On 2 October 2000, as the Israeli army was beginning its ruthless crackdown on the second intifada in the occupied territories, 17-year-old Aseel Asleh joined tens of thousands of other Palestinian citizens across Israel in taking to the streets in protest and in a show of solidarity with their kin across the Green Line.
A firm believer in nonviolence, Asleh wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a prominent Jewish and Arab coexistence group, Seeds of Peace, as he marched alongside family, friends and neighbors through his town of Arrabeh in northern Israel.
Within hours Asleh was dead, face down in an olive grove. A bullet, fired from a police gun at point-blank range, had severed an artery near the back of his neck in what looked suspiciously like an execution. Earlier he had been seen fleeing through the grove, chased by a police squad breaking up the demonstration.
Late last month, after a seven-year battle for justice, Asleh’s parents and those of another 12 Palestinian demonstrators killed inside Israel at the start of the intifada heard that the policemen responsible for the deaths would almost certainly never stand trial.
Israel’s attorney-general, Menachem Mazuz, told the families that the investigations were being wound up. In most cases there was a lack of evidence, he claimed, and in the cases where there was evidence the policeman had acted in the belief that their lives were in danger.
The decision was a heavy blow not only to the families but also to the fifth of Israel’s population who are Palestinian. In a display of anger and frustration over the continuing inaction by the state, a one-day general strike was called, bringing Palestinian citizens out onto the streets once again.
“Arab blood is worthless”
Asleh’s mother, Jamila, held aloft a picture of her son as crowds surged through the narrow alleys of the neighboring town of Sakhnin, where two more youths were killed. She told the marchers that the families would continue their struggle: “We shall not keep quiet and we shall show the world what a racist establishment this is, so that everyone knows what is taking place in the State of Israel.”
Her characterization of the Israeli establishment as “racist” was far from inflammatory rhetoric. In October 2000, when she and her husband, Hassan, went to collect the body of their son, they were handed a hospital report card. Stamped on the front cover were the words “Enemy operation.” A later official inquiry found that even the country’s most senior police commanders believed Palestinian citizens to be “the enemy” and acted accordingly.
Shawki Khatib, chairman of the Palestinian minority’s main political body, the High Follow-Up Committee, told the marchers that Mazuz’s decision proved that, as far as the Israeli authorities were concerned, “Arab blood is worthless.”
He found an unlikely ally in this assessment. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that, shortly after Mazuz’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met the minority’s leaders and conceded that, had the 13 demonstrators been Jews, the attorney-general’s findings would have been different.
Both the Follow-Up Committee and the Adalah legal center, which represents the bereaved families, say that they have exhausted legal channels inside Israel and will now turn to the international community. A quarter of a million signatures are being collected protesting Mazuz’s decision and calling on the United Nations to protect Israel’s Palestinian minority.
Certainly the struggle for justice has reminded the minority that in times of trouble Israeli citizenship is meaningless if you are a Palestinian.
Mazuz’s closure of the files on the 13 deaths comes at the end of seven years of blatant obstruction and evasion by the Israeli police, politicians, investigatory authorities and the legal system. Mazuz said he had been forced into his decision by a dearth of evidence and because the bereaved families had not cooperated with investigators. Whatever basis in reality either claim has is entirely the fault of Mazuz and his officials.
What is certain is that at every step of the way official bodies have tried to conceal evidence that suggests the police implemented a shoot-to-kill policy against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators at the start of the intifada. A trail of evidence apparently leading back to senior government ministers, who may have originated the order or at least approved it, has been concealed.
As the chair of the left-wing Meretz party, Zahava Gal-On, put it, Mazuz’s decision was the “chronicle of an obvious cover-up.”
The Or Commission
The evidence that has surfaced, mainly inadvertently, emerged from three years of hearings by a commission of inquiry grudgingly set up in late 2000 by the prime minister of the time, Ehud Barak. He appointed a senior judge, Theodore Or, to head a panel examining the 13 killings in the desperate and, as it turned out, forlorn hope that he could win back the Palestinian minority’s vote and defeat his rival Ariel Sharon in imminent elections.
While the Or Commission prepared to open its first sessions, a police investigations unit, known as Mahash, should have been collecting and sifting evidence and questioning police officers and witnesses. Instead, it used the establishment of the inquiry as an excuse to defer its investigations until the commission’s final report had been issued.
Mahash’s reluctance to investigate the police can be easily explained: most of Mahash’s team were either serving or former policemen. Strangely, Justice Or appointed two Mahash investigators to his own staff, where they proved equally ineffective.
Damaging revelations emerged from the inquiry hearings mostly in spite of the commission’s work rather than because of it. Justice Or decided it was not the inquiry’s job to carry out a forensic examination and investigation of the 13 deaths and he ignored bulging files of evidence provided by the bereaved families and their lawyers.
Nonetheless, several policeman, demonstrating an arrogance that appeared to surprise Justice Or, gave testimony incriminating themselves or others. Many of the officers also signaled the contempt in which the Palestinian minority is held by the force.
In particular, their testimonies included two shocking admissions. The first was that the police had been using live ammunition and rubber-coated steel bullets against unarmed demonstrators — a fact that was well known to the Palestinian minority at the time but which had been strenuously denied by the police and the government.
