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Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki decided Wednesday to shelve his initiative to seek a blanket presidential pardon that would halt a Police Investigations Unit probe into 12 specific cases of shootings that caused deaths during the October 2000 riots and which the Or Commission said should be investigated.

There was sharp debate Wednesday over the effort to look into pre-emptive pardons as a means of circumventing or quashing criminal investigations into the deaths.

The Or Commission, set up to probe the rioting and the response by the government and security forces, said in its report released Monday that the Justice Ministry's department for investigating police should open criminal investigations into the deaths. The report criticized the actions of a number of police officers, primarily from the Northern District.

Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein led a number of senior government figures in opposing the pardon proposal, made public in a Haaretz report Wednesday that Aharonishki had ordered his staff to look into legal methods of quashing the criminal investigations.

The report said Aharonishki was hoping to find a solution similar to that used in the "Bus 300 affair" of 1984, when senior Shin Bet security service officials responsible for the murder of two captured terrorists were preemptively pardoned by the president before even being indicted.

The riots in Israeli Arab villages and towns erupted in the wake of Israeli-Palestinian clashes at the outset of the intifada, and caught police unprepared for dispersing violent demonstrations. In a number of cases, senior police officials employed snipers firing live ammunition, some of which fatally struck bystanders uninvolved in the rioting.

President Moshe Katsav also rejected efforts to head off further investigations.

"At this stage, there is no justification for discussing pardons, as there is as yet no decision on whether to bring them to trial, and so long as they have not been convicted. The Or Commission decided only on an investigation, and the investigation must be allowed to be completed," Katsav said.

The president ruled out any comparison between the 2000 riots and the Bus 300 case. "Here we are speaking of 13 Israeli citizens who were killed, there we were speaking of a... terrorist who hijacked a bus and murdered in cold blood."

Former justice minister Dan Meridor condemned the proposed pre-emptive pardons - intended to head off investigations - as "as serious error" which would harm both the police and the rule of law. "You can't create a situation in which every time that authorities act in violation of the law and harm citizens, we'll have a pardon.

"What will we become - Argentina in the time of the colonels?"

Former Border Police commander Yisrael Sedan countered that the principal harm to the police and the rule of law would come from additional investigations.

Backing pre-emptive pardons, Sedan said further probes would not only weaken the police, but also do damage to national security. "These are people who deal with the nation's security 365 days a year." Investigations would cause "dissension and demoralization" within the police, and re-open old wounds," Sedan said.

Rubinstein said he doesn't think that there's room for preemptive pardons, and that the Or Commission's recommendations to open investigations into the deaths should be honored - while keeping in mind the amount of time that has passed since the riots.

Rubinstein also praised the police, saying he admired the dedication of the police force and that he was the one who advised the government that the Or Commission should investigate the people who incited and participated in the riots, and not just the police who responded to them.

The families of those killed said Monday that they could not accept the Or Commission's conclusions of its three-year inquiry into the riots, and would fight to indict those who had shot their relatives.

The sister of one of the victims told Army Radio that the proposal reflected Israel as a "police state" and a "facist country."

Adalah, the legal center for Arab rights, intends to ask the attorney general to launch a criminal investigation against those responsible for the killings.