The autistic Palestinian man who was shot dead by a Border Police officer in East Jerusalem in May did not pose a danger to anyone and there was no need to fire at him, said the commander of the force that pursued Eyad Hallaq and cornered him in a trash room in the Old City.
The commander, whose name has not been released for publication, told investigators from the Justice Ministry department that probes allegations of police misconduct that he ordered his partner multiple times during the incident to hold his fire. His partner, whose name is also barred for publication, ignored him, firing two bullets from his assault rifle at Hallaq’s torso.
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Hallaq, 32, was killed on the morning of May 30, a Saturday. The incident began when a Border Policeman near the Old City’s Lions Gate deemed his conduct suspicious and shouted “terrorist.” The force’s 21-year-old commander then led a pursuit.
“We chased him and called out to him, but he kept running,” the commander said in his testimony to the department, parts of which were obtained by Haaretz. “At one point, I shot at his lower body. I didn’t notice any wounds.”
Hallaq eventually ran into a trash room. “When I arrived, I looked at the guy and yelled ‘Stop,’” the commander said. “I meant that the police officers who were coming and my partner, who was with me, should stop shooting. Then my partner shot, and I yelled again, ‘Stop shooting, stop shooting.’ Apparently the suspect made some movement that caused my partner to shoot again.”
But even though his partner opened fire because Hallaq made “some small movement in the area of his waist and legs,” the shooting was unjustified, since the commander didn’t feel himself to be in danger at the time, he added.
“I’ve been in this sector for a little over two years, I know how explosive the place is,” he said. “There was a discrepancy between the reports I got at the beginning – that this was a terrorist incident, that it was something intended to harm innocent people – and the situation in the trash room.
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“It’s a closed place with no way to escape from it. He didn’t attack or do anything. He was definitely not resisting. He didn’t endanger me in that situation.”
When investigators said he was the senior officer present and therefore bore responsibility, he insisted the junior policeman was to blame. “Ask him why he fired; he should have obeyed my orders,” he said. “We should have checked out the suspect from a distance, questioned him.
“Afterward, all the officers arrived and heard both of us together. I told them what had happened straight out. I said I’d yelled that he should stop.”
Asked how the junior officer reacted to that statement, the commander said, “He did not respond.”
The junior officer had only joined the force around six months prior. He completed his initial training just a few weeks before the incident. When questioned, he said that he fired due to the tensions in the area, the first policeman’s yell of “terrorist” and the movement that he saw Hallaq make. He also denied his partner’s version of the events.
“I didn’t hear ‘Stop,’” he said. “I acted the way I was taught. As far as I was concerned, this was a terrorist whom the force commander shot at before we entered the room.”
Even though the Justice Ministry’s investigation is almost complete, investigators have not yet arranged a confrontation between the two officers to try to reconcile their contradictory stories.
What happened in the trash room was not captured by security cameras; the room belongs to a private contractor and his cameras were not working that day. But police cameras stationed in the Old City did capture what happened before everyone entered the room.
Senior law enforcement officials who viewed that footage (which has not been made public) said Hallaq’s behavior was “very suspicious” and could well have led the policemen to think he was a terrorist. He was wearing black gloves and walking toward Lions Gate while constantly looking to the sides and behind him. Then, after entering the Old City, he hid behind a concrete pillar, from which he peered at the policemen in the nearby square.
In retrospect, Hallaq’s behavior was consistent with his diagnosis of low-functioning autism, according to experts. Yet at the time, this behavior, coupled with what one policeman thought was a handgun – but later proved to be a black glove – led the officer in the square to shout “terrorist.”
Later, this policeman told associates he had erred; he should have warned Hallaq or yelled at him to stop for identification before declaring him a terrorist. It was that declaration, a source involved in the incident said, that “sealed Hallaq’s fate,” in part by causing other policemen to chase him.
“If the statements that he was a terrorist were not enough, the chase made Hallaq flee, and that created a snowball that they were not able to stop,” the source explained.
The footage shows Hallaq running down a narrow street toward the Old City, with the junior officer hot on his heels. The commander fired at him, apparently twice, but missed. Hallaq turned left, and the footage stopped.
What the footage does not show, sources involved in the case said, was Hallaq’s teacher, who testified that she yelled to the policemen that he was disabled. She arrived on the scene only a few minutes after the incident began.
The policeman who shot Hallaq told Justice Ministry investigators that during the chase, he heard a woman screaming in fright. He thought it was somebody screaming in fear of the terrorist. But it’s possible that what he heard was Hallaq’s teacher.
Investigators questioned the junior policeman once, on the day of the shooting. They questioned the commander twice. It’s not clear that either will be questioned again, since the probe is expected to be wrapped up in the next few days. Its conclusions will then be submitted to the prosecution.
What are those conclusions likely to be? The case against the commander, who has since been demobilized, is likely to be closed. The case of the policeman who shot Hallaq is more complicated.
It’s clear to everyone involved that the incident should not have ended in Hallaq’s death. But sources involved in the probe said it’s likely to conclude that the policeman made an error of judgment rather than killing Hallaq deliberately.
One said the evidence would make it very hard to charge him with reckless homicide. “A decision cannot be made in the case just because there’s a lot of media or public pressure,” he added.
If criminal proceedings are ruled out, the only options left are disciplinary proceedings or closing the case. Consequently, it’s possible that nobody will end up being punished.
The Justice Ministry department said it is “carrying out a thorough, professional investigation and making maximal efforts to finish the investigation quickly, discover the truth and inform the deceased’s family of the investigation’s findings and results. At this stage, when the investigation still has not finished, we will not comment on actions that have been or are expected to be taken in this case.”
Haaretz asked the department why there has as yet been no reenactment of the incident. Whether due to this question or not, a source involved in the probe said a reenactment is expected to take place before dawn on Thursday.
As a result of Hallaq’s death, the Jerusalem District police decided to cooperate with organizations that work with people with special needs, in the hopes of improving police’s handling of the situation next time they have to deal with a suspect or possible suspect like Hallaq.
Efrat Nahmani Bar, the lawyer representing the junior policeman, said her client was new on the job and “acted in line with the information he received and the orders and instructions he was given. His understanding that this was an armed terrorist on his way to carrying out an attack was based on both the information he received and suspicious signs that accumulated as the incident developed.
“The behavior of the commander in the field, who shot at the deceased’s lower body when he fled during the chase, also contributed to the understanding that he was a dangerous terrorist,” she continued. And her client opened fire “after the deceased made a suspicious movement that made him think his life was in danger, which, as noted, fits the picture of the situation he was given.”
The commander’s claim that he ordered his subordinate to stop shooting was “surprising, especially in light of his behavior to that point,” Nahmani Bar said. “In any case, our client did not hear any instruction or order to stop shooting. Another eyewitness who was at the scene also said no order to stop was given.”
The commander’s lawyers, Oron Schwartz and Yogev Narkis, said in a statement that their client’s story was verified by a private polygraph test after the Justice Ministry refused to administer one. “It showed he gave an order to stop shooting before the shooting occurred, and especially that he did not get the warning by the woman who said the deceased was disabled.”
The facts prove that “based on the information in his possession in real time, he acted properly,” and he cannot be held legally responsible for what he did not know, they added.