Analysis

For Jerusalem Police, a Palestinian Who Doesn't Prevent a 34-second Stabbing Attack Is a Criminal

To expect someone to intervene and risk being mistaken for the terrorist is a cruel demand, but the police still want bystanders indicted for the latest fatal attack

The detainees in court, March 20, 2018.
Emil Salman

Thirty-four seconds. That’s how much time passed between the start of the stabbing attack in which Adiel Coleman was murdered Sunday and the moment the police arrived and killed the assailant, Abed al-Rahman Bani Fadel.

That means the bystanders and storekeepers at the scene had only 34 seconds to respond to what was happening. Some only realized what was going on a few seconds into the struggle; others didn’t understand at all when Coleman and Fadel passed them.

But according to the police, that short stretch was enough for eight Palestinians nearby to commit the crime of “not preventing a crime,” which carries a sentence of two years in prison.

On Monday the police arrested the eight, including a 15-year-old boy and two people in their 60s – Farha Dana, 67, and Zuheir Dana, 62 – although the latter two were released after a few hours. On Tuesday the police asked the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court for the others, including the boy, to be detained for another five days for questioning. Judge Eitan Cohen instead ordered the six released to house arrest for five days.

One can assume that no one will be charged. But it’s no coincidence that the police chose Palestinian passersby on Hagai Street in Jerusalem’s Old City as a test case for raising the legal threshold for preventing a crime.

Police at the scene of the stabbing in Jerusalem. Adiel Coleman, pictured top left.
Olivier Fitoussi אוליבייה פיטוסי

The police’s demand was based on the videos from police cameras deployed throughout the Old City. “In the video you see that people knew what was happening and they decided to back away,” said the police lawyer, who stressed that the suspects did not call the police or try to intervene. He hinted that such intervention could have saved Coleman.

But the section of the law on preventing a crime does not address moral behavior. The law states, “One who knows that someone is planning to commit a crime” and does not take “reasonable measures to prevent his actions” could be sentenced to two years in prison.

The most famous conviction ever obtained under this clause was that of Margalit Har-Shefi, who was convicted of not preventing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. But Har-Shefi knew about assassin Yigal Amir’s plans for months, not for 34 seconds of a struggle going on in a dark alley.

In issuing its ruling in the Har-Shefi case, the justices made clear that this section of the law must be interpreted very narrowly and warned against sliding from legality into morality. “One must make a firm distinction between a person’s moral obligation to take reasonable measures to prevent a crime and his legal obligation,” wrote then-Justice Jacob Turkel.

Adiel Coleman

But anyone familiar with the police presence in the Old City and the way attacks there develop knows that the suspects could never have saved Coleman. In all the stabbing attacks on Hagai Street and at Damascus Gate in recent years there wasn’t a single case in which police arrived in response to a call to the police hotline.

In fact, there wasn’t a single case in which a large contingent of forces didn’t get to the scene within a few dozen seconds. On Hagai Street it’s hard to walk more than 50 meters without seeing the Border Police. The claim that calling the police could have made a difference is divorced from reality.

Moreover, there have been instances where in the heat of the moment the police fired more than necessary and wounded innocent bystanders. In such a situation to expect a Palestinian to intervene in an attack and risk being mistaken for the terrorist is a cruel demand. It’s not surprising that one of the suspects testified that his legs were trembling.

As defense attorneys Mohammad Mahmoud and Mufid Haj noted, it’s no coincidence that the police never check videos from attacks in West Jerusalem or other places to see if bystanders acted as might be expected of them.

Anyone who has ever been at the scene of a terror attack knows the feeling of fear, confusion and helplessness. The demand to interrogate and judge a person for making snap decisions under those circumstances is unreasonable.

But as noted, the police attempt to stretch the limits of the law in this case is no coincidence. Over 20 stabbings have taken place at Damascus Gate and on Hagai Street since 2015. The police’s frustration with this phenomenon and their inability to stop the lone knife-wielders are pushing the police toward collective punishment and spiteful enforcement of the law. These eight arrests are the most recent example.