Israeli panel cites anti-Arab bias
Ties citizens' deaths to country's attitude
by Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff
JERUSALEM -- A high-level commission that investigated the police killing of 13 Arabs at the beginning of the current, three-year armed struggle between Palestinians and Israelis ruled yesterday that the root cause of the deaths was systematic discrimination by Israel against its Arab population.
This long-term, pervasive discrimination drove Arab residents of Israel to desperate rage, the commission said, and caused police to react with undue force when the Arabs rioted in sympathy with the Palestinians of the occupied territories in early October 2000.
The unanimous findings of the so-called Or Commission -- whose members were Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, Nazareth District Judge Hashim Khatib, and Shimon Shamir, a veteran Israeli envoy to the Arab world -- marked the first time a major institution of the Israeli state has declared the existence of widespread, institutionalized prejudice against the country's Arab minority. About 18 percent of Israel's residents are Arabs.
The commission also found that top political and police officials were derelict in their duties to prevent the violence, contain it once it was started, and restrain the use of lethal force by officers in the field.
Ehud Barak, who was prime minister at the time, failed to heed warnings that serious trouble was brewing in Israel's Arab communities, where unemployment, education, and public services generally are chronically worse than in Jewish cities and towns. No sanctions were recommended against Barak, who was defeated by Ariel Sharon in elections six months after the riots.
However, commission members recommended that Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was minister of public security, never again be allowed to hold a senior security job, because of the magnitude of his failures. The panel also recommended that the national police commissioner and northern region police commander at the time be barred from top security jobs in the future and that several men who still have top police posts be fired.
Three Arab leaders also were cited for inflaming the situation.
Discrimination against Arabs in Israel "is the core subject, the most important and sensitive that is on the state's agenda," the commissioners wrote in a summary of their 831-page report. "As such it requires the involvement, care, and personal leadership of the prime minister. . . . A primary target of state activity must be achieving true equality for the Arab citizens. . . . The state must act to erase the stain of discrimination against its Arab citizens in all forms and expressions."
Relatives of the victims and leading Arab politicians in Israel heaped scorn on the report. They said the commission's responsibility was to identify for prosecution the officers who did the killing, and to recommend that Barak and other top officials also be held accountable.
"The report doesn't provide answers for the grieving families," said Shawqi Khatib, director of Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, at a press conference in central Jerusalem just after the document was made public. "People must be put on trial for the killings."
Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament who was one of those cited for incitement, said the only thing positive he heard in the report was the finding that "the police and the security forces deal with Arabs as if they are enemies. . . . It is our right to express solidarity with people under occupation without getting shot and killed."
Human rights advocates, Arab and Israeli alike, said the report was an important step in the right direction, though all cautioned that major improvements are unlikely to be made soon, given the current alienation between Jews and Arabs, the war between Israel and armed Palestinian groups in the occupied territories, and the poor state of the economy.
As'ad Ghanem, Arab codirector of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality, said the commission's findings regarding personal responsibility "are really not important" in practical political terms because Barak and Ben-Ami would never return to their prior posts anyway, though "the families will suffer for many years" because no one was made accountable for the deaths of their loved ones.
"More substantive is what the report says about the need to end discrimination against the minority," said Ghanem, a Haifa University political scientist who gave expert testimony to the commission. "They say more than has ever been said before about the need to recognize and guarantee the rights of the minority.
"But we are still very far from dealing with the problems," he said. "This is a Jewish state, created for the Jewish people. Being Jewish and serving Jewish needs is the foundation of this state. They are not talking about changing that."
Shuli Dichter, the Jewish codirector of the association and an avowed Zionist, also testified as an expert witness, telling commission members that the riots "though not peaceful and quite full of rage . . . were a huge attempt by the Arab citizens to push themselves into the political arena, to put themselves on the agenda. . . . There is constant, institutionalized discrimination. Jews and Arabs cannot live together in a state of such disparity."
Dichter said "it is sad it took us 55 years, sad that it came after such tragedy, but it is good that we have started" to look squarely at the problem.
Ben-Ami, a staunch advocate of Israeli reconciliation with the Palestinians who now is a professor of history in London, rejected the commission's finding that he failed to take numerous steps that could have prevented or at least reduced the violence. The panel faulted him for not properly equipping and training the police, not barring the use of live ammunition and rubber bullets for crowd dispersal, and not properly supervising the police forces.
"I never ceased to give directions of restraint and caution," Ben-Ami said in a statement yesterday. He asserted that the commission members would have made the same decisions he made at the time. Some of those decisions, he said, were based on misinformation he received from police commanders.
The current minister of public security, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Israeli television that he would ask the government to adopt the commission's findings in their entirety. Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said all the deaths should be examined by criminal investigators.
Globe correspondent Alon Tuval contributed to this report. Charles A. Radin can be reached at email@example.com