inquiry commission established by the government, which investigated the riots and issued a 2003 report that found flaws in the way the police reacted.
The Orr Commission instructed the investigations department to determine whether “there is reason to take criminal or other procedures” against policemen for the rioters’ deaths. However, the investigations department found that there wasn’t enough evidence to support criminal charges against specific police officers.
The Follow-Up Committee, the informal leadership of Israel’s Arabs, agreed Monday on a series of measures intended to reverse the department’s decision and lead to the indictment of police officers. The measures include demonstrations, a hunger strike by Arab leaders in front of the Prime Minister’s Office and appeals to the High Court of Justice to compel the state to press charges.
The Arab leadership is threatening to bring the issue before overseas legal authorities if they don’t get their way in Israel.
“This is legally possible,” Marwan Dalal, a senior attorney at Adalah, the Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel, told JTA.
A number of legal systems allow foreigners to be tried in severe cases of human-rights violations, he said.
As an example, Dalal cited the U.S. Alien Torts Act, which he said allows foreigners to press civil lawsuits in U.S. courts against officials involved in human-rights violations.
The act was dormant for 180 years until a 1980 case in which Paraguayan citizens pressed charges against the country’s inspector general for allegedly having tortured their son to death, Dalal said.
Similarly, Switzerland and Germany convicted Yugoslav citizens for human-rights violations in Bosnia. A British court convicted a Pakistani citizen for crimes committed in Afghanistan.
The idea of looking abroad when the Israeli courts — generally recognized as among the best in the world — don’t satisfy their grievances is becoming increasingly popular among Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and their supporters on the fringes of the Israeli Jewish left.
War-crimes charges several years ago against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, filed in Belgium, provoked a diplomatic confrontation between the two countries before they were dropped.
A British court recently issued an arrest warrant for alleged war crimes against reserve Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, former commander of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, for his anti-terror efforts during the intifada. The order eventually was revoked, but Almog, who was about to enter Britain, was advised not to disembark from his airplane and eventually returned to Israel.
Palestinians and their supporters also talk of filing charges abroad against former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon and the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, for their role in the assassination of Hamas terrorist kingpin Salah Shehada. The bomb that killed Shehada also killed a number of Palestinian civilians.
“Not all countries give their court universal criminal authority,” Hebrew University law professor Ruth Lapidot, a world-renowned expert on international law and a former legal advisor to the Foreign Ministry, told JTA.
To the best of her knowledge, Lapidot said, no foreign court has ever gone ahead with a legal process against Israeli citizens.
Moreover, she said, even countries that adopt the “universal responsibility code” usually limit it to charges of genocide, Nazi war crimes or hijacking of airplanes. Israel, for example, used the prerogative of international law to try Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and John Demjanjuk, who was accused of being a notorious concentration camp guard.
The conduct of Israeli policemen in the October 2000 riots doesn’t fall under any of those categories, Lapidot noted.
“The main legal issue is the question of the snipers,” Ilan Saban of Haifa University’s law school told JTA. “It is quite obvious from the findings of the Orr commission that the use of sharpshooters in the riots was improper, and I fail to understand why the police investigation department refrained from recommending legal action against those responsible for the use of sharpshooters against civilian protestors.”
However, Saban added that it’s a complicated legal matter to decide whether the use of snipers could be defined as a war crime.
The investigation department said that the refusal of several of the rioters’ families to allow autopsies after the deaths, and the amount of time that had since elapsed, made it impossible to assemble enough evidence to warrant criminal prosecutions.
In addition, as the Jerusalem Post noted in an editorial Tuesday, the Arab leaders are angry that no one has been held responsible for the death of Arab citizens do not seem troubled that none of the rioters has been identified as the killer of an Israeli Jew who died when his car was pelted with rocks.
Israeli Arab leaders have threatened several times to take their grievances to international forums, but they can hope for little more than sympathy there. In April 2004, Israeli Arab leaders discussed their grievances in a Cairo conference hosted by the Arab League titled “The Strategic Congress for Ties Between the Arab World and the Arabs of 1948,” a circumlocution that avoids the word “Israel.”
Still, the move resulted in few benefits for the Israeli Arabs beyond a limited public relations gain abroad — and a large measure of criticism back home.
Dalal said Adalah would pursue legal recourse overseas only if it feels that all local legal tracks have been exhausted.
“If we start turning to overseas instances with all kinds of allegations . . . there will be no end to it,” warned Ze’ev Segal, a law professor at Tel Aviv University. “I believe every authority in Israel can make a mistake in one affair or another, but to believe that we should seek justice abroad — that it will be given there, if at all — presents the danger of mixing politics with justice.”
None of the Arab figures interviewed saw any problem with pursuing legal cases abroad against Israeli officials.
“It’s the Arabs’ duty, not just their right, to turn to any international body that can assist them,” said As’ad Ghanem of Haifa University’s political science department. “The world today is a global village and international law deals with minority rights, especially indigenous minorities,” he said, adding, “We need to turn to any forum that can put an end to the distorted situation in Israel in which the state does not honor our basic rights as citizens.”
In an editorial Tuesday, Ha’aretz called for a fresh commission of inquiry by the Attorney General’s Office. Even if it too decides that there’s not enough evidence to indict individual officers, the paper wrote, at least it might reassure Arab citizens that everything had been done on their behalf.
But Dalal said his organization would be satisfied only when policemen are in jail.
“Any ruling that will not lead to the conviction of the defendants will not satisfy us,” he said.
Asked how he could reject any other ruling in advance, Dalal replied, “It’s illogical that no one will be accountable in this case.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.