Israel has closed the book on one of the toughest episodes in its domestic history. But for relatives of the 12 Arab citizens slain by police in the October 2000 riots, Sunday’s decision not to press charges against any of the officers involved offered no closure.
The Justice Ministry’s Internal Affairs Unit said it could not hope to put together successful indictments against the policemen alleged to have used excessive force against Israeli Arabs who went on a rampage in Galilee in solidarity with the Palestinians at the beginning of the intifada.
“Closing all of the cases is simply unavoidable, as some lack sufficient evidence, and in some because, to our regret, we have not managed to locate the responsible police officers,” the internal affairs report said.
According to the chief investigator, Herzl Shviro, the riots — during which a Jewish motorist died after being hit by a rock thrown at his car and several other people were injured — were “on a scale unprecedented in the annals of the State of Israel.”
The difficulties encountered in piecing together details of the skirmishes between dozens of armed police and thousands of Arab youths and men wielding slingshots and Molotov cocktails were compounded by a lack of cooperation from bereaved relatives.
“Most of the families refused to let us perform autopsies, which are vital for establishing which weapons fired which bullet and under what circumstances,” Shviro told reporters.
“Given all this, in nine of the 13 cases we could not even settle on a likely suspect. In the other cases, we could not pursue prosecution, as evidence was still too scant.”
To many Israeli Arabs, the Israeli police’s handling of the riots expressed long-standing racial discrimination in the Jewish state. The Justice Ministry’s findings did little to allay that feeling.
“Instead of bringing the evidence to light, the Internal Affairs Unit has taken part in a whitewash,” said Hassan Asala, whose son Asil was one of the slain Arabs.
The sweeping conclusions of the criminal investigation strayed from a report issued by a High Court inquiry into the October riots, which rapped the police on several points, such as the order to send in snipers against rioters who shut down major Galilee roads.
Shviro was unapologetic.
“A criminal probe by its nature has to be more discerning in gathering evidence than a state-appointed commission of inquiry,” he said.
Rejecting the racism accusation, Shviro noted that the Internal Affairs Unit has brought about the indictment and conviction of at least two dozen civilian and paramilitary border policemen who have assaulted Palestinians.
The Justice Ministry decision is still to be discussed in the Knesset. It may also find its way abroad: Shauki Khatib, the chairman of the Arab Council Heads in Israel, said bereaved families could take their cases to an international court.
They may have to wait in line. Since retired Israeli army Gen. Doron Almog narrowly avoided arrest in London on war-crimes allegations lodged by a British law firm on behalf of Palestinians, Britain has become the new focus of Jerusalem’s legal woes.
The former Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, canceled a recent fund-raising trip to Britain. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may not be immune: Asked if he could guarantee that the Israeli leader would not be arrested if he came to Britain, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sounded far from certain.
“I think so, although let me say these are all matters for the courts and not for me,” Straw told BBC television.
Political sources said Sharon raised the issue with his British counterpart, Tony Blair, on the sidelines of last week’s U.N. World Summit.
The problem centers on a British law that allows magistrates to issue arrest warrants on the basis of war-crimes allegations submitted by private individuals, with no government oversight.
According to sources in the Justice Ministry, Israel plans to ask Britain to amend the law. One solution would be to require the British attorney general to approve any such suits in the future.
Another would be to place Israel on a list of exempt nations in recognition of the fact that it observes due process of law. The British Embassy in Tel Aviv had no immediate comment on the plan.
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.