Former prime minister Ehud Barak yesterday shook off all personal responsibility for the death of 13 Israeli Arab citizens in the riots of October 2000 in testimony before the Or Commission, which is examining last year's events. Barak also fully backed the police and his former government colleagues for the decisions they took.

Barak consistently praised the police and refrained from placing blame on the top command, unlike former public security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami who testified before him.

The former prime minister was also scheduled to testify today. However, commission chairman Justice Theodor Or, who realized that Barak was not prepared to go into details relating to the riots, and had been giving brief answers, decided to call off a second day of questioning.

Despite repeated questions from the panel, Barak focused on his government's policy and on an analysis of the events and the way they were handled. When asked to relate to the behavior of senior police officers, Barak usually refrained from giving a direct answer, saying he preferred not to be decisive about past events for which he had insufficient information.

After repeating this response several times, commission member professor Shimon Shamir pointed out that the objective of the panel is to investigate past events. "We are a state commission of past inquiry," Shamir said.

Even when asked about the decision of then-northern district police commander Alik Ron to use snipers against demonstrators - a step which commission members have openly criticized - Barak was cautious. He said merely that "the step did not seem logical," but added that he "did not know what all Ron's considerations were." The former prime minister heaped lavish praise on Ron, describing him as "someone who has made an enormous contribution to Israel's security."

Barak entered the hall stridently, beaming at photographers. He answered the panel's questions with great confidence and even gave the occasional impression of being smug.

He strongly rejected claims that the timing and scope of the events could have been foreseen. Barak described the riots in the Israeli Arab sector as "echoing" what was going on in the territories. He stated unflinchingly that the trigger for the riots was "a small extremist group [among Israeli Arabs] that does not accept the vision of Israel as a Zionist Jewish democratic state." In this context, he pointed a finger at Azmi Bishara's Balad movement and the outlawed Sons of the Village movement.

Turning to the circumstances under which 13 people were killed, Barak said his perception of the events was that a small group of policemen had been threatened by a large group of violent demonstrators. The police felt endangered, and therefore, they shot at the rioters. "But that does not mean that it should not be investigated because perhaps that was not always the case," he said.

Barak also countered a number of claims the panel made against him:

l He rejected criticism that he should not have allowed then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to visit the Temple Mount. Intelligence reports indicated that the visit would pass peacefully, he said.

lHe rejected the claim that he did not sufficiently probe what had happened in the police's northern district after it became clear that there were defects in reports submitted by the senior command. Barak said he relied on the police and was sure they had investigated further.

l He denied that he had given only vague directives to the police after the first day of rioting. The directives were clear to then-police commissioner Yehuda Wilk and others who had attended the meeting, he said.

lHe turned down claims that his government had not done enough for the Arab sector, saying that a great deal had been done substantively and it had not wasted money on "PR gimmicks" to publicize it.

lHe rejected criticism that he had failed to meet the Supreme Arab Monitoring Committee and said he was following the traditional government line that this group represented nationalistic rather than civil rights interests. He said he had "a clean conscience" with regard to the Arab sector.

lHe rejected charges that the police had used excessive force in dispersing Muslim rioters on the Temple Mount on September 29, when Sharon visited the site. "The rioters are responsible for the riots as are those who incited them," he said.