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Israeli Arab Pain--and Rage--in Court

Mideast: A hearing into the killings of 13 men opens with angry outbursts by a victim's parents. In the West Bank, a Hamas leader is shot dead as violence continues.

February 20, 2001|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — A government inquiry into the killings of 13 Israeli Arabs by riot police in October turned violent inside a courtroom here Monday when parents of one victim tried to assault the policeman who allegedly shot their son.

The emotion-filled hearing into Israeli security forces' most politically sensitive killings was broken off for 2 1/2 hours after courtroom guards wrestled the couple away from the witness.

"You murdered my son! You murdered my son!" shouted Rushadia Ghara.

The mother fainted and was taken away by an ambulance for medical treatment.

Moments earlier, her husband, Khaled, his fists clenched, had lunged at border policeman Murshad Rashed. The father was quickly subdued by courtroom guards. Rashed, visibly alarmed, was rushed out through a side door.

The incident occurred on the same day that Israeli forces in the West Bank fatally shot a leader of the radical Hamas group, according to Palestinian witnesses. They said the man, 25-year-old Mahmoud Madani of the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, was the latest casualty of Israel's policy of hunting down and killing known militants.

Israeli radio reported that security forces targeted Madani because they believed that he had planted car bombs that recently exploded in the Israeli towns of Hadera and Netanya.

The drama in the Jerusalem courtroom unfolded shortly after a three-member panel headed by Israeli Supreme Court Judge Theodore Or opened the official inquiry into the deaths of the 13 Israeli Arab men.

Victims' relatives had successfully pressured Prime Minister Ehud Barak to replace his "fact-finding committee" with a commission armed with judicial powers.

Many Israeli Arabs want the hearings to highlight what they describe as Israel's treatment of them as second-class citizens.

Israeli Arabs, who make up nearly a fifth of Israel's population, are Palestinians who stayed when the Jewish state was created in 1948, and their descendants. Unlike Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, they are taxpaying citizens with full rights to vote and hold office.

Israeli Arabs have long complained that they are the victims of government neglect and discrimination. Many sided with the uprising, or intifada, that broke out at Jerusalem's Temple Mount on Sept. 28 and quickly spread to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

During several days of rioting that followed, thousands of Arabs in northern Israel took to the streets, clashing with Israeli police and paramilitary border police who fired rubber-coated steel pellets and live rounds.

Authorities have maintained that the 13 men were killed by police who were defending themselves against Arabs who attacked them with guns and rocks.

But last month, a joint inquiry by three human rights groups found that riot police had violated their own regulations by firing at protesters who posed no deadly threat. The groups also faulted the police for shunning nonlethal riot-control measures.

On Monday, relatives traveled more than three hours from their homes in the Galilee region to attend the public hearing. They clutched poster-size photographs of their loved ones and wept openly even before the proceedings began.

Trouble broke out shortly after one border policeman was called to answer questions about whether he and his colleagues had fired at the Arabs from close range. When the officer testified that he had not fired any shots, the sister of 21-year-old victim Rami Hatem Ghara peeled off her headphones--which she was using to listen to the Arabic translation of his testimony--and flung them at him.

"You're a liar! Stop lying!" she screamed, before she was escorted out of the courtroom.

Rashed, an Israeli Arab, was the next to testify. When the victim's father realized who the witness was, he bolted from his seat near the stand and aimed blows at the officer.

"He [Rashed] was just next to me and alive and with sunglasses on his head and a phone on his belt, and my son is in another world," Khaled Ghara said later.

"I really hope that I will hear justice in my country, because my son was killed unjustly," he said.

When the hearing resumed, Or said he would allow other police officers to appear in disguise, so that they could be protected against possible reprisals.

The courtroom clashes came as violence involving Palestinians and Israeli soldiers continued across the West Bank and Gaza, five days before a planned visit to the region by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The latest death was of Madani, identified by Palestinians as a captain in Hamas' armed wing.

Witnesses said Madani was walking from a mosque in the Balata camp when he was gunned down by Israeli soldiers about 150 yards away.

Madani cried out, "I've been hit," and tried to crawl away, according to his 21-year-old brother, Noor.

Israel has targeted and killed about 20 militants in recent months, according to Palestinians. This so-called liquidation policy has been condemned by human rights groups, the United States and the European Union.

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