Netanyahu Backs Police After Fatal Shooting of Israeli Arab Sparks Clashes in Galilee

Police insist that officers' lives were in danger when the man attacked a police car with a knife, but footage indicates officers may not have followed protocol.

The police shot and killed a 22-year-old man from the northern Arab village of Kafr Kana in the early hours of Saturday morning, after he allegedly attacked a police car with a knife.

However, CCTV footage may contradict the officers’ statement that a warning shot was fired in the air before the man was fatally wounded.

A large protest was held in the Galilee village on Saturday to protest the shooting. At its climax, clashes erupted between stone throwers and the large police force stationed nearby. A general strike among Israeli Arabs was announced by The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch.

However, Netanyahu backed the officers and harshly criticized the protesters in Kafr Kana. “Israel is a state of law,” he said. “We won’t tolerate disturbances and riots. We will take action against stone throwers, those who block traffic arteries, and those who call for establishing a Palestinian state in place of the State of Israel. Whoever doesn’t respect Israeli law will be punished to the fullest extent. I will direct the interior minister to consider stripping the citizenship of those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel.”

Officers from the Nazareth police station were initially called to the village to arrest another man in his twenties, on suspicion of throwing a stun grenade as part of a family dispute. However, another youth, Khayr al-Din al-Hamdan, approached the police car wielding a knife, according to the police.

Police arrest a protester in the Galilee village of Kafr Kana, Nov. 8, 2014.Gil Eliahu

A police spokesperson said the officers tried to stop the man by firing a shot in the air, but when he didn’t stop, they feared for their lives and shot at him.

Footage of event raises questions

However, CCTV footage does not seem to show the officers firing a warning shot first. In the video, the youth is seen approaching the patrol car and stabbing at it with what appears to be a knife. A police officer then emerges from the car. The youth is seen running away from the vehicle and the officer appears to shoot at the youth.

Hamdan was hit in the upper body and taken to Haemek Hospital, Afula, at around 1 A.M., in serious condition. He died from his wounds in hospital.

Police face protesters at Kafr Kana, November 8, 2014.Gil Eliahu

Even after seeing the CCTV footage, Israel Police insisted the officers’ lives were in danger and that they shot in the air. They suspect, however, that the officers didn’t act according to protocol after the shooting. Also, the officers decided to get out of the car immediately next to the youth, instead of keeping their distance. The footage shows them dragging the youth to the police car, instead of calling an ambulance and treating him on the scene.

Please note, video contains graphic content

A poster from Kafr Kana showing the youth who was shot by police. Jack Khoury

The police’s gun-firing regulations dictate that an officer must take several steps before he is permitted to open fire with an intent to kill. The officer must give prior warning to the subject before opening fire, shoot into the air, and then shoot toward the subject’s feet. Only after these three stages have been taken may the officer take aim at the subject’s upper body.

However, if at any point during these stages the officer ascertains that the threat has turned into an immediate one and his life is in danger – of the type that can only be nullified by killing the subject – shooting with intent to kill is permitted. In general, use of live fire is permitted only when all other means available to the officer have been exhausted.

Israel Police said they wouldn’t comment further, since the Justice Ministry’s police investigation unit will probe the shooting and conduct a full investigation into the officers’ conduct and handling of the incident.

A spokesman for the police’s Northern District stressed that the investigation will be offered the precinct’s full cooperation.

Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino offered his full backing to the police officers, saying, "I was witness today to the unfounded, irresponsible attacks on Israeli police officers, and I say here, loud and clear, that the police command, headed by myself, gives its full backing to the fighters, officers and volunteers of Israel Police who work day and night with dedication and determination for the sake of the safety and security of Israeli citizens.”

He said that he has instructed the Israel Police Investigation Unit to “fully cooperate” with the investigation of the shooting, saying, “We will wait for the investigation’s conclusions, and I have requested from the unit’s head to make it of highest priority.”

Furthermore, he said that he would appoint a team to check how the force handled the incident after the shooting when the police investigation unit finishes its probe.

Danino added that all sectors of the population are subject to the same policies of law enforcement, and that law enforcement will remain “equal, professional and fair.”

With tensions high across the country at the end of another violent week in Jerusalem, police understand that Saturday’s incident could increase tensions among Arab youth, and want to show they are taking the matter seriously, he added.    

Tensions high in Kfar Kana

Some 5,000 people took to the streets of Kafr Kana on Saturday afternoon to protest and condemn the shooting. Earlier, Arab council heads held a meeting, and a general strike was declared in the village.

After the protest ended, dozens of protesters proceeded to the Beit Rimon junction and started throwing stones, and burning tires and Israeli flags. A large police presence was positioned several hundred meters from the junction. Three people were arrested for stone throwing.

Hamdan’s funeral took place at 7 P.M. on Saturday evening and was attended by thousands. At the end of the funeral, Rafa Amara, a cousin of the deceased, said that the police who were in the vehicle were to blame. "This is a regular family, a religious kid who is not a fanatic and without a criminal history. There is a lot of anger in the community. It looks like our blood is not red enough."

Amara stressed that they are trying to calm spirits in the village. "We want to believe that we can rely on the courts," he said. "We are asking the state, the government and the Justice Ministry to utilize the law to the fullest with the policemen who murdered our son in cold blood. They could have controlled him easily, but they decided to sentence him to death."

Northern District commander Maj. Gen. Zohar Dvir had ordered police to increase their presence in the village earlier on Saturday. Shortly after the shooting, youths gathered at the entrance to the village and burned tires. Later in the day, some 100 youths gathered at an entrance to the village and threw stones at officers.

“The local council of Kafr Kana looks on this incident very seriously and with concern,” said Majhad Awaouda, head of the Kafr Kana local council, which convened an emergency meeting on Saturday morning to decide how to respond. He also said he had asked the authorities to launch an investigation.

MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) said the video shows that the officer’s life was not under immediate threat when he opened fire, and thus was against regulations. “This was a gang-style execution,” said Tibi, “and I call for the immediate arrest and trial of the police officer.”

MK Issawi Freij (Meretz) drew a line between the incident and a controversial remark by Public Security Minister Aharonovitch a few days ago, following a terror attack in which a Palestinian driver drove his vehicle into a crowd in Jerusalem.

“The responsibility for today’s death lies with Minister Aharonovitch as much as with the police officers, after he demanded anyone who ‘hurts’ Israeli citizens be killed on the spot,” said Freij.

MK Moshe Mizrahi (Labor) called on Israeli-Arab members of the Knesset “to refrain from adding fuel to the fire through unrestrained statements that seek to take advantage of the event, while ignoring the fact that [Hamdan] had assailed the policemen with absolutely no provocation.”

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett offered his backing to the officers, saying their response was “what is expected of our security forces.

“A crazed Arab terrorist attacked a police car that our officers were in, in an attempt to murder them. We can, and should, review our conduct, always. But in this case we are not dealing with a ‘cold-blooded murder,’ and we surely mustn’t abandon our security forces, who are sent to protect us,” said Bennett. “If we don’t give them our backing,” he added, “we will see more and more Israelis being murdered with knifes, [explosives] and car attacks.”

Nidal Othman, a lawyer who heads the Coalition Against Racism, called the killing an example of the police’s “trigger happy” attitude toward the Israeli-Arab public.

With dozens of Arab-Israeli citizens dead at the hands of the police over the past 15 years, he said, “it is high time the police changed its approach toward Israel’s Arab public.”

The protest in Kafr Kana, November 8, 2014
Photo by Police Spokesman
Photo by Police Spokesman
Photo by Gil Eliahu