Former public security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, testifying Monday before the Or Commission of inquiry into the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs during violent clashes with police in October last year, slaimed that the political echelon did not know about the use of snipers in handling the clashes.

Ben-Ami emphasized that he and former prime minister Ehud Barak knew about the use of snipers only after the investigation of the events began.

Earlier in his testimony Ben-Ami said that senior police officers, including ex-police chief Yehuda Wilk, failed to supply him with vital intelligence data and assessments.

Ben-Ami also rejected suggestions that he had neglected his responsibility for police affairs in order to concentrate on his concurrent role as acting foreign minister during intensive, U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians.

Ben-Ami told the commission that there were no specific prior intelligence predictions of the risk of violence erupting as a result of the September 28, 2000 visit of then-Likud legislator Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, site of the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Ben-Ami noted that not even the CIA was able to predict the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Questioned about preparations for unrest, Ben-Ami said that he did not know that Israeli Arab officials had decided to call a general strike on September 30 and would hold mass protest marches on October 1. or that police officials had stationed snipers to counter possible violence in Israeli Arab towns and villages.

As Ben-Ami testified before the panel, relatives of the 13 victims demonstrated outside Jerusalem's Supreme Court complex, site of the Or hearings. The family members, joined by Israeli Arab activists and members of Jewish-Arab peace groups, charge that Ben-Ami and then-prime minister Ehud Barak bear ministerial accountability for the fatalities. The mother of an Israeli Arab teenager killed in the riots was ejected from the hearing after shouting at Ben-Ami.

Ben-Ami said that working toward peace with the Palestinians was essential to answering the needs and complaints of Israeli Arabs. "It will be very difficult to solve, with a solution of depth, the distress of the Arab population of Israel without this happening together with a move of historic reconciliation with the Palestinian people. These 'crossed swords' came together in my role, in both 'hats'.

"I was the one that coined the phrase that 'Israel has no foreign policy.' It has only one issue in foreign policy, that of the Palestinians... From both the subtantive standpoint and from the standpoint of the ability to expend efforts, at no point did I never reached the point, in carrying out my duties, that I believed that I was unable to carry out both roles."

Barak is to testify before the commission Tuesday. It appears that Barak and Ben-Ami will be the only members of the government at the time of the disturbances to appear before the commission.

Ben-Ami has made extensive preparations for his defense, seeing it as key to clearing his reputation and saving his political future.

Since the events, Ben-Ami has been subjected to criticism on two fronts. Leaders of the Arab public accuse him of having failed to do enough to restrain the police, that he did not act categorically to ensure that the police carried out an internal investigation after the events, and also refrained from taking disciplinary measures against officers who had allegedly commited improprieties.

Arab leaders say that even before the outbreak of the disturbances, they had asked Ben-Ami to transfer the head of the police Northern Command, Major General Alik Ron, whom they claimed was antagonistic toward the Arab community.

Ben-Ami also came in for criticism from several senior police officers who testified before the commission. The officers - in particular retired police commissioner Wilk, who headed the national police at the time - portrayed Ben-Ami as a minister who was not profoundly involved with the affairs of his ministry, who did not fight for budget allocations for the ministry and who did not give enough backing to the police, especially in times of crisis.