Israel Memorial Day |

Remembering the First 'non-Jewish' Policeman Killed in the Line of Duty

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Hamdi Arslan holds a photo of his brother, Sabri Arslan. 'It was a pleasure to see him in uniform in the special outfit of the mounted police. I was proud. With his first paycheck, he bought me a watch.'
Hamdi Arslan holds a photo of his brother, Sabri Arslan. 'It was a pleasure to see him in uniform in the special outfit of the mounted police. I was proud.'Credit: Gil Eliahu

The death of Sabri Arslan was reported in a 62-word story in Haaretz in December 1952, below the forecast for drizzle in the Galilee. It was titled “Policeman killed by accident.” The daily newspaper Herut treated it much the same: a very short report headlined “Circassian policeman killed,” explaining: “A Circassian policeman was killed when a squad of security guards from Kfar Ruppin clashed with a police squad. The security guards were in a stakeout and due to a misunderstanding, opened fire at the police squad that was patrolling the site.”

The marginalization and brevity of these reports in the newspapers not only fail to stress the fact that Arslan was the first Circassian in the Israeli police force to be killed; mainly, this showcases the discrimination against non-Jewish policeman in the years right after Israel’s establishment. Within the police force they were treated as second-class citizens. In their society, some disapproved of their joining the “Zionist police force.” And even after his death, the disrespect towards him and his family persisted. On the website “Yizkor” (Hebrew), where the names of security forces who died in the course of duty appears, his surname appears as “Hatukh”.

“Our name is Arslan. I don’t know why they decided it’s Hatukh,” says his niece Ilana.

She speaks with Haaretz from the home of her uncle Hamdi, Arslan’s brother, in the village of Reihaniya in northern Israel. Hamdi speaks with pride of Sabri, who joined the police in the wake of their oldest brother.

“Sabri wanted to be a mounted policeman, like his brother Fahri,” Hamdi says. So at the age of 18, Sabri joined the police: “Out of loyalty, not out of coercion,” stressed his brother. “It was a pleasure to see him in uniform in the special outfit of the mounted police. I was proud. With his first paycheck, he bought me a watch.”

Sabri Arslan. The report in the paper read: 'A Circassian policeman was killed when a squad of security guards from Kfar Ruppin clashed with a police squad.'Credit: Gil Eliahu

His first post was with a special company of mounted Circassian police. Their chief mission was to identify infiltrators from Lebanon. Later he switched to the Trans-Jordan Frontier Police force. And then, in December 1952, he was sent to a stakeout in Kfar Ruppin, which is in the Beit She’an valley. Erroneously identified as an infiltrator himself, apparently by fellow members of his unit, not the local security guards, he was shot dead.

“One morning the Safed police came to us and told my mother, ‘Your son was killed,’” recalls Hamdi. “I cried a lot. Two years earlier our father had died, and now Sabri. They didn’t tell us what happened. It didn’t occur to us to ask how it happened. We were told that infiltrators shot him, and that’s all. They didn’t tell us the truth at all. Only 50 years later, talking with people, we came to realize that apparently the policemen from his unit made a mistake in identification and shot him. To this day I don’t know what happened there. It hurts that they didn’t tell us the truth all these years, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It didn’t occur to be that he might have been [mis-]identified as an Arab.”

One thing about his brother’s funeral was burned into his mind, Hamdi says: No police officers attended. Nor did they make a condolence visit. “They didn’t give him the honor,” Hamdi says. The family came to realize that they had been denied certain rights, which would have been due if Sabri had died as an Israeli soldier. Families of fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers received generous compensation after their deaths, including such things as chicken coops from the local council, to help them make a living. Sabri’s family received nothing.

Night-time curfew

In August 1953, based on suspicion that residents of Reihaniya were collaborating with infiltrators from Lebanon, various restrictions were imposed on the village. Homes were searched and, Hamdi says, a night-time curfew was imposed. Their brother Fahri was fired from the police force.

Police minister Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit meets members of the Israeli police force in 1950.

In any case, the brothers’ joining the Israeli police hadn’t been universally approved of within their community. “We suffered a lot. Sabri died in the police force, Fahri was fired by the police, but the government claimed that the residents of Reihaniya were aiding the enemy. We paid a high price on both fronts. They thought that we were collaborators, even though we lost our brother for the sake of the country. Nobody helped us and we didn’t know where to go or to whom to turn. We couldn’t do a thing. We felt like second-class citizens. Mother cried all the time.”

Arslan’s story is emblematic of the experiences of minorities, Arabs, Druze and Circassians, who joined the young country’s police. They aspired to integrate and to share in the duty of maintaining law and order, and protecting the borders. But they also suffered incessant discrimination and on top of that, were treated with suspicion, and often hostility as well, by their own communities. An article published two months ago in the periodical “Police and History” issued by the police Heritage Center relates how the police purported to have an egalitarian policy towards minorities, with an emphasis on the Arabs; but in practice, treated them differently from the Jewish policemen.

