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Israelis Faulted for Response to Riots

Panel castigates police and government for excessive force against Arab protesters in 2000 and for treating citizens as a 'hostile element.'

September 02, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In a scathing report on Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens, a public inquiry Monday castigated the government and police for a heavy-handed, chaotic response to riots three years ago in which 13 Arabs were killed at the beginning of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

The report, released after months of anticipation, condemned Israeli police for using excessive force -- including snipers -- to quell demonstrations by Israeli Arabs in support of Palestinians in the West Bank and for treating Arab citizens as a "hostile element" within Israeli society.

The report also blamed the government of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak for failing to perceive and predict the depth of anger of Israel's 1 million Arabs, who have complained for years of being relegated to second-class status and discriminated against in everything from jobs to housing to education.

That rage helped fuel a string of protests starting Oct. 1, 2000, when hundreds of Israeli Arabs took to the streets in sympathy with Palestinians protesting against Israeli tanks and soldiers rumbling into the West Bank. Israeli Arab protesters hurled rocks, set shops ablaze and blocked roads, mostly in the northern part of the country, for eight days.

The Israeli police, caught unprepared, resorted to rubber bullets, then live ammunition, to suppress the disturbances. By the time they restored order, 12 Israeli Arabs and one Palestinian were dead. A Jewish Israeli was also killed in the riots.

The deaths shocked the nation and exposed the deep mistrust between Israeli Jews and the country's Arab minority, which is viewed by some as a fifth column of resistance within the Jewish state. Those divisions have worsened in the three years of the intifada, and the 830 pages of findings of the Or Commission, a three-man panel charged with determining what went wrong during the Arab riots, are not likely to bridge the gap.

Victims' families denounced the commission Monday for avoiding what to them was its central mission: punishing those who killed their loved ones.

The report called for criminal investigations into 10 violent incidents during the riots and recommended sanctions, suspensions and dismissals for a former government minister, two senior police figures and some lower-ranking officers. But the commissioners stopped short of singling out individuals for prosecution in the 13 Arab deaths.

"There's no finger-pointing at 13 murderers and the people who sent them and gave them their orders," said Nardin Asleh, whose 17-year-old brother, Assil, a budding peace activist, was slain during the riots. "We know who killed our sons. This committee was put together to use Israeli law to bring these people to justice."

The Or Commission, named after one of its panelists, Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, issued its findings after more than 2 1/2 years of testimony from hundreds of witnesses, including senior government officials such as Barak.

Analysts saw something of a victory in the report for the former premier, who critics said bore ultimate responsibility for the botched response to the outbreak of unrest. Although the commission faulted Barak's government for misgauging the level of anger in the Arab community, it concluded that the order to do whatever was necessary to tear down the roadblocks did not come from him -- even though he made that exact statement to Israeli radio in an interview Oct. 2, 2000.

The report did not recommend barring Barak from reassuming public office. Barak faded from the political scene after his 2001 election loss to current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but has hinted strongly in recent weeks of an attempted comeback.

His minister for internal security at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, fared worse. The commission -- whose findings are not binding but carry great weight -- said he should not return to that post in the future. It also recommended that two senior policemen never hold senior security-related positions again and condemned a police culture that it said fostered lies and cover-ups.

The sanction against Ben-Ami was similar to one issued by a 1983 probe into the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps. The inquiry concluded that the then-defense minister should be stripped of his post and never allowed to occupy it again. The minister was Sharon.

Arab community leaders objected to criticism in the report that some of them inflamed tensions during the riots by implicitly condoning violence as a legitimate response.

Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, said that the government's actions, not his political views, should have been under the commission's microscope. "We do not think we broke the law in expressing our solidarity with the Palestinians under occupation," he told reporters.

The panel's accusations of systematic "prejudice and neglect" by the government toward Arab citizens and recommendations for ending it brought contrite statements from several Israeli officials.

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