Minister's Visit to Family of Settler Teen Killed in Car Chase Undermines Police, Senior Officials Say

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Police use water cannons against protesters against the death of Ahuvia Sandak in front of National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, December 27, 2020.
Police use water cannons against protesters against the death of Ahuvia Sandak in front of National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, December 27, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Senior law enforcement officials have roundly criticized Public Security Minister Amir Ohana for his conduct since Israeli teen Ahuvia Sandak was killed last week in a West Bank car chase with police.

The police gave chase to the car that Sandak,16, and several other suspects were riding in on suspicion that they had been throwing stones at Palestinian vehicles passing by. In the course of the police chase, the suspects’ car flipped and Sandak, who was apparently not wearing a seatbelt, was found dead underneath the overturned car.

At the beginning of the week, Ohana, whose ministry is responsible for the Israel Police, visited the Sandak family home in the West Bank settlement of Bat Ayin. In the course of the visit, Sandak’s mother was bitterly critical of the police. Senior police officers alleged that Ohana's condolence call, which was paid at a time when the police officers involved in the car chase were being threatened by right-wing activists, “weakens the police."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Sandak's parents on Thursday to offer his condolences. The Sandak family then invited him to visit them in the West Bank and Netanyahu, in return, invited them to visit him at his office in Jerusalem. 

Senior police officials have complained that police have not received support, and that several police officers have been attacked at right-wing demonstrations against the police over Sandak’s death. The officials also alleged that Ohana has not spoken out sufficiently against the violence directed at police. Ohana responded, calling these reports "smears" and saying that the police will soon be setting off in a new direction.

'The tables have turned'

The sources added that there are eyewitness accounts of Sandak's involvement in throwing stones at Palestinians before the car chase, and that he and his friends endangered the lives of motorists while trying to escape from the police.

“Instead of backing the police who were taking action against criminals and are under threat, he specifically chose to go and visit the home of the family of the teen, who clearly participated in serious and dangerous behavior," one of the police officials told Haaretz.

He added, "One can only imagine what would have happened if it had been a Palestinian teen who had been throwing stones at cars, escaped by driving recklessly and endangered drivers on the road. Would it have occurred to a minister to visit his house?"

Another police source said that by visiting the Sandak home, Ohana is turning his back on police. "Officers who are under threat are now seeing the minister in charge of them going and supporting the family of a criminal. The tables have turned."

A vandalized police station in the West Bank settlement of Yad Binyamin, December 28, 2020. Credit: Ilan Assayag

"There's wild incitement against police, an officer is going to get killed here," another senior police official said. "The police are the ones who need backing, not those who participated in criminal acts."

One of the police officials was reminded of Ohana's words when police clashed with asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. The minister said at the time, "He who attacks a police officer, his blood is on his hands."

The official added, "We haven't heard similar things in the past few days, when police are being attacked every night."

Ohana took to Twitter Thursday morning to say that he visited one of the police officers who was injured in the protests. He added, "If anyone has criticism (I do too, I'm working to fix things), don't descend into anarchy, don't hurt police officers! The police are setting out on a new path, with new leadership. There won't be forgiveness for violence: A. against police B. by police."

In a response to this report, Ohana released a statement saying: "So long as these are real sources, it is very grave that sources that call themselves 'senior police officials' have not been weaned off the rotten and cowardly corporate culture of smearing the appointed officials through anonymous briefings that severely harm the public trust in the police at a time when it is badly needed. Soon, the police will set off on a new path."

Security officials have also warned against rising right-wing violence at the protests, saying that it has gotten out of control, and that silence from politicians on the issue is being interpreted as support for the settlers. Since Sandak's death, the sources said, police "are losing control in the face of the violence of the hilltop youth and Jewish extremists" in the West Bank.

On Wednesday, 36 right-wing activists were arrested at demonstrations in Jerusalem protesting Sandak’s death. Some of the protesters set trash cans on fire, blocked streets and obstructed traffic on Jerusalem’s light rail line.

Protesters have demonstrated on a daily basis over the death in the West Bank, in addition to the several protests that have been held in Jerusalem. The protesters, who blame the police for Sandak’s death, have attacked police and thrown stones at Palestinians. In addition, police cars have been vandalized and there was an attempt to set a police station on fire.

Police and protesters clash at a protest against the death of Ahuvia Sandak in Jerusalem, December 30, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Sandak's parents, with the help of the right-wing legal aid group Honenu, requested Thursday that the High Court of Justice halt the police investigation. This comes after the head of the investigative team said in a hearing to extend the detention of one of the young men that the police who participated in the chase did what was expected of them. The family is claiming that this declaration renders the Justice Ministry unit's investigation effectively impotent. Justice Alex Stein rejected the request, and a hearing for an appeal is set for mid-January.

Investigations continue

At the same time, a joint team of the Tel Aviv District Police Central Unit and the Justice Ministry unit to investigate police misconduct is continuing to examine the incident in which Sandak was killed. Police are investigating the four young people who were in the car with Sandak during the chase, and the Justice Ministry unit is questioning the four police officers who were in the police vehicle.

Two of the young men are suspected of reckless homicide, due to a suspicion that they tried to flee the scene of the accident while Sandak was still trapped under the car.

Over the past week in the West Bank, there have been 21 incidents in which settlers have attacked Palestinians, most of which have involved stone-throwing at Palestinian motorists at highway junctions where demonstrations have been held. At two highway junctions, protesters also threw stones at Israeli security forces.

Some of the incidents were not connected to the protests, however. Last Thursday, several dozen settlers entered the village of Kifel Haris in the northern West Bank and threw stones at homes there.

Judy Maltz contributed to this report.

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