Defense Minister: Lynch Perpetrators Must Be Brought to Justice

Autopsy of Habtom Zarhum could lead to indictment against those caught on tape beating the wounded Eritrean who was shot after being mistaken for a terrorist.

Moti Milrod

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon condemned Monday the lynching of an Eritrean man during a terror attack in Be'er Sheva on Sunday, and said those behind his death should be brought to justice, a claim echoed by the attorney general. Ya'alon said Israel will “overcome this [wave of] terror and return safety to Israeli civilians, because we have no choice, we have no other land.”

Ya’alon sent condolences to the family of Sgt. Omri Levy, who was killed in the attack, before condemning the brutal beating of Habtom Zarhum, who was first shot by a security guard who misidentified him as the terrorist. “Such behavior is forbidden, even when anger and sadness are great,” said the defense minister.

Habtom Zarhum, the Eritrean bystander killed in Be'er Sheva in October 2015
(Courtesy)

Police identified the true attacker as Muhannad al-Okbi, an Israeli citizen from a Bedouin community near the Negev town of Hura. Al-Okbi was carrying a gun and a knife and stole the dead soldier's weapon during the attack.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein spoke with Maj. Gen. Meni Yitzhaki, head of the Israel Police investigative and intelligence wing on Monday. Weinstein reportedly said that due to the severity of the attack and the circumstances, that he should be involved in all phases of the investigation.

Meanwhile, Eritrea's ambassador to Israel asked the Foreign Ministry for all information regarding the lynching. Zarhum had been living in Israel for nearly four years. He had visited Be’er Sheva to extend his temporary residence visa and was on his way back to Moshav Ein Habesor, where he worked in a garden center.

An autopsy of Zarhum’s body could influence any possibly indictments or charges against those caught on tape as involved with the beating. The Abu Kabir Forensic Institute will conduct the autopsy which will determine the cause of Zarhum’s death. If he was killed by the gunshot wound, those involved in his beating will likely not face murder or manslaughter charges. If, however, it is determined that the beating led to his death, such charges could ensue. Zarhum was still breathing when he was rushed to the hospital from the scene of the attack by medical personnel to the hospital.

Courtesy of Mutasim Ali

The Israel Police announced on Monday that the circumstances surrounding Zarhum’s death will be investigated. Police decided to open an investigation as this was an attack on a defenseless person after the terrorist was killed and there was no longer any threat.

In a hearing at the Southern District Police Monday morning, police decided that the central unit of the Negev District Police would undertake the specific investigation. Police stressed that this is not a manslaughter investigation; they investigating the entire event, as he had sustained a gunshot wound before he was beaten by a group of Israelis. Senior Israel Police officials estimate that Zarhum’s death was caused by the gunshot, however, the Forensic Institute will have the final say in the matter.

Police explain that they will proceed with this investigation “cautiously:” On the one hand, they do not want to deter citizens from acting during terrorist attacks, but on the other, they must hold each individual accountable for their actions, officials said. 

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also commented on the attack and sent condolences to the victims’ families. “We are in an extended struggle that we will surely win,” said Netanyahu, adding, “The matter causes confrontations between citizens at the sites of terror attacks. Citizens act logically and determinedly. People who are caught at the scene need to make way for security personnel. No one should take the law into his own hands.”