The first police commissioner, Yehezkel Sahar, opposed recruiting Arabs, although some of them had served shoulder to shoulder alongside Jewish policemen in the British Mandatory police force. The Emergency (Situation) Committee established in the wake of the United Nations Partition Plan discussed recruiting minorities to the planned police force. Golda Meir, who sat on the committee, argued in favor of the idea because of the principle of equality. “If the Arabs don’t come we’ll establish the police force without them, but their legal right to join the police force cannot be denied,” she said.

But in fact, the few minority memories who joined the police found themselves kept separate from the Jewish policemen, and they of all people were often sent on sensitive missions. The police made sure they were always subordinate to a Jewish commander.

An example is the Nazareth police force, which was established in 1948, in which Arab policemen were subordinate to Jewish officers. “The time has not yet come to have the minorities participate in the police force,” Police Minister Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit in an interview with Kol Israel radio. “The police will try to find among them people with ethics and integrity who will be loyal to their job.”

Oded Ron, a doctoral candidate at Hebrew University and researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute who wrote the “Police and History” article says that putting side security-related suspicions against the minority recruits, there was an advantage to hiring Arabs, Druze and Circassians to the police: not their knowledge of Arabic or other knowledge they brought with them, but the certainty that they didn’t belong to “dissident” organizations that operated during the period of the British Mandate rule over Israel: Etzel and Lehi. During Israel’s early years, a lot of people were tossed off the nascent police force because of their political affiliation. Most of the fired policemen were associated with Etzel or Lehi.

Minority members were recruited, but in tiny numbers, Ron says. In Israel’s first year 62 Arabs, Druze and Circassians were recruited to the young police force; by a decade later the figure had reached 404.

“When the Border Police was established, there were substantial doubts about establishing a unit in which Jews and Druze would serve together,” said Pinhas Kopel, the first commander of the Border Police and later the third police commissioner, in 1953. “Arab, Druze or Circassian policemen were paid less and some had different uniforms compared with their colleagues, the Jewish cops,” he says. “There was also a mechanism that placed Arab policemen subordinate to Jewish commanders, and if not Jewish, then at least a Druze.”

The minority policemen did not take this treatment in stride, and demanded equal pay with that of their Jewish colleagues. At first only the pay of the police serving in cities was equalized; later the rural cops received equal pay as well. In 1949, a Jewish police officer in Ramle decided not to pay the Arab police the same amount as the Jews; in response they sent a letter to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion: “We, the undersigned policemen from the Ramle-Lod police force, have been suspended and threatened in light of our refusal to wear the beret and the ghafir uniform, on charges of refusing to obey an order. We request your urgent intervention to protect our rights.”

Ron sees Arslan’s death as an embodiment of the tensions in the police force due to the recruitment of minorities. “In the event in which Sabri Arslan was killed, the ones who opened fire were a group of Circassian policemen. The profound blurring of identity is key to this incident. Many of those infiltrators that Arslan’s unit was trying to track down were actually people who had resumed farming land or visiting family on the Israeli side of the border. The infiltrators ran into Arab policemen or policemen from some other minority group, policemen who by the same token could have found themselves on the other side. Though minority policemen tried to blur their national identity — some studied Israeli geography and history in police courses, spoke Hebrew and even gave their children Hebrew names, ultimately that wasn’t enough for them to be perceived as equals, either within the police force or in the Israeli public’s attitude. It was always accompanied by a sense of suspicion. Ultimately, the appearance of the Arab, Druze and Circassian police led them to be perceived as suspect by the Israeli public.”

Today there are about 3,500 “non-Jewish” policemen, or about 13 percent of the total police force, which in recent years has been investing considerable resources in recruiting Muslim policemen, with a declared objective of reducing the lack of trust between the Arab community and the police. “One Arab policeman at a murder scene who speaks the language and understands the culture, is sometimes worth 10 Jewish policemen,” a station commander from the Arab community once said.

The attitude to the death of policemen from minorities has also changed completely. The most recent police casualty was Sergeant Naim Madi, a Border Policeman from the Druze village of Julis, who was shot dead by a member of his own unit who was playing with his gun in the police station in Acre. The police commissioner himself came to console the family, which is being closely accompanied by police officers. The circumstances of the death were investigated and the unit commander was ousted.

Hamdi Arslan himself is also invited to the police memorial ceremonies each year. “This is our country, we died for it, we respect the government and they have special respect for the Circassians,” he says.

Ron adds that research into whether recruiting minority groups moderates the potentially explosive nature of encounters between the police and these groups had contradictory outcomes. Yet he feels that it is crucial to implementation of the principle of equality. But even if the police are willing to do it, and even if it improves the relations between the police and the community, it has to be part of an overall social change in attitude to those groups. We still see that at demonstrations people shout at an Arab policeman that he’s a terrorist, and at an Ethiopian that he’s black, and apparently that reflects a sentiment that unfortunately still exists. Recruiting minority groups to the police maybe be necessary, but it’s not enough.”

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