Two Arab teenagers who had been arrested at an anti-government protest were waiting to see a lawyer at a police station in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel. Their shirts were torn and their arms, legs and faces were covered in cuts and bruises. The lawyer turned to a police officer and demanded an explanation. The officer denied any wrongdoing: the police, he said, had used ‘reasonable force’ to detain them. At the court hearing that followed, the lawyer insisted that the boys be released and the police officers reprimanded for breaking laws regarding excessive force and the protection of minors. The judge waved his arguments away: ‘These are special security circumstances, and we must respond to these incidents [the demonstrations] with this in mind.’ The boys’ detentions were extended for several days, and then they were put under house arrest.
That happened in early October. In the weeks that followed, scores of young Arabs found themselves in a similar situation. Stun grenades, clubs and tear gas were used to quash demonstrations. People were detained and charged with incitement for writing political posts on Facebook. Activists were arrested ‘preventatively’ before attending any demonstrations. Family members of several protesters were detained without charge.
These developments went largely unnoticed at the height of the unrest that began that month. While the world’s attention focused on the Palestinian stabbings and the Israeli security forces’ crackdown in Jerusalem and the West Bank, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel took to the streets to protest against the violence and demand an end to the occupation. The police responded with repression. In October alone, more than two hundred Arabs, many of them minors, were arrested. Police units increased their presence in Palestinian towns and villages, patrolling the streets and looking out for any signs of protest. In some Jewish and mixed cities, officers routinely stopped and frisked Palestinian drivers and pedestrians. Many Palestinians travelling on buses and trains complained of guards and soldiers staring at them, their fingers poised on the trigger of their guns.
The Palestinian community in Israel was petrified by the hostility of the police. Like the Jewish majority, they were fearful of random attacks. But on top of that they were afraid of racist assaults on the part of right-wing Jewish citizens and, even more, afraid of the institutions that were supposed to protect them. As the stabbings continued, the government authorised a shoot-to-kill policy, ordering the police to abandon their normal rules of engagement. Local officials – including the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat – encouraged licensed gun owners to carry their weapons at all times. The public security minister, Gilad Erdan, said he would loosen the restrictions on gun purchases so that civilians could assist the police. Many Jewish members of the public responded enthusiastically: according to Erdan’s ministry, applications for firearms rose by ‘tens of percentage points’. Inevitably, every announcement of a stabbing was followed by an announcement that the attacker had been ‘neutralised’ – shot.
Grisly video recordings soon revealed that this trigger-happy policy was being automatically applied even when non-lethal means could easily have been used to subdue suspects. In Afula, police and soldiers surrounded a 30-year-old woman carrying a knife, before shooting and wounding her as she stood motionless; the police later determined she was not a ‘terrorist’ but suffering from mental health problems. In Jerusalem, a policeman shot two teenage girls who were attacking passersby with scissors; he killed one of the girls and wounded the other; he is the only police officer who has been questioned for using a gun when the attacker no longer posed a threat. In one of the most disturbing incidents, a 19-year-old called Fadi Alloun was shot dead in Jerusalem after a small crowd, claiming that he had a knife, shouted at a policeman to fire at him from several metres away even though he presented no danger to them.
It was therefore no surprise when a poll found that Palestinian citizens were more afraid of being harmed during this period of unrest than Jewish citizens (78 per cent versus 57 per cent), with more than half of Palestinian respondents saying they had changed their daily routine. With shootings every day, and protests continuing to be met with brutal force, Palestinians in Israel felt they were in as much danger of being killed or hurt by the police as by a Palestinian with a knife or a right-wing Jewish assailant.
Three months after the unrest began, on 1 January, a 31-year-old Palestinian citizen called Nashat Melhem opened fire at a bar on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, killing three people and wounding five. Melhem’s cousin had been killed by police officers during a house raid a decade ago, and Melhem had served five years in jail for trying to take a soldier’s weapon to ‘avenge’ his death. The day after the shooting, while a manhunt was underway, Netanyahu spoke at the site of the attack. He denounced what he called ‘lawless enclaves’ in Palestinian communities, claiming that many of Israel’s Muslim citizens were being swept up by the ‘wild incitement’ of radical Islam. ‘Whoever wants to be Israeli must be Israeli all the way,’ he said. ‘I will not accept two states within Israel.’
Netanyahu’s comments were immediately condemned by Palestinian and Jewish politicians in Israel, who accused him of racism and incitement. There was nothing new about the prime minister’s remarks: Netanyahu owes his political survival in part to his frequent inflammatory statements, such as his warning in March 2015 that Arabs were ‘coming out in droves’ to vote in the elections. Little attention was paid to the part of his statement in which he announced that together with Erdan and the new police commissioner, Roni Alsheikh, he had decided to allocate more resources to a plan to increase law enforcement in Palestinian towns and villages.
For decades, Palestinian citizens have criticised the Israeli police for failing to address local problems – high crime rates, domestic violence, illegal gun ownership and reckless driving. In the past 15 years, more than 1100 Palestinian citizens have been killed as a result of violent crime. Palestinian mayors, Knesset members and civil society groups have been involved in initiatives to improve policing, for example by hiring local officers, and have also called on the government to channel more resources towards tackling the wider socioeconomic conditions that fuel crime.
Netanyahu paid lip-service to these concerns, but they weren’t what he had in mind. As he was speaking, police units raided the dormitories and private homes of Arab students at Tel Aviv University. Melhem’s father – a former police volunteer who had identified his son to the authorities as soon as he saw the video of the shooting – was arrested, along with several other members of his family; they all denied any involvement. A few days later, police ramped up their activities in Melhem’s hometown, Ar’ara, conducting house-to-house searches. ‘They turned all of us into suspects,’ one resident told Haaretz.
