Analysis |

Israeli Police and Politicians Firing Up Trigger-happy Public

Sunday’s lynching of an Eritrean asylum seeker follows statements by public figures and a failure on the part of police to follow protocol on the use of firearms.

Aeyal Gross
Aeyal Gross
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Workers at the scene of the terror attack in Be'er Sheva,  October 18, 2015.
Workers at the scene of the terror attack in Be'er Sheva, October 18, 2015.
Aeyal Gross
Aeyal Gross

The lynching of Eritrean asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum during the course of Sunday evening’s terror attack in Be’er Sheva is a continuation of what appears to be a policy backed by the government and police, which permits an unacceptable response to the recent wave of terrorist attacks.

An innocent bystander, Zarhum was shot by the central bus station’s security officer after a terrorist shot and killed an Israeli soldier and wounded 11 others. After being shot, Zarhum was subsequently attacked by civilians and a soldier, who kicked him and threw a bench at him.

The incident, which is documented by a video that makes for harsh viewing, did not occur in a vacuum. It came against the backdrop of what appears to be a move by the police, backed by statements by public figures, to ignore the rules of engagement for when firearms can be used.

Zarhum’s case was preceded by the very different incident of Fadi Alon, who was shot to death by police in Jerusalem on October 4 after he was suspected of stabbing and wounding a young Israeli. But anyone who has seen the video of the killing of Alon, a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah, could get the impression that the 19-year-old was shot to death when he apparently no longer posed a threat, without any warning and with the encouragement of people on the street who cursed him and urged the police to shoot him.

In communications with the Justice Ministry division that deals with complaints over police conduct, the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights have claimed that the killing of Alon was carried out in violation of policies issued by the national Israel Police headquarters, which requires that use of a firearm be a last resort and after a warning. The video of Alon’s killing seemingly supports the organizations’ claim.

In another recent case, this time involving a Nazareth woman who was suspected of planning to carry out a stabbing attack at Afula’s bus station, it also appears that the woman, Asra’a Zidan Tawfik Abed, was shot and wounded by police without justification.

These two cases should set off alarm bells over the illegal use of force by the police. It appears these shootings were not acts that were essential to prevent a stabbing and save lives, but rather, actions that were committed instead of arresting a suspect when they no longer posed a threat.

The harsh curses and encouragement from bystanders urging that Alon be killed are comparable to a lynch atmosphere. And if the case of Alon involved the killing of someone suspecting of carrying out a stabbing attack, in Sunday’s incident, the lynching involved an Eritrean asylum seeker whose only real crime appeared to be the color of his skin and the fact that he happened to be in the vicinity during a terror attack.

It’s difficult to separate these incidents from the impassioned rhetoric of public figures and the police. When a Jerusalem police chief says that anyone “who stabs Jews is liable to be killed,” while ignoring policy on the use of firearms, legitimacy is being conferred to these cases. Similar legitimacy was suggested by comparable statements by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Those who brandish a knife or screwdriver should be shot to death, Lapid said. The expected result would be injury or death not only to the suspects, but also to innocent bystanders unconnected with the terror attack.

It’s as if the lynching of Zarhum was a continuation of the poor conduct and negative example set by the police in the previous incidents, in which they shot at suspects under circumstances that appeared to be unjustified and illegal. Also puzzling is the decision already taken by the police that the investigation against those involved in Zarhum’s lynching will not be on suspicion of manslaughter or murder. Particularly disturbing is the decision that the police will carry out the investigation with “necessary caution,” so as not to harm citizens’ motivation to take action during terrorist attacks – as if a lynch is an activity that should keep you motivated.

The Be’er Sheva lynching is also an outcome of the negative standard set by politicians who encouraged this type of reaction. It is also an outcome of the silence of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who, despite having been approached by human rights organizations, has yet to make a strong and clear statement condemning the killing of suspects when there is no justification. He is also yet to order an investigation into the incidents.

The lynching is also a continuation of the incitement against asylum seekers, who have been cast by the Israeli government as criminals and individuals who should be imprisoned without trial. One cannot ignore the identities of the suspects – or, in the case of Zarhum, those on whom suspicion was cast – against whom those with firearms have been trigger-happy. There is also a disparity between how they have been treated and the treatment Jewish suspects have received in similar circumstances – for example, Yishai Schissel, who stabbed six people (killing one) at last summer’s Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem.

In the current atmosphere, talk of inappropriate use of force against suspects is not popular. But as we saw in Be’er Sheva on Sunday, the price of public incitement and the silence of the legal authorities is cruel and deadly.

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