Israeli police commander promoted despite role in deaths of Arab citizens

I’lam, the only media centre for the Arab minority in Israel, issues a monthly “Alternative News Briefing” to journalists and others interested in the region as a corrective to the distorted coverage of events affecting Israel’s Arab citizens by the Israeli media. The following article was taken from Alternative News Briefing No. 24.

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    The head of Israel’s paramilitary Border Police, Benzi Sau, has been promoted to a senior position in the Public Security Ministry in defiance of the findings of a state inquiry that implicated him in the chain of events that led to the killing of 12 Arab citizens and a labourer from Gaza by the security forces in October 2000.

    This is Sau’s third promotion since the deaths, despite a recommendation from the Or Commision of Inquiry that Sau not be considered for promotion again until September 2007.

    The Or Commission began its hearings in February 2001 into the lethal suppression by the police of protests in the Galilee coinciding with the start of the intifada in the occupied territories. Sau allowed his officers to use live ammunition and rubber bullets against unarmed demonstrators, as well as deploying a unit of anti-terror snipers against the same protests.

    A few months after the 13 deaths, Sau was appointed head of the Jerusalem district of the Border Police, despite a supposed freeze on all promotions among officers involved in the killings until the commission had completed its report.

    Later, in October 2004, he was again promoted, this time to national commander of the Border Police. The appointment came a year after the Or Commission published its report, in which Justice Theodor Or recommended Sau be barred from promotion until 2007.

    This latest promotion makes him the Public Security Minister’s chief security adviser, liaising between the Ministry and the police command. According to the Hebrew media, the post is widely seen as a springboard to senior national security and political jobs.

    In its report, published in September 2003, the Or Commission concluded that Sau had been jointly responsible with police commander Alik Ron for bringing the snipers to the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm three years earlier, when one protester was killed and dozens seriously injured. The snipers used live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators and stone-throwers.

    Sau’s own Border Police officers used rubber bullets and live ammunition against the protesters in violation of standing orders. According to the Commission, Sau’s actions led to an “unnecessary confrontation” with the demonstrators that led to a total of four deaths in the the Little Triangle area, which was under Sau’s command.

    At the time of the October events, Sau was in charge of the northern division of the Border Police. The Border Police exists in a grey area, operating inside both the occupied territories and Israel, and empowered to use much the same tactics on both sides of the Green Line.

    A petition against the Sau’s first promotion, to the rank of Brigadier General in April 2001, submitted by the Adalah legal centre for the Arab minority was rejected by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the Or Commission had not yet issued its report.

    In the final report, Justice Theodor Or reserved some of his harshest criticism for Sau. He recommended: “Sau should not be promoted in rank or position from his current post for a period of four years from the day of the publication of the commission’s findings.” That recommendation expires in September 2007.

    In October 2004, a year after the report’s publication, Sau was promoted to commander of the Border Police. Gideon Ezra, the Public Secutiy Minister of the time, claimed the job was not a promotion, only “switching jobs”.

    Sau was again promoted last month. On 28 May the current Public Security Minister Avi Dichter - who was himself head of the Shin Bet at the time of the October events - appointed Sau as his chief security adviser.

    Dichter claimed Sau’s new role did not violate Justice Or’s recommendation because it was not a promotion, merely a “lateral move”. Dichter changed the title of the ministry job to “security secretary” and lowered the rank needed to fill the post to Brigadier General so that Sau would be eligible. Previously the rank of general has gone with the position.

    Dichter’s claims that Sau has not been promoted have been rejected by Adalah. It points out that, whatever Sau’s rank, he will gain a significant degree of new powers and influence in his ministry role. “As the Head of the Minister’s Operational Staff Unit, Sau is able to participate, along with the Minister of Public Security, in high-level government meetings, including at cabinet level, concerning security, at which all security matters in Israel are discussed, not only those relating to the police.”

    Adalah submitted a petition to the Supreme Court challenging the new promotion on 1 June.

    The Or Commission reprimanded some eight policeman over the 13 deaths. It recommended a ban on the use of rubber bullets inside Israel and urged the police to stop treating the Arab public in Israel “an an enemy”.

    I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel is a non-profit organization based in Nazareth. It was founded in 2000, by a group of Arab journalists and academics. As the only Arab Palestinian media organization in Israel, I’lam is deeply committed to the democratization of media policies, media practices, and the media landscape in Israel.