Melhem was eventually found on 8 January and killed in a firefight with security forces as he tried to escape. A mourning tent was placed outside his family’s home, but the family kept a low profile, holding the event only in deference to custom. Their neighbours said they were glad the manhunt was over. But the Palestinian community was shaken and angered once again by the police’s invasive tactics and racial profiling. For them, Netanyahu’s call for law enforcement wasn’t a promise of security but a return to a familiar form of harassment.
Between 1948 and 1966, Palestinian towns and villages in Israel were subject to military rule, governed by a system similar to the one operating in the Occupied Territories today. Acts of state violence like the 1956 Kufr Qassem massacre – in which Israeli soldiers shot dead 49 Palestinian citizens returning from their farms after curfew – were brushed aside by the authorities and the perpetrators left unpunished. In October 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada, police forces responded to demonstrations in Israel’s Palestinian communities with rubber bullets and live ammunition. Twelve Palestinian citizens of Israel and one Palestinian from Gaza were killed, and hundreds injured. Such incidents marked a new low in the state’s relation with the minority: it seemed that the authorities viewed Palestinians on the Israeli side of the Green Line no differently from Palestinians on the other side.
A commission of inquiry led by the Supreme Court justice Theodor Or was established to investigate the October 2000 events. The commission concluded that there was no legal or practical justification for the police use of lethal weapons, and recommended that those responsible for the killings be indicted. Fifteen years later, not a single officer or official has been charged. One officer, Bentzi Sau, who as police commander in the north was held responsible for two of the killings, went on to become the head of Tel Aviv district police, and – last year – Israel’s acting police chief. The attorney general who managed the investigation into the killings, Menachem Mazuz, was made a Supreme Court justice.
The police have evaded accountability ever since. In November 2014, security camera footage showed that the shooting of a young Palestinian citizen, Kheir Hamdan, was unjustified and didn’t take place the way the police claimed it had – but none of the officers involved was indicted. During the 2014 military operation in Gaza, more than 650 Palestinian citizens of Israel were arrested in a crackdown on antiwar dissent; none of the authorities questioned police tactics. Frustrated by years of rejected complaints, Adalah, the legal centre where I work, examined the cases handled by the police invest-igation unit, known as Mahash, that looks into charges of police brutality or misconduct. Between 2011 and 2013, out of more than 11,000 complaints filed to Mahash, only 2.7 per cent led to the criminal prosecution of an officer, and only 3.3 per cent to disciplinary action; 72 per cent of cases were rejected without an investigation ever being opened.
Netanyahu’s plan for increased law enforcement in Palestinian communities, if implemented, would certainly help the police to crack down on violent cells or individuals linked to terrorist activities like the shooting in Tel Aviv. But cabinet ministers, commentators and security officials see other ‘threats’ that require police attention: Palestinian participation in anti-government protests; the commemoration of Palestinian history in universities; the publishing of political dissent on social media; even the simple fact of being Palestinian in a Jewish neighbourhood. In the government’s view, the police should not concern themselves with protecting Palestinian citizens. Their job is to make sure that Palestinians don’t endanger Jewish lives, disturb the Jewish public sphere or challenge the state’s political narrative.
It would be convenient to blame Israel’s security policies on the right-wing officials in Netanyahu’s government. But these policies are hardly new. They are simply the latest phase in a long history of violent and discriminatory law enforcement. And there are no signs that this history will change course. Three months after the start of the unrest, Israeli government ministers and opposition leaders continue to call for the extrajudicial killing of suspects. Members of the Knesset are drafting new laws to impose harsher penalties on Palestinians for protesting, stone-throwing and other forms of civil disobedience. Civil courts condone police misconduct, even when it violates Israeli law. The Jewish-Israeli public, gripped by fear, largely accepts these harsh policies in the name of ‘security’.
Despite decades of antagonism and distrust, which might well have left Palestinian citizens feeling unwilling to approach or co-operate with the police, they still want a police force that can guarantee safety and the rule of law. The problem is that Israel’s police have never been geared to that purpose. When the Or Commission released its conclusions on the events of October 2000, it included a symbolic indictment of Israel’s discriminatory attitude towards law enforcement:
It is important to act in order to root out the existence of negative prejudices against the Arab population that were discovered even among experienced and respected officers in the police force. The police must instil among its officers an understanding that the Arab community as a whole is not their enemy, and that it should not be treated as an enemy.
It was a remarkable admission of the state’s historic wrongs. But it was never going to change the minds of the authorities. Like Israel’s military control in the Occupied Territories, police violence and discrimination against the Palestinian minority has always been designed to deliver a clear political message: Palestinians will always be viewed as suspects, enemies who don’t belong, regardless of their citizenship or where they were born. Even if they have the same fears, do the same jobs and live in the same cities, Palestinian citizens will be expected to suspend their rights in order to make Jewish citizens feel safer. Any opposition to that hierarchy – whether expressed on the streets, in the Knesset, or on social media – is viewed as a subversive act, which will be dealt with by intimidation, collective punishment, even summary execution.
That was the message that was inscribed on the bodies of the two Arab boys in Nazareth three months ago, as the police officers responsible walked away unpunished: a message which will ensure that those boys grow up with the same sense of the injustices perpetrated by the ‘Jewish state’ as their parents and grandparents before them. It is a message intended to remind Palestinians in Israel of their permanent status as second-class citizens.