Israeli commission harshly criticizes government treatment of its Arab citizens

By PETER ENAV

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM – A groundbreaking Israeli commission of inquiry found police used excessive force in quelling Arab riots three years ago and said in a stinging report released Monday that the Jewish state has systematically neglected its Arab minority.

The document – the product of three years of investigation – was based on the testimony of 377 witnesses and only the fifth probe of such scope in Israel's history.

The panel's findings came as Israeli-Palestinian violence flared anew Monday.

An Israeli helicopter fired missiles at a car carrying three Hamas militants in Gaza City, killing one and wounding another. Twenty-five bystanders also were hurt in the sixth Israeli missile strike in two weeks. In the West Bank city of Nablus, soldiers shot and critically wounded a 15-year-old boy after a firebomb set their tank on fire.

Israel has been waging war on Hamas in retaliation for the suicide bombing that killed 21 people on a Jerusalem bus Aug. 19. With Monday's attack, 14 Palestinians, including at least 10 Hamas members, have been killed in missile strikes.

The panel of two judges and an academic urged the government to come up with a detailed plan for narrowing the gaps between Jews and Arab citizens, who make up about one-fifth of the population of 6.6 million people.

Israeli Arabs say they have long been discriminated against in economic opportunities, land distribution and civil rights.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said the panel's recommendations would be discussed by the Cabinet. Successive Israeli governments have promised to do more for Arab communities, but little has been achieved.

Arab leaders said the report did not go far enough, and that they had hoped senior police officers would face prosecution.

The commission recommended that several police commanders not be promoted and that two lower-level officers be removed. While the recommendations aren't binding, they carry great weight, and the attorney general could still seek criminal charges against some of the officers.

The commission was appointed after police shot and killed 13 Arab citizens in weeklong riots in October 2000. A Jewish motorist was killed by a rock in the protests.

Thousands of Israeli Arabs had taken to the streets to show support for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who a month earlier had embarked on an uprising against Israeli occupation.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to launch a formal inquiry, in part to deflect growing Arab anger against his government. Barak had been elected in May 1999 on a peace platform, with strong Arab support.

The report put the blame for the riots squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli establishment, saying a major cause was systematic government neglect of the Arab minority.

“The state and all its governments failed consistently in dealing with the problems raised by the existence of a large Arab minority within a Jewish state,” it said.

“The government's approach to the Arab sector was in large part characterized by neglect and discrimination. The establishment did not demonstrate sufficient sensitivity to the Arab sector, nor did it budget its resources in an equal way to the Arab population.”

The commission said Barak misread the charged atmosphere in the Arab community before the riots broke out and then did not do enough to prevent the use of live fire against demonstrators.

The panel also said several Israeli Arab politicians encouraged violence, but it did not recommend any disciplinary measures against them.

The riots broke out against the backdrop of a growing radicalization among Israeli Arabs, particularly followers of the Islamic Movement in Israel, the report said.

“The process of radicalization was related to the strengthening of Islamic politics in Israel in the period immediately preceding the (October 2000) events,” it said.

Concerning the use of force, the commission said live fire and rubber-coated steel bullets should not be permitted to control crowds unless the lives of officers are in danger.

“It must be pointed out in the strongest terms that live fire by police … is not a means for dispersing crowds,” the report said. “The use of rubber bullets is inappropriate because of the considerable dangers involved.”

The Israeli army also often uses rubber bullets against Palestinian stone-throwers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army plans to continue using them to disperse riots “in cases where there is a danger to life.”

Noam Hoffstater of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem said rubber bullets should be immediately banned for use in crowd control. The bullets can be lethal at close range or if they hit soft body tissue.

The report did not block Barak's possible return to politics – he said he might announce comeback plans in coming weeks – but recommended that his police minister at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, be barred from ever returning to the post.

Israeli Arab leaders said they were dissatisfied with the findings.

“The report does not prevent the next October,” said Abdulmalik Dahamshe, one of 10 Arab members of parliament. “Nor does it come to terms with the hostile policy that has existed in this country against Israeli Arabs for 55 years.”

Israeli police chief Shlomo Aharonishky said he would study the recommendations and implement them as quickly as possible.

For the most part, Israeli Jews and Arabs live in separate communities, marked by profound social and economic inequalities.

Arabs are far less likely than Jews to enter college, far more likely to drop out of school, and far less likely to find jobs in the public sector, where security considerations are often invoked as a justification for barring them from employment.

State allocations to Arab municipalities are considerably lower than those for their Jewish counterparts, and Arabs are more limited than Jews in their ability to acquire state lands for building and agricultural purposes.

Other major inquiries have dealt with the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Israeli allies in Lebanon and the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist Jew.