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The Bloody Events of October 2000 That Just Forced Barak to Apologize to Israel's Arabs

The former Labor Party leader was prime minister when 12 Arab citizens were killed by Israeli police. What has triggered his belated apology 19 years later?

An Israeli officer pointing his gun toward protesters in Jaffa, October 2000.
Moti Kimche

“The Events of October 2000” is the nondescript term used by the Or Commission — the state-ordered investigation into a week of violent confrontations between the Israel Police and the country’s Arab citizens — to refer to the inquiry. The use of live fire by police led to the death of 13 Arabs — 12 Israeli citizens and a Palestinian man from Gaza. Additionally, a Jewish man was killed when his car was hit by a rock while he was driving along the Coastal Highway. 

It was those killings that, nearly 19 years later, elicited Tuesday’s apology from Ehud Barak to “the families [of the victims] and to the Arab community” in general.

At the time, Barak was Israel’s prime minister, elected to replace Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1999 following a clear victory that included the overwhelming support of the country’s Arab voters. But those October events and his government’s response to them served to turn the Arab public against him sharply. Within 18 months, Barak found himself out of office and replaced by Likud’s Ariel Sharon.

In a sense, it was also Sharon who set off the process that led to Barak’s downfall. As then-leader of the opposition, he led a delegation of Likud lawmakers to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on September 28, 2000. Although the visit was coordinated with Palestinian officials, and the politicians’ behavior on the Mount was not openly provocative, the very presence of Israeli officials — accompanied by hundreds of armed guards — was infuriating to many Muslim Arabs. 

A march in the Arab city of Sakhnin remembering the 13 victims of the October 2000 protests, October 2017.
Gil Eliahu

A day later, following Friday prayers, violent demonstrations broke out throughout the Old City, with some of the Muslim protesters throwing rocks from the Mount down onto the Western Wall Plaza where Jews traditionally congregate to pray. The police responded, eventually with live ammunition, and by the end of the day seven Palestinians were dead and another 300 wounded. Seventy police officers also suffered injuries. 

Unfortunately, following the complete failure of U.S.-led talks between Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, the larger political situation was not conducive to either side stepping back before the violence spun out of control. 

Indeed, the September 29 clashes in Jerusalem quickly devolved into what would become the second intifada. Over the next four-plus years, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem challenged the Israeli occupation with suicide bombings and other lethal means, and Israel responded with crushing force. More than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in the violence, in addition to the effective killing of any meaningful peace process between the sides. 

The October 2000 violence is connected to the events surrounding the intifada’s outbreak, but also stands apart because it involved Israel’s Palestinian citizens (as opposed to residents of the occupied territories), who constitute some 20 percent of the country’s population. 

A policeman regarding a group of protesters in the northern town of Fureidis, October 2000.
Pavel Wolberg

After several optimistic years in which they saw their government begin both serious negotiations with their Palestinian brethren in the territories and to address some of the political and material inequality they had suffered since the state’s beginnings in 1948, the shooting deaths of October 1-8 led to a rift and breakdown of trust that has never completely healed.

Adding to the breakdown was the fact that many Jewish civilians took part in violent attacks on Arab citizens. And among Israeli Jews, there was widespread concern that the Arabs within sovereign Israel — whose loyalty had always been regarded as suspect by many — were now initiating an armed uprising of their own within the Green Line. For a brief period, civil war between the Jewish and Arab citizens seemed a possibility, however remote.

The demonstrations took place across northern Israel, and were accompanied by a general strike among the Arab community. The protests took a violent turn in many venues, and the police responded with disproportionate force. They employed snipers to shoot unarmed demonstrators, and there were cases of victims being shot in the back. 

Although the confrontations went on for a week, a meeting between Prime Minister Barak and the leadership of the Arab community did lead to a gradual lessening of the violence — although the Jewish backlash mostly came during the latter part of the week.

Nazira Khamayseh holding a picture of her son Mohammad, who was killed during the October 2000 protests in the Arab community, September 2003.
Pierre Terdjman / BauBau

Supervised autopsies

On November 8, 2000, Barak’s government appointed a three-person state commission, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, to investigate “the clashes between security forces and Israeli civilians.”

After initial cooperation with the panel, the families of the victims began to boycott the commission, which went on for nearly two years. Witnesses testifying under warning during the hearings were allowed to avail themselves of legal counsel, while the commission decided to disinter the bodies of some of the victims for supervised autopsies. The findings themselves were released nearly three years after the initial violence, on September 2, 2003. 

The commission was empowered only to investigate, not indict — but its conclusions were harsh. It criticized the police for using unnecessary force. More generally, it castigated Israeli society for its systematic “prejudice and neglect” of the country’s Arab citizens, and the government in particular as being unresponsive to their concerns and needs. 

A monument to the victims of the October 2000 protests in Arabeh, northern Israel.
Yaron Kaminsky

At the same time, it pointed to a number of Arab politicians and the head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement for “incitement” that led to the violent demonstrations. 

Despite the specificity of the Or Commission’s recommendations, no police officers were indicted or even reprimanded as a result of the “events.” By the time of its release, Ariel Sharon was the country’s premier, and although he appointed then-Justice Minister Tommy Lapid (father of Kahol Lavan co-head Yair Lapid) to head a commission assigned with implementing the Or Commission’s recommendations related to improving the lives of Arab citizens, the panel recorded zero accomplishments.

Back in October 1997, shortly after he became chairman of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak made a dramatic public apology to Israel’s Mizrahi Jews for the neglect and mistreatment they suffered — particularly during the state’s early decades, when Labor’s predecessor, Mapai, was in power. Two years later, he was swept into the Prime Minister’s Office. 

A protest march in Sakhnin against then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz's decision to close the probe into events of October 2000, February 2008. The coffin says "Israeli justice system."
Dror Artzi

He returned to politics this June, after over six years away, with the establishment of his new Democratic Israel party. Now, as pollsters are seeing signs of an Arab public disillusioned with both its own political representatives and the Zionist parties, he perhaps senses that an apology for the “Events of October 2000” may serve to convince some that a more mature Barak will relate to the Arabs differently if given a second chance.

An Arab protest on the streets of Nazareth, northern Israel, October 2000.
Yaron Kaminsky