In the case of most of the demonstrators who were killed, the Justice Ministry had hurriedly buried the bodies without conducting an autopsy, in contravention of its public duty. In cases where bullets had been extracted, they had not been examined. In the absence of solid evidence, the police claimed that the bullets proved only that the demonstrators themselves were armed. The existence of live rounds even explained, said the police, why several demonstrators had been shot in the back: because gunmen were supposedly firing from behind them.
The second admission was that the most senior police commanders, Yehuda Wilk and Alik Ron, and possibly the prime minister himself, had approved the use of an anti-terror sniper unit — the first time in Israel’s history that it had been deployed inside Israel and used against civilians.
In September 2003, Justice Or finally issued his lengthy report, castigating the police in general for their treatment of the Palestinian minority. However, having failed to question the overwhelming majority of Palestinian citizens who witnessed the police brutality at first hand, including hundreds who had been seriously wounded, he admitted to being in no position to pass judgment on the individual policemen who killed the demonstrators.
Investigation a low priority
Justice Or, however, did find that there was sufficient evidence to implicate two policemen who were responsible for three of the 13 deaths. He ordered Mahash to restart its investigations immediately so that prosecutions of individual policemen could begin.
Both the police and the government responded by suggesting that it was too late to find the culprits. The Justice Minister of the time, Yosef Lapid, argued: “The bodies have long since been buried. There are no bullets, no scraps of evidence, and no witnesses.”
As we have seen, that was not true. But it would soon provide Mahash with the alibi it needed to continue avoiding a proper investigation.
On the first anniversary of publication of the commission’s report, an exasperated Justice Or rebuked Mahash for making no progress in its inquiries. Only then did Mahash begin to move. But conducting an investigation seemed a low priority. Instead, Mahash requested that the family of Aseel Asleh allow an autopsy on their long-buried son.
The Aslehs had already made it known that they would refuse such a request, both because they did not want to desecrate their son’s resting place when all the evidence suggested Mahash was not serious about an investigation and because ballistics experts were agreed that there was almost no chance of identifying the police culprit from a bullet extracted after all this time.
As one leading criminologist, Meir Gilboa, a former head of Israel’s Serious Crimes Investigations Unit, observed: “All the [fatal] injuries were either from rubber-coated bullets, which cannot be traced to a specific gun, or from live rounds fired from M-16 rifles that shatter in the body and so cannot be matched with a weapon.”
Nonetheless, at a press conference in September 2005 the head of Mahash, Herzl Shviro, justified his decision to close the investigations largely on the grounds that the families had failed to cooperate over autopsies. The attorney-general, Mazuz, backed him.
Strangely Shviro, having found that Mahash could not identify any of the policemen who killed demonstrators, or hold accountable any of their commanders who ordered the use of live fire, had allowed his team to ignore all other potential charges that could be laid against individual officers. Lesser charges — or even disciplinary proceedings — were not leveled against officers known to have committed perjury, fabricated evidence, violated standing orders, or refused to cooperate with the Mahash investigation.
For example, Yitzhak Shimoni, one of the chief suspects in the shooting of Aseel Asleh, refused to take a polygraph test to explain inconsistencies in his testimony. Rather than being investigated by Mahash or disciplined by his commanders, he had been promoted to chief inspector of his area.
Shviro’s press conference shocked many observers. The noted historian Tom Segev commented that Mahash “comes across as defense counsel for the policemen.” One of the Or commission members, Shimon Shamir, a distinguished academic, called Mahash’s decision “hard to accept,” pointing out that Justice Or himself had believed there was enough evidence to indict two policemen.
Mazuz tried to ride out the storm. But when the political leadership of the Palestinian minority began a hunger strike and threatened to take their case to the International Court of Justice, the attorney-general back-tracked. He announced that Mahash’s findings would be re-examined.
He put the examination in the hands of the Justice Ministry’s state prosecution service, headed by Eran Shendar, an official who at the start of the intifada had been in charge of Mahash, the very same Mahash that had failed to carry out the original investigations now at the centre of the controversy. The conflict of interest appalled even the right-wing Jerusalem Post.
In an attempt to force the Justice Ministry to take the investigation seriously, the Adalah legal center sent it a comprehensive report entitled “The Accused,” addressing Mahash’s failures to investigate the October 2000 killings. The report stated that Mahash “concealed significant facts and issued a falsified report regarding the events.”
Two and a half years later, Mahash’s sham investigation has come full circle. Mazuz announced at a press conference on 27 January that he was standing by the findings of 2005.
This time much of the Israeli media has been supportive, hoping finally to lay to rest the investigation. The website of Israel’s most popular newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, carried an article quoting a senior Justice Ministry official who yet again blamed the families.
“The families refused an autopsy; the families and the Arab public as a whole refused to cooperate with the investigation that took place following the riots,” the official claimed. “Such a refusal bears consequences.”
Mazuz held out a sliver of hope. He said there were two incidents where it might be possible to identify the policeman responsible but they would require “an autopsy of several of the deceased bodies.” He added, however: “There is no guarantee that such a procedure will result in an indictment of any kind.”
This month Aseel Asleh’s Jewish friends in Seeds of Peace held a rally outside the Justice Ministry in an attempt to change Mazuz’s decision. They handed in a petition with the following message: “If the murdered were Jews, you wouldn’t dare close the file … If the protesters were Jewish, even those who go wild, throwing rocks and even carrying firearms, no police officer would shoot and no demonstrator would be killed.”
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His extensive account of the October 2000 deaths and the Or Commission hearings can be found in his book Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State (Pluto Press, 2006). His website is www.jkcook.net.