Palestinians in Israel protest the Israeli Attorney General’s decision to not seek indictments of police officers involved in the October 2000 killings, January 2008. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)
It has been ten years since 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by the Israeli police force during nonviolent demonstrations at the outset of the second Palestinian intifada.
And while the victims’ families haven’t stopped demanding accountability and justice for their loved ones, a frightening realization is taking shape: in today’s Israel, what happened in October 2000 could easily happen again, if not worse.
“After this, everything is possible. The worst happened and after that it can only be worse,” said Mohammad Zeidan, the General Director of The Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA), based in Nazareth.
“There are a million reasons for an explosion concerning the racism and discrimination against the Palestinian minority [in Israel]. It just needs a small spark. And if that happens, we feel that the general political environment is worse than it used to be in 2000. It will be much worse than in 2000,” Zeidan said.
Unarmed demonstrators killed
At the end of September 2000, months before he was elected Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon made his infamous visit to occupied East Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, accompanied on all sides by Israeli security forces. This inflammatory move sparked the already-growing unrest in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians took to the streets in what became the start of the second Palestinian intifada.
Days later, on 1 October 2000, the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel announced a general strike and mass demonstrations were organized in many Arab towns inside Israel to show support for the Palestinians in the occupied territories. These protests were met with extreme violence on the part of the Israeli police force. Rubber-coated steel bullets, live ammunition and tear gas were used unsparingly on the demonstrators, while Israeli snipers were also set up in various cities.
Three young men — Mohammed Ahmed Jabareen (23), Ahmed Ibrahim Siyyam Jabareen (18) and Rami Khatem Ghara (21) — were killed on that first day of demonstrations.
As a result of these killings, the High Follow-Up Committee extended the strike, and demonstrations continued. These too were met with violent police repression, and over the course of eight days, a total of 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel, between the ages of 17 and 42, had been killed. A Palestinian resident of the occupied Gaza Strip was also killed.
“The general feeling was that all the red lines were broken [in October 2000] and that the deterioration was very fast. The very scary part of this was that at the official level of the Jewish majority there wasn’t any kind of reaction to stop the deterioration and the killings that were happening in the streets,” Zeidan said.
Thousands of Palestinians were injured and hundreds were subsequently detained or arrested in relation to the events that took place in October 2000.
A month later, in November 2000, the Israeli government set up a fact-finding team, the Or Commission, to look into what happened. Its findings were released in September 2003; the Or Commission found that the Israeli police illegally used rubber-coated bullets, live ammunition and snipers to disperse demonstrators, refuted the police’s claim that it had acted in self-defense and recommended that criminal investigations be opened for each of the deaths.
Two years later, in September 2005, the Ministry of Justice’s Police Investigations Department, known as Mahash, released its own report, stating that it wouldn’t indict any Israeli police officer in relation to the violence.
This decision was met with gross indignation on the part of Palestinian citizens of Israel and faced large-scale public criticism.
As a result, then-Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz launched his own investigation into Mahash’s decision, and in January 2008, Mazuz endorsed Mahash’s position that there was no reason to convict members of the Israeli police, who he argued had acted in self-defense against the demonstrators.
“[The Attorney General] closed the file on the argument that the Arab demonstrators almost used arms and they closed streets, and that in this situation, the police felt that they were in danger. In fact, he blamed the victims,” said Hassan Jabareen, the Founder and Director General of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and the lead lawyer for the October 2000 victims’ families.
“But if we want to analyze [Mazuz’s] rhetoric, we find that he treated the demonstrators not as civilians, but as combatants. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Palestinian civilian or Palestinian combatant, whether you are citizen or resident or non-resident, your ethnicity is the matter. The Attorney General treats them [Palestinians] as enemies,” Jabareen said.
“It shows that the impunity here is very, very strong for the police.”
A deteriorating situation
In an April 2001 report looking into the behavior of Israeli police officers during the violence, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) described Israel’s law enforcement systems as being “tainted by institutionalized racism.”
“During the events of September-October 2000, this was reflected in ugly and widespread manifestations of violence and humiliation. Yet this racism is also reflected in less overt ways in legislation, regulations and procedures that effectively discriminate against these citizens,” the report, titled “Racism, Violence and Humiliation,” stated.
The report added, “Official spokespeople for the State of Israel often describe the country as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ and as a member of the family of progressive and enlightened nations. The behavior of agents of the state — security force personnel and other authorities — towards its Palestinian citizens threatens to render such declarations hollow and meaningless.”
Indeed, according to Hassan Jabareen, the situation for Palestinian citizens of Israel is getting worse by the day.
“They are facing, more than in any other situation, direct racist policy and this racist policy justifies using violence against them. It seems that the situation is going towards escalation,” Jabareen said.
Mohammad Zeidan agreed, explaining that recent proposals and laws passed by the Israeli Knesset signal increasing hostility towards the country’s Palestinian minority, which makes up nearly twenty percent of the Israeli population.
“We see that the whole notion of a Jewish state is being legalized in different laws and proposals, and that creates an environment that delegitimizes our existence as citizens. This environment is the right environment for such attacks and such violence again the Palestinian minority,” Zeidan said.
He added, “Without international actual action towards the situation, nothing will be moving in Israel. I think the situation will be deteriorating more and more and that it will be much harder to speak about solutions in the future.”
Currently, Adalah is appealing to Israel’s new Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, to re-open investigations into the October 2000 killings.
More specifically, Adalah is asking Weinstein to look into the evidence collected against police officers involved in the killings, as well as to examine the work and procedures used by the Mahash and former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz during their separate investigations into what happened ten years ago.
“The families will continue to struggle,” said Hassan Jabareen. “Our demand today from the new Attorney General is to open the file and renew the criminal investigation. This is our demand right now.”
Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in occupied East Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jilldamours.wordpress.com.