On 28 April, Israel’s Jerusalem District Court sentenced border policeman Yanai Lazla to six years’ imprisonment for the killing, in 2002, of ‘Amran Abu Hamdiya, 18, from the West Bank town of Hebron. Lazla and three other policemen threw Abu Hamdiya from a jeep moving at high speed after they had abducted, beaten and abused him. His head struck the pavement with great force, killing him. The policemen also abused other Palestinians in Hebron. The entire affair was exposed by B’Tselem and the Palestinian human rights organization al-Haq.
It is questionable whether a sentence of six years is compatible with an offense as grave as manslaughter. But bringing the policeman to justice, even if only partially, is a rare instance in which the system of justice in Israel meets its obligation to hold security forces accountable for illegally harming Palestinians. As a rule, the authorities refrain from enforcing the law on soldiers and police officers who commit crimes of violence. Presumably, the tragic results of this case, together with the high profile it was given by the media, led the authorities to deviate from their custom and prosecute the policemen.
One significant reason police are not held accountable for harming Palestinians in the West Bank is that many cases of violence against Palestinians are not properly investigated. As a result, it is difficult to arrive at the truth and the chance of an indictment being filed is reduced. It is not surprising, then, that most cases of violence never reach the courtroom. Since the beginning of the intifada, in 2000, B’Tselem has reported to the Department for the Investigation of Police (DIP) 130 cases of police violence against Palestinians (not including shooting cases). Of these, DIP opened 100 investigations, which led to the prosecution of only nine police officers and disciplinary proceedings against only four police officers.
On 30 December 2002, at about 8:00pm, a Border Police jeep stopped next to ‘Amran Abu Hamdiya, who was with his friends outside his house in Hebron. Eyewitnesses related to B’Tselem that border policemen got out of the jeep, put Abu Hamdiya inside the vehicle and drove off. A few of Abu Hamdiya’s friends headed toward Hebron’s industrial area, a place where they knew Border Police officers beat Palestinians. About 40 minutes after the policemen grabbed Abu Hamdiya, his friends found his body at the industrial area, lying by the side of the road.
Later that evening, B’Tselem began to investigate the incident. The organization found, among other things, that the same night, Border Police officers severely beat two other Palestinians. After taking the first few testimonies, B’Tselem immediately demanded that DIP investigate. At first, the Israel Police denied any connection to the matter, and police spokespersons claimed that no police jeep was in the area. B’Tselem aided DIP in locating witnesses and brought them to give testimonies to DIP investigators. Meanwhile, in cooperation with al-Haq, B’Tselem obtained the consent of Abu Hamdiya’s family to remove the body from the grave and conduct a forensic examination. The organizations invited the Danish pathologist, Dr. Jurgen Tomassen to take part in conducting the autopsy. The findings indicated that Abu Hamdiya had been badly beaten prior to his death.
Following publication of the results of the autopsy, the four policemen were arrested, and on 1 May 2003, indictments were filed against them. The four were charged with the manslaughter of Abu Hamdiya, abuse of three other Palestinians, and obstruction of justice. Simultaneously, a Border Police investigative committee established following the DIP investigation recommended that the platoon be disbanded and that its commander, and his predecessor, be banned from holding any command position. The committee also recommended that a Command note of censure be placed in the personal files of the Border Police commander in the West Bank, Yiftach Avraham, and the vice-platoon commander, Eldad Shusaf. The Border Police commander and the Israel Police inspector general adopted the committee’s recommendations. Since then, B’Tselem has documented many cases of violence by Israeli police officers against Palestinians in Hebron, despite the disbanding of the platoon.
The indictment against the four policemen stated, in part, that they “went on a campaign of abuse and cruelty against residents of the city, misusing their authority, by engaging in violent actions intended to cause physical injury and to damage property, their objective being to injure, humiliate, and harass … During their journeys on the streets of the city … the defendants put into the jeep local residents that they came upon by chance and ordered them to jump from the jeep while it was moving. One of the local persons who refused to do this while the jeep was moving at very high speed was pushed out of the jeep by the defendants, fell onto the road, striking his head, and died as a result … In addition, the defendants grabbed other local persons and beat them, a club and rifle butt being among the means used, stole property, and threw tear gas and stun grenades at local residents for no reason.”
On 16 May 2003, the Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot published, in its weekend magazine, an interview with Bassem Wahabi, one of the four defendants. Wahabi described in detail how they killed Abu Hamdiya: “I drove at 70-80 KMH. I heard Shachar tell the guy, ‘Get out of the jeep.’ The guy stood in the middle and grabbed the straps on the roof of the jeep. He was between Shachar and Yanai. The two of them pushed him out. He fell onto the road, and I heard his head crack. I wanted to stop, and then they shouted, ‘Drive to the base, he’s dead, he’s dead.’ When we got to the base, we coordinated our testimony, so that we wouldn’t incriminate each other.”
On 6 July 2003, indictments were filed against eleven other Border Police officers from the same platoon. They were accused of harassing residents of the city and damaging their property, robbing shops, and beating passersby.
On 22 September 2005, Bassem Wahabi, the driver of the vehicle, who was quoted above, was convicted of being an accessory to manslaughter and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. On 28 April 2008, Yanai Lazla, who threw Abu Hamdiya out of the jeep, and was convicted of manslaughter and other offenses, was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. The proceedings against the other two defendants continue.