Why Did Police Close Settler Vandalism Case?

Hebron-area family suing police for failure to act effectively on evidence of tree vandalism.

Amira Hass
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Amira Hass

The police station in Hebron got the call at 6:27 AM, and the duty officer took down the report of the damage done to the olive grove belonging to the Amur family of Yatta. A police team was dispatched and at 9:56 it arrived at the grove – across from the Palestinian village of A-Tawani and the Maon Farm outpost that had been erected nearby.

The police team found representatives of the District Coordinating and Liaison Office and several Israel Defense Forces soldiers, including two trackers who had started combing the area for footprints. Tracker Khalil Gabia began following a fresh pair of prints that led to a house. In the house he found a pair of shoes that he said matched the footprints, and also found a man in the house who matched the shoes.

Sounds promising, no? So how did the case end up being closed for lack of evidence? The documents in the case file offer some clues.

The person who reported the damage to the police that early morning of May 10, 2013, was Sakar Amur, the owner of the grove. It was the third time that unknown vandals had damaged the grove he’d inherited from his father. The police and the army had come then, too, but both those cases were closed for lack of evidence. This time, in addition to the broken and cut branches, there was graffiti sprayed on the electric box on the side of the road, reading, “Price-tag,” and “Regards from Evyatar.” (The former is a reference to Evyatar Borovsky, a settler who was murdered at the Tapuah junction in the West Bank less than two weeks earlier.)

At 10:12 that morning the tracker, Gabia, gave his testimony to Advanced Staff Sgt. Major Stephen Pope, a member of the police team who had reached the site 15 minutes earlier. After seeing the damage to the trees, Gabia said, “Based on the footprints I identified three suspects, I walked along the footprints of the suspects and discovered that they led to the Maon Farm.

“The footprints led to the yard of a house, we confirmed the type of footprints, we checked the shoes of the owner of the house which the footprints led to, and found a match. The name of the homeowner is Yissachar Gavriel Mann…During questioning he said that yesterday there were a lot of people at his house. I checked three pairs of shoes, and one of them matched the footprints found in the olive grove. In my opinion, the footprints were from last night.”

Gabia added that there had been another tracker with him, Walid, who could confirm his report. Pope asked him if he thought Mann, referred to in the report as Yissachar, was lying. Gabia answered, “When he gave me his shoes I saw that his legs were trembling.” He also said, “The suspect Yissachar said that the night before he had a lot of guests and they’d been drinking. I saw bottles of wine and beer outside. The suspect Yissachar didn’t remember how many people had been over; Yissachar also said his guests left at about 11 PM.”

The numbers that never add up

The forms in the police file dated May 10 contain details about Mann. He was born on May 10, 1983 – in other words, on that Friday he had turned 30. On another form with his personal details, under the heading “cautionary information,” the word “yes” is typed under the “imprisonments” and another “yes” appears under “convictions.” Yet in another place on the form, under “Total Convictions,” the numbers 0000 appear.

This contradiction could not be explained. The online archives of the Courts Administration shows an indictment filed against Mann and others for a 2003 incident involving stones thrown at farmers from A-Tawani and left-wing activists. Shots were fired in that incident as well. According to the charge sheet, Mann and another person had been carrying rifles. Another criminal indictment appears in the archives for disturbing the peace, for which he was convicted.

In short, Mann was known to the police. But the police operation reports of that day show that Advanced Staff Sgt. Major Shai Babek, one of the three policemen sent to the grove, decided not to detain the suspect or confiscate his shoes. Nor was Mann’s questioning taped or the shoes photographed. The battery of the police video camera was dead, Babek reported, and so he photographed the footprints with his personal cell phone.

“The tracker at the scene said that the footprints led to Route 317 and it can’t be said for sure where the footprints lead," Babek said in his report on the incident. The third policeman, who isn’t named, reported that they followed the tracker to Mann’s house and they had found shoes there that “matched the footprints on the path leading to the farm, near the main road, some 500 meters from the grove where the damage was done… A report was made to the duty officer, and it was decided not to detain the man or take his shoes, since within the grove there were no clear footprints found.”

Case closed for "lack of public interest"

On May 12, Amur made a full report to the police. A month later, his attorney, Eitay Mack, filed suit against the state for NIS 100,840 ($28,800) for damages and aggravation.

On July 21, an officer from the Israel Police’s nationalist crime division sought out Babek to clarify the contradiction between his report and that of the tracker, Gabia. Babek, who was in Eilat, replied that the tracker hadn’t been at all sure that the shoe matched the footprints.

On September 9, Babek gave testimony to the Etzion police station about the events of May 10. In his description of what happened when they examined Mann’s shoes at the house, he said, “The tracker said that it could be that the shoes resemble the footprints, but he was hesitant and didn’t give a sure, definitive answer, so I didn’t detain the suspect and didn’t confiscate the shoes. I took Yissachar’s particulars and we left…

“When we got to the patrol car I made a report to the duty officer, and when the tracker heard me saying that he wasn’t definite about whether the shoe matched or not, he suddenly said that he had stated clearly that the shoe matched the footprints. Another report was submitted to the officer.”

But Babek did not return to arrest the suspect or take the shoes. When asked why, he replied, “I didn’t get any instructions from the unit officer since I had already made a report to him about the incident.”

Babek continued, “My level of suspicion was low. There had been a lot people in the area the night before, there were a lot of bottles of drink but I didn’t see any evidence linking [Mann] to the site of the incident…” The nationalist crime division never summoned Gabia or his colleague, Walid, to try to clarify the discrepancy between Gabia’s report and Babek’s.

Mann was questioned on August 15 by the nationalist crime division. “This investigation is meant to harass me just because I live near the site of the incident, and so I won’t cooperate and invoke my right to remain silent,” he said. He then refused to answer any questions.

In October the state prosecution submitted its defense statement in response to Amur’s damages suit, in which attorney Moshe Willinger wrote that the grove owners were at fault, or partially at fault, for not installing any lighting. The grove, it's worth noting, is in Area C, where the Civil Administration forbids Palestinians to build. “The security forces and law enforcement authorities acted in a reasonable fashion," Willinger wrote, "and as required with regard to everything connected with the incident that is the subject of this suit.”

On December 22, the police file was closed for "lack of proof.” Last week, after permission was granted to photocopy the contents of the case file, Mack, Amur’s attorney, appealed the police decision to close the case. Mack also filed two complaints against Babek to the ombudsman of the Judea and Samaria District Police and to the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of policemen, both alleging negligence and obstruction of justice.

The Justice Ministry department has already responded that it will not investigate the complaint for lack of public interest. The Judea and Samaria Police said that in the wake of Amur’s complaint, the behavior of the patrol that handled the incident was being investigated.

Israeli soldiers stand alongside settlers from the Maon Farm outpost in the West Bank. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
A Palestinian woman gestures as she stands beside an olive tree after it was cut down in the West Bank village of Litwane, January 6, 2006 near the Jewish settlement of Ma'on. Credit: Reuters