Analysis

When the Rule of Law in the West Bank Gives in to Lawbreakers

Anyone who tries to bring settlers to justice risks delegitimization campaigns, but that mustn't keep Israeli security agencies from investigating the killing of a Palestinian as they would the murder of a Jew

File photo: Israeli soldiers confront Palestinians protesting against land seizures for Jewish settlements, in the village of al-Mughayyir, north of Ramallah, West Bank, January 25, 2019.
Abbas Momani/AFP

It’s well known that anyone who tries to bring settlers suspected of crimes to justice risks becoming the target of delegitimization campaigns. Nobody is exempt from this intolerable response, including the Shin Bet security service, as l have learned. The army and police are also very familiar with this reality.

Law enforcement agencies may as a result be tempted to keep their heads down and avoid provoking the wrath of the rabid settlers and their many supporters. But for the same reason, this is the law enforcement agencies’ supreme test in the Palestinian territories. If they give in to this fear, then the rule of law has given in to the lawbreakers. And that would be a disaster.

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Every novice investigator knows the importance of collecting evidence, especially forensic evidence, at the scene of the crime, and that this must be done as soon as possible after the alleged crime. Every novice investigator also knows that what isn’t done immediately may not be possible to do later, that anything overlooked the first time could be lost.

This is especially true where organized ideological crime is concerned, the perpetrators of which do not fear the law and may well think obstruction of justice is a religious obligation. And it’s doubly true in complex cases involving conflicting stories: for instance, when the army says none of its soldiers shot live bullets but the settlers say otherwise — though even the settlers say some of their first responders also shot live bullets, in self-defense.

But reports of the conduct of the Judea and Samaria (West Bank) District police raise suspicions that its personnel don’t know any of this, or else that they somehow received reports of a theft of vegetables instead of a case in which one person was killed (possibly murdered) and around 10 others wounded, three of them seriously.

It is very troubling that the police made do with summoning members of the settlers’ first-response squad for questioning, and didn’t question of any of them for a full day — even though one of them may have been responsible for the fatal shooting. Even more troubling is the fact that the squad’s guns weren’t examined. Moreover, no autopsy of was performed on the body of Hamdi Taleb Na’asan.

File photo: Clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians after the funeral of Hamdi Na'asan in al-Mughayyir village near the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 27, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

It’s also far from clear that the right way to handle the soldiers who witnessed the incident — and who, according to the settlers, also fired live bullets — was to settle for the results of the army’s internal inquiry.

All this is true even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that the settlers — and not the Palestinians — were truthful about how the incident began. At this stage, there’s no way to know whose story is true. If someone was shot when his back was to the shooter, then it is prima facie manslaughter, regardless of how the incident began.

The fact that the law enforcement system hasn’t always obeyed this logic in the past is no justification for continuing to make this mistake. And if the Palestinians are right about how the incident started — that the settlers began it by shooting at their homes — then what happened is incomparably worse.

But if it turns out that the Palestinians were shot in self-defense because they were endangering settlers or soldiers, then the shooting was justified and the shooter acted legally. Consequently, it’s vital to determine the truth, and as quickly as possible.

There is no rule of law without equality before the law. Thus the test is simple: How would law enforcement have responded to a similar incident in which the casualties were Jewish? There’s no doubt that a supreme and speedy effort would have been made to discover the truth. And that’s precisely the standard the system must meet when the victims are Palestinians.

This incident also requires a Shin Bet investigation, which would obviously already have been opened had the victims been Jewish. With all due respect to the police, the chances of uncovering the truth will be much greater if the Shin Bet participates in the investigation.

An urgent, efficient, uncompromising investigation — within the limits of the law, obviously — is necessarily not only in order to uncover the truth, though this is its main purpose. It’s also necessarily to make clear that the rule of law governs all residents of the territories, including the Jews.

The political system treats all Palestinians as our eternal enemies and as trespassers on land that isn’t theirs. Moreover, it defines the purpose of Jewish settlement in the territories as perpetuating forever our exclusive control over these areas. It thereby pours fuel on the fire lit long ago by the extremists, who have long since abandoned all restraint in their treatment of Arabs and treat the state with contempt and alienation.

If this fire spreads, it could destroy us all. The police and the Shin Bet must gird their loins and investigate as if it were Jews who had been hurt and killed.