An Israeli police officer who shot and killed a Haifa man who tried to stab him on Monday has been permitted to return to work after investigators accepted his claim that he acted in self-defense, in a case that resurfaced concerns over the police's handling of minorities and people with mental conditions.
The policeman was questioned by the Justice Department’s police misconduct unit for three hours following the killing, and the staff was inclined to accept the claim that he fired in self-defense in the killing 33-year-old Munir Anabtawi, who had a mental illness.
The investigation found that Anabtawi was shot twice: once in his chest and once in the torso, with the officer firing several more stray bullets.
The Justice Ministry unit is also investigating the policeman’s claim that the police call center had not informed the officer that he was being dispatched to an incident involving a man with a mental illness.
The Justice Ministry has not yet decided how to characterize the officer’s potential misconduct – among a range of offenses from negligent homicide to reckless homicide.
The officer, whom Anabtawi injured in the ear with a knife while chasing him, was placed on sick leave. He was also barred from contacting the other people involved in the incident and his personal weapon was taken from him. As a result, it appears that, now that he can return to work, it won’t be immediately as a policeman on the beat.
The incident began when Anabtawi’s mother, with whom he lived, called the police to report that her son was running wild in their home. According to a source familiar with the investigation, the mother said that she was afraid of her son, and reported he had a psychiatric history.
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Patrolmen who arrived at the scene encountered Anabtawi at the entrance of the home but did not identify him as a suspect. According to the source, Anabtawi told the police that his family’s house was down the street, but when one of the policemen turned his back on Anabtawi, he attacked the officer with a knife. The officer then is said to have pulled his gun and shot Anabtawi several times.
Footage of the incident was caught on security cameras as well as on the body camera of the policeman who fired his weapon. Anabtawi was taken to the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa in critical condition and was pronounced dead a short time later.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana called the officer on Monday, and according to a statement by Ohana’s office, said: “It’s important that every officer knows they will get full backing for any action intended to prevent any harm done to them or to civilians, and not just backing, but also respect.” The minister also said he “shares the family’s grief” but added the officer “did exactly what was expected of him.”
Under questioning by the police misconduct unit, the officer claimed that Anabtawi had surprised him suddenly by attacking him from behind and that the man began chasing the officer, attempting to stab him.
The officer expressed regret over the death but said he had no alternative when the man tried to stab him. A knife was found near Anabtawi’s body, lending support to the policeman’s account of the incident. Relatives of the dead man claim, however, that when he left the house, he did not have a knife.
Anabtawi’s sister, Shireen, said on Monday that her brother was shot three times in the back and claimed that he was mainly dangerous to himself, contrary to the findings of the investigation, which found that he was shot in the front with two bullets. She said he had asked their mother for 50 shekels ($15) and became angry when his mother told him that she had no money. The sister said her mother was afraid that the brother would hurt himself and called the police so that he could be taken to the Tirat Carmel Mental Health Center, a psychiatric hospital where he had been admitted in the past. “Why do they need to shoot a sick person like this?” the sister asked.
Despite the family’s claims, a high-ranking member of the police force said the officer had acted appropriately. “How can you expect a policeman who is suddenly attacked by a man with a knife and who is trying to kill him to act differently?” the officer said. “Even if he had known that the man had a mental illness, the policeman acted as would have been expected of him. Any claim that he shot [Anabtawi] deliberately without a reason is nonsense. The policeman was facing actual lethal danger and shot to neutralize someone who was trying to kill him.”
The staff of the police misconduct unit is awaiting the results of an autopsy of Anabtawi’s body, which is due to be performed on Tuesday or Wednesday in the presence of a doctor representing the family. Following the autopsy, the body will be provided to the family in Haifa at which point Anabtawi’s mother, who is bedridden, will be able to take leave of her son. He will be buried in the village of Kafr Kana, where the family is originally from.
The Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel issued a statement condemning the police, which the center alleged had leaked a video clip of the scene of the incident despite a gag order that the police had requested. The advocacy center said the video clip showed only a portion of the incident “and not the use that the two officers made of live weapons from which the bullets that wounded Munir were fired.”
The center claimed that Anabtawi could have been subdued using a stun gun or tear gas rather than firing at the upper portion of his body and called for the suspension of the two officers until the investigation of the case is concluded. “Over the past year in Haifa, three Arab citizens have been shot and killed by police officers, an indication of deficient conduct at the command level,” the center added.