The number of suspected murders of Israeli Arab citizens has risen significantly in the past year, but only a relatively small proportion of these cases have been solved by the police. About 30 percent of the purported murders, 27 out of 88, were solved this year – while 26 out of 43 murders with Jewish victims have been solved.
A Haaretz investigation reveals three main characteristics that recur vis-à-vis murder cases in the Arab community: an absence of cooperation on the part of those involved, including witnesses; a lack of success among the investigators searching for evidence; and, as a consequence, indictments that at times end with lenient plea bargains. These issues were particularly evident in three recent investigations, involving the deaths of Intisar al-Issawi, Murad Amash and Hamed Ataika.
The case of Issawi’s death represents two extreme situations with regard to the issue of the Arab community’s cooperation with the police. In this case, there was a person who named his brother as the murderer, and there was also Issawi’s son, whom the police believed could help them find the murderer but refused to do so.
Issawi, a 56-year-old mother of five, was shot to death in May in the yard of her home in Ramle, in central Israel; a neighbor was also wounded in the shooting. The police believe the murderer was Ramle resident Omar Musrati, 23, who has denied any involvement. Musrati is suspected of planning to kill Issawi’s son, with whom he had a dispute, but accidentally shooting his mother, Intisar.
Despite the great efforts invested in this investigation, the Israel Police has failed to find any concrete evidence linking Musrati directly to Issawi’s murder. Thus far they’ve found only circumstantial evidence: security camera footage in which Musrati is seen in the area on his motorcycle, and a friend’s testimony that Musrati had said he shot someone.
Investigators discovered that there were cameras at the crime scene that might have caught the shooting, however, when they arrived there they found the cameras – but not the video footage. That led the police to suspect that Issawi’s son, ostensibly the target of the crime, had gotten rid of the tape. The police officers weren’t sure why it had disappeared. One theory put forward was that the son didn’t want the probe to advance so that he would be able exact revenge. Another theory was that he hid the footage because it may have implicated him in the shooting.
In an unusual step, investigators decided to question Issawi’s son on suspicion of obstructing the investigation.
“There was a digital video recorder in your house, where did it go?” the investigator asked.
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“My mother was responsible for the cameras,” the son replied.
“You’re obstructing the investigation,” the investigator said. “You sent us footage taken by the camera a day earlier. This is about evidence concerning your mother’s murder. Where is the recorder?”
“Ask my mother,” the son persisted.
“Have you no shame?” the investigator continued. “Your mother was murdered and you’ve confiscated the video?
“I have no idea where the device is.”
“You’re a liar,” the investigator said.
“You’re a liar,” the son replied.
The recording device was never found and Musrati was charged in the end with causing death by negligence. During a hearing in court concerning a request by the state to keep Musrati in custody for the duration of the trial, the judge initially cited a lack of evidence directly linking the suspect to Issawi’s murder and noted that this weakened the case. But ultimately the judge acceded to the state’s request.
“The suspects and the accused have no interest in helping the police find evidence, but frequently we deal with murders where even the victim’s friends and family make the investigation difficult – they lie and conceal evidence that could lead to a conviction,” a senior Israel Police official told Haaretz. “And then when we bring in the murderer and it’s clear that he’s guilty, the prosecutors say there’s not enough evidence. It’s extremely frustrating.”
Yet in the case of Issawi’s shooting, the call for the authorities and others involved to cooperate came from the family of the accused: While Omar Musrati was fleeing the police, his brother, Mukhtar Musrati, posted an unusual message on his Facebook page.
“I wish to send a message to every fair person in this country. Issawi, of blessed memory, was murdered and I myself have reported the name of the murderer: Omar Musrati,” he wrote. “I took this step because I don’t want to cover up the fact that a human being has been murdered, no matter what happens to me. My conscience won’t let me sleep at night, knowing there’s a man who has lost his wife, children who have lost their mother … I ask all Muslims to take this step and expose the names of murderers in this city, even at the risk to their own lives.”
The post, which was widely shared on social media, ended with the words: “Anyone who covers up such crimes, is a party to them.”
In addition to the lack of cooperation by witnesses, and sometimes as a result of it, the police often have trouble finding solid forensic evidence at crime scenes in Arab locales. Such was the case of Murad Amash, 19, who was shot to death in the town of Jisr al-Zarqa, north of Caesarea, in September. Police suspect he was shot accidentally during a gunfight between members of two families. But there are many holes in the story. Medics from the Magen David Adom emergency rescue service were called to Amash’s home, but investigators believe he was shot somewhere else and then dragged there.
It has been impossible to ascertain exactly where the shooting took place, and the lack of a definite crime scene led to other problems. Investigators never found evidence of the bullet that struck the teenager, which they could have used to find the murder weapon. For their part, forensic experts concluded there were at least three guns involved in the shooting and they don’t know which one was used to kill Amash. In this case as well, police have had trouble finding witnesses who will cooperate with them.
One source says people who were apparently with Amash the night he was killed have given investigators five different versions of events about the circumstances of his death.
Investigators suspect the shooter who killed Amash is a 19-year-old named Qusay Gurban, but they have met resistance: While senior police officers from the coastal district precinct think the case against Gurban is solid and insisted that he be charged for Amash’s death, Haifa district prosecutors disagree. They said they cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gurban was responsible. In the end the suspect was charged with attempted sabotage with aggravated intent, and possession of a weapon in a residential area – but Amash’s name does not even appear in the indictment. Until now nobody has been charged for his death.
The problems that plague investigators sometime lead to the filing of lighter charges than the police intended and the punishment is meted out accordingly. An example of this is the case of Mahmed Ataika, 20, suspected of stabbing a relative to death in May, Hamed Ataika, 19. Mahmed was charged with a lesser degree of manslaughter for which the maximum penalty is 12 years in prison.
Recently, his attorney Efrat Tzarfati reached a plea deal with prosecutors, in agreement with the victim’s family, where the state will demand a five-and-a-half-year jail term. The significance of such a deal is that someone who stabbed a young man to death is likely to go free in three years.
One source close to the case explained how this came about. A sulha, or reconciliation ceremony, was held between relatives of the victim and the suspect’s family. Prosecutors worried that the reconciliation would lead key witnesses to recant in court the testimony they had given to police.
“In the name of my client and his family we express our condolences to the family [of the victim],” Tzarfati said. “In addition, we rely on the court to determine the fitting penalty for the circumstances surrounding the act in question. We cannot comment on whether a punishment is lenient or strict without knowing the evidence and which considerations led the sides to agree to a deal, and to say the punishment is lenient doesn’t accurately reflect the evidence in this case.”
The Be’er Sheva District Court is expected to hand down its verdict in the case in February.