The Unit Investigating Israeli Cops 'Almost Paralyzed' Amid Bitter Rivalry With Police

Justice Ministry unit at a standstill, refraining from investigations against top officers, some of its senior members tell court

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Police officers expecting protesters in Jerusalem, during the tenth weekly protest in a row calling on Netanyahu to resign, August 29, 2020.
File photo: Police officers expecting protesters in Jerusalem, during the tenth weekly protest in a row calling on Netanyahu to resign, August 29, 2020.Credit: Police Spokesperson

Senior members of the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct say in a petition and affidavits submitted Wednesday that the unit is at a virtual standstill, due to bitter rivalry between it and police, and because of vengeful behavior by former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich.

In documents submitted to Jerusalem District Court that were obtained by Haaretz, the officials also describe attempts by former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan to conceal the murky relationship between the organizations, so as not to harm the cooperation between prosecutors and police during the investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The officials blame the present head of the unit, Keren Bar Menachem, for the present paralysis in the department.

The petition was filed by a senior unit investigator, Superintendent Dov Scherzer, against the unit and the State Prosecutor’s Office, via attorney Oded Savorai. Scherzer, now in charge of the unit’s investigation teams, claims that his promotion was prevented due to sensitive investigations he conducted against senior police officials, and in light of the rivalry between Alsheich and the unit.

Moshe Saada, the deputy head of the unit, backs Scherzer’s assertions in his affidavit, and states that since the April 2019 appointment of his superior, Bar Menachem, the department has not been conducting investigations, and the number of indictments filed by the unit has declined by almost half.

Until September 2014 Scherzer was a senior investigator in the Lahav 433 police anti-fraud unit. He investigated then-Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit in the Harpaz affair. He was known to be uncompromising and scathing. By his own request Scherzer was transferred to the Justice Ministry unit to head the staff responsible for the most sensitive investigations, including those of the police top brass. He was promised that after his transfer to the unit he would be promoted, but, as he claims in the petition, the fact that he was a “borrowed investigator” – one transferred from the police force to a unit that investigates police – complicated the relationship between the unit and police, to the point of a specific threat by Alsheich to disband it.

A police officer at the protest in Jerusalem, August 29, 2020.
Flie photo: A police officer at an anti-Netanyahu protest in Jerusalem, August 29, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The list of police officials investigated by Scherzer includes former Deputy Police Commissioner Nissim Mor, who was eventually convicted of sexual harassment and breach of faith; the head of Lahav 433 Menashe Arbiv, who was convicted in the Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto affair; the commander of the police Judea and Samaria District Kobi Cohen, and many other officers. Most of them left the police after the investigations, with indictments served against some of them. “Scherzer’s successes did not result in great affection for the borrowed officer in the police force,” wrote former unit head Uri Carmel, in an affidavit attached to the petition.

But there were two investigations, according to the petition, that finally “marked” Scherzer as a target for Alsheikh, and prevented his promotion: his investigation of Lahav 433 head Roni Ritman, on suspicion of sexual harassment of a female officer who was his subordinate, and the investigation of the death of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan in 2017.

‘Witch hunt’

In January of that year, Abu al-Kiyan was shot dead by police during the evacuation of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran. Alsheich hastened to declare Abu al-Kiyan’s actions prior to the shooting as a terror attack, while the Shin Bet security service determined that policeman Erez Levy, who was killed by Abu al-Kiyan’s car, was not run over for nationalist reasons. The Justice Ministry unit investigation, led by Scherzer, was what led to the discovery that Abu al-Kiyan was shot as he was driving at a speed of only 10 kph, and rejected the accusation of a terror attack.

According to the petition, Alsheich tried to deter the unit from investigating the incident, and in particular the policeman who shot Abu al-Kiyan, insisting that it was a terror attack. About a month later there was a meeting in the office of Shai Nitzan, due to the unit’s claims about the pressure being exerted by the commissioner to prevent an investigation of the incident. The petition maintains that there was a swift escalation in tone, and Alsheich demanded “a structural change in the unit, and a separation between it and the State Prosecutor’s Office.”

Haaretz learned that Alsheich’s assistant even called the unit’s investigators liars. According to Saada’s description in the affidavit, Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit allowed Alsheich and his assistant to be harshly critical. “The meeting exploded after the commissioner said that he didn’t believe Uri (Carmel) and his sweet talk. I left with the feeling that we didn’t receive the protection we expected,” wrote Saada.

In the affidavit Saada says that the following day he received a WhatsApp from Nitzan: “I hope that you’re okay after yesterday. You demonstrated courage and restraint and it wasn’t easy. … For a moment I thought of ordering an ambulance for Uri – I hope it didn’t upset him and that it will be possible to continue to work with them in a reasonable manner.”

Saada says Alsheich’s status among those who attended the meeting was stronger than usual, in light of the investigations of the prime minister. Scherzer makes similar claims in his petition. “Alsheich, who had a vested interest in the investigation of the incident in Umm al-Hiran, actively tried to disband and weaken Mahash,” Scherzer wrote to the court.

“Relations at the time between the police commissioner and the state prosecutor and the attorney general were fraught. It was the height of the investigations of the prime minister. The cooperation required from all those involved to advance these investigations, which were the subject of intensive media coverage and public attention, and were at the center of harsh political criticism, was crucial for all the law enforcement agencies. That’s why the commissioner had a stronger status than usual among the state prosecution officials,” wrote Scherzer.

He asserts that Alsheich conducted a “witch hunt” against him, including collecting complaints against him by those he had investigated. He wrote, “Of course under these circumstances, a petitioner who conducted investigations that led to the dismissal of most of the officers in the police top brass, had no chance of getting the promised promotion, at a time when the investigation he conducted publicly embarrassed commissioner Alsheich.”

In November 2017, police officials anonymously claimed on Channel 12 News that the Justice Ministry unit had solid proof – the Shin Bet opinion that the car accident in Umm al-Hiran was nationalist in nature – and that the unit was concealing it and had invented evidence. According to the unit, the person behind the report was Alsheich, as was revealed this week on Channel 12 News. Carmel, as the head of the unit, demanded that Nitzan deny the report and back them up. At the same time the unit turned to the Shin Bet and requested additional clarification due to the claims. The unit received another unequivocal reply from the Shin Bet: The incident was not a terror attack.

“I feel that in the name of ‘remaining above it’ and on the altar of prosecution-police relations, Mahash is being sacrificed, along with its people and the public interest for which it is responsible. To leave me without support when the commissioner himself claims that we have evidence, seems to me unfair and unethical,” wrote Carmel to Nitzan after his departure from the unit. After Carmel’s departure, Nitzan published his decision in the case: No policeman will be investigated, and he refrained from declaring that the event was not a terror attack, although the Shin Bet as well as the unit had decided otherwise.  

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