Israel Police's War Against Arab Protesters

Some 350 demonstrators have been charged across Israel since the unrest began early in July; none are Jewish.

Nir Hasson
Yaniv Kubovich
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Man arrested at a protest in Nazareth against the Israeli operation in Gaza, July 21, 2014. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Nir Hasson
Yaniv Kubovich

On a Friday afternoon, about a month ago, Aya Salame arrived in Haifa with her husband and three kids to break the Ramadan fast at one of the city's restaurants. They arrived early and Salame, 38, a biology teacher in a Kalansua high school and a student of Chinese medicine, decided to spend the time remaining before the meal touring the German Colony and the Bahá'í Gardens. Drawn by curiosity, she approached a crowd of anti-war protesters, but quickly made her way to leave – only to be blocked by police officers.

"I told the policeman that I wanted to join my husband and leave," she says. "I never attended a protest. I felt like I was in a movie. They wouldn't let me leave for an hour and a half or an hour."

When she noticed that a man standing beside her was bleeding from his mouth she demanded that a police officer on the scene give the injured man assistance, but her pleas were ignored. "I asked whether he wasn't ashamed of himself," she said. "Honestly I was shouting at him." At this point a group of riot police officers surrounded her. "One officer, I felt that he was grabbing me by the chest in order to insult me. Another grabbed me by the hair, and yet another slapped me in the face."

Salame, who spent the day fasting, was taken to a police car and was left there until midnight without food or drink. At the police station she fainted and was taken to the hospital. The next day she was released by the court under restriction. She and her family were barred from entering Haifa for two months.

Zecharia Mahrab, 39, a construction company manager from Lod, went to Haifa to attend the protests that began following the murder of a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat last month. "We walked down the street in a row," he recounts. "Pushing began. Suddenly I saw police all around me. They pulled me out and told me I was arrested. They took as many as they could, without any reason, just to cause the demonstration to disperse."

Mahrab was taken to see a judge on Saturday evening, who ordered that he remain in jail until Monday. His remand was then extended until Wednesday. It wasn't until Tuesday that he was questioned.

"They claimed that I assaulted a police officer," he said. "They didn't say which officer, only that they had photos of me pointing at a police officer, and that counts as a threat. They arrested us only to intimidate us and to punish us for protesting."

Arabs are charged, Jews aren't

Salame and Mahrab were lucky – no charges were pressed against them. According to a police spokesman, "Since the civil unrest began, the police arrested 1,471 suspects across Israel, and 350 are being prosecuted, mostly by the State Prosecutor's Office, for disturbing public order, unlawful gatherings, rioting and violence against people and property."

The incidents in question took place during protests that followed the murder of Abu Khdeir on July 2, and which escalated after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. Thousands of citizens, mostly Arabs, went out to protest the destruction and killing in the enclave. This reaction was expected, but the number of arrests and new criminal records opened, and the mass arraignment of protesters, indicate a loss of control and discrimination on the part of the police. No charges have been pressed against Jewish protesters from either the left or right ends of the political spectrum – not even those who acted violently.

A year before the murder of Abu Khdeir, Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said in an interview with "Uvdah," a Channel 2 newsmagazine show, that he opposed the prosecution of Daphni Leef and other social activists, saying, "I wouldn't like to see Daphni Leef convicted of criminal charges…or punished for starting a protest movement." After the attorney general ordered the charges against her dropped, Commissioner Danino asked that the cases brought against Leef's fellow activists be reviewed and that only those few that warranted a trial be pursued.

It is doubtful whether Danino will order the closing of unwarranted cases brought against Arab protesters. Some 1,500 protesters were arrested between July 2 and August 6. Over 650 criminal records were opened and more than 350 people were charged. In one month, hundreds of requests to remand protesters until the end of the legal proceedings against them were filed. Danino apparently doesn't see anything wrong with this. In more than one occasion he has stated that the Israel Police would continue to crack down on protesters as it sees fit.

Some "1,500 arrests and hundreds of arraignments are numbers that are more befitting of Egypt than the State of Israel," says Prof. Shimon Shamir, a member of the Or commission, an inquiry into the clashes between the security forces and Arab Israelis in October 2000. According to him, this mainly points to a panic in the police. "I would have expected to hear Yohanan Danino telling the Arab protesters the same things he said to the protesters of Rothschild Boulevard."

'Arabs seen as potential enemy'

The protests in East Jerusalem were naturally less organized and more violent, including rock throwing and fire bombs, and it is clear why the police saw these incidents as riots. The police in the capital boasted – and rightfully so – their success in containing these protests and ensuring that there were no fatalities or serious injuries. There, too, protesters were arrested, and nightly raids took place.

The demonstrations that took place in Israeli towns and cities within the Green Line were organized and mostly non-violent, and were attended by members of parliament and dignitaries. But the police didn't view them this way. The Israel Police's official website stated that "while the civilian front of Operation Protective Edge is being managed, the fight against violent riots across the country continues," as if the protests were another front on which the war in Gaza is being waged.

"The wave of arrests is intended to silence and crush the right of Arab citizens to protest, via police violence and hostility," says attorney Suhad Bishara from the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel - Adalah, who represented many of the detained demonstrators. "The Israel Police treats the Arab community as a potential enemy, and unfortunately, the court approved many of the police's requests for extended remand, even when there was no ground for this."

In the last month, the police hauled hundreds of protesters to court every day, and mostly received the courts' backing for their arrests. In her ruling regarding arrests of protesters in Haifa, District Court Judge Rivka Fuchs wrote: "The incident took place during Operation Protective Edge when the entire nation is on edge and helping with the difficult undertaking that involves the civilian home front. Under these circumstances I believe that protesting is legitimate but that this protest must be within the limits of the law."

No judge may accept violation of the law, but the judge's words suggest that during the operation, the law should be enforced more harshly, allowing the police to fill holding cells with demonstrators, most of whom don't have a criminal record.

Knesset Member Mohammad Barakeh (Hadash) participated in a rally in Nazareth with his son. When the protesters began to disperse, he says, police officers walked up to his son and arrested him. "He was arrested just because he took part in the protest," MK Barakeh says. "In the remand hearing they said he tried to run away from the police officers, but that is nonsense – he was in his vehicle and wasn't going anywhere. Afterwards they said he was holding something in his hand, possibly a stone, but found that it wasn't a stone. They just took people that were finishing the protest, they weren't chasing those that threw stones and ran away."

In another case, defense attorneys brought the court a video showing police beating a demonstrator who was later arrested for assaulting an officer. His remand was extended as per the police's request.

"The judges don’t want to see this video," says Barakeh. "The police have become the government's political arm. We must restore sanity; these are young men who were pained to see what is happening in Gaza."

Rewards for arrests

Since Commissioner Danino took office, the Israel Police has been rewarding commanders for high numbers of arraignments and extended remands, so it is possible that officers are taking advantage of the unrest to get ahead professionally.

"Most of the detainees were arrested for attending protests," says Knesset Member Dov Khenin (Hadash). "Those who threw stones and should stand trial for violence fled. Those who were arrested were apprehended because they stood around and didn't run...

"These are young, educated people who are supposed to be leaders in the future," Khenin says of the protesters who now have a criminal record. "Looking at the number of charges pressed for assaulting police officers, you would think that the hospitals are full of wounded cops, and I don't remember there being any."

Criminal or terrorist?

Even when violence is involved, discrimination against Arabs is evident.

Public defender Haim Yitzhaki, who represented a youth who allegedly threw a firebomb at a protest, was surprised to learn that his client's charges have been classified as a security case, and that it is being handled by the Shin Bet.

"When a Haredi throws rocks at a protest in Jaffa or Jerusalem, it is considered a criminal case, but when a guy from Taibeh throws a rock, it's a security issue," Yitzkhai says. "My client is a young man who will now be placed in the security wing in prison, and he now has to inform the Israel Prison Service which terror organization he belongs to and whether he prefers to serve his sentence with Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Fatah or any other group, when it is clear he has nothing to do with any terror organization, and at most lost control at a protest."

The Israel Police said in response that while it respects the freedom of speech and protest, and has made efforts to communicate with local leaders, it has a zero tolerance for rioting.

The police are "enforcing disturbances to public order in an equal manner while making informed use of special means of crowd control with the purpose of maintaining the calm and security on the street," a spokesman said.

An indication that the tide might be turning came from the Haifa District Court last Thursday when a judge reviewing a request to extend a demonstrator's remand questioned whether the bid was warranted.

"While there is no doubt that the actions … are grave and harbor a risk that may constitute reason for arrest, the alleged evidence is weak," wrote Judge Bettina Tauber. "I think that these considerations lead to the conclusion that the order to change the terms of release was unjustified."  

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