A Hero or a Subject of a Conspiracy? Druze-Israeli Cop's Death Haunts His Brother

Police claim that Druze officer Salim Barakat was a hero who saved many lives before being stabbed by a terrorist, but a documentary alleges that he was the victim of a cover-up

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Salim Barakat
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

One night in early March 2002, Salim Barakat, a 33-year-old police officer from Israel’s Druze community, was on a stakeout for car thieves with his partner on Sa’adia Gaon Street in Tel Aviv, close to the Maariv Bridge (which has since been demolished). For the purpose of the mission, the two were not in uniform; Barakat wore jeans, a black T-shirt and a black jacket. Suddenly they heard shots from close by. Israel was then reeling under a barrage of terrorist attacks.

Barakat ran in the direction of the shots and instructed his partner to follow with the vehicle and block the bridge. At the scene of the incident he saw someone throwing grenades into the Seafood Market restaurant, which was then packed with a crowd of partyers, and shooting with an M-16 rifle. Barakat fired twice at the terrorist, who collapsed to the ground. He then radioed: “Vans, calm things, calm things I’m here at the junction. Vans, calm things.” Two shots were then heard over the radio, then silence. A policeman responded to Barakat, but got no reply.

Officially, according to the investigative report that helped convict those involved in the attack, Salim Barakat was stabbed to death by the terrorist. The Israel Police maintain that Salim bent over the terrorist to check whether he was wearing an explosive belt, and the latter, with his last ounce of strength, stabbed him to death. The time was 2:14 A.M.

About five hours later, Salim’s brother, Jamal Barakat, who today is 53, heard about the attack on the news as he got ready for work. Even as he prayed for his brother’s well-being, there was a knock on the door. Police officers had come to inform the family that Salim had been killed in the incident. “He was a courageous hero,” they told Jamal. “Many lives were saved thanks to him.”

Jamal Barakat, left, with director Ramy Katz (an image of Salim is behind them). “In the end,” says Katz, “the testimonies supported the version that he was shot by a civilian.” Credit: Rami Shllush

It turned out that two other Israelis were killed in the attack, both of them civilians, and 35 were wounded. The Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade claimed responsibility for it.

Three months later, the father of the family also died – from heartbreak, Jamal says. The years passed and the bereavement became a permanent longing, fixing the image of Salim (then divorced, with a 4-year-old daughter) as a hero, forever young.

In 2011, nine years after his brother’s death, Jamal, an investigator for the National Insurance Institute, attended a self-defense and safety event organized by the institute. One of the speakers was a former police officer whose biography stated that he had served in the Yarkon District in Tel Aviv at the time of the Seafood Market attack. After the talk, Jamal struck up a conversation with the retired officer. “You were in the Yarkon District when the attack took place – do you remember what happened there?” Jamal asked him with innocent curiosity. But the reply absolutely stunned him: “Of course I remember. The whole world knows what happened there. Some nutcase shot a policeman twice in the back. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know how I got through the rest of the day,” Jamal recalls, in a conversation we had in his house. But from that moment he started trying to put together the pieces of what had now become the puzzle of his brother’s death. “I suddenly remembered what my mother said immediately after the event – that she heard that a Jew killed Salim, not a terrorist. I didn’t take what she said seriously. We were told for so many years that Salim died from being stabbed by the terrorist.”

'Unequivocally, Salim was not murdered by stabbing. The proof is that his DNA was not found on the terrorist’s knife.'

Jamal Barakat

A few months after the jolting encounter with the police officer, Jamal got a phone call from Ramy Katz, a documentary filmmaker. “I was in the library doing research for a documentary about the attack,” he told Jamal. “A friend of mine happened to be there when it happened, and I thought the film would be about him. But as I read articles about the chain of events, I realized that things didn’t make sense about the death of Salim Barakat, and I decided to do a film about that.”

Jamal’s reply: “This is a call I’ve been waiting for.”

The encounter was the start of a five-year journey, during which Jamal sought to uncover the real cause of his brother’s death. He met with eyewitnesses, examined the investigative materials, visited the Institute of Forensic Medicine and pored over every scrap of information he was able to obtain. His effort is captured in a documentary film, “Cause of Death,” which will have its second and final screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Sunday (August 5), and will also be broadcast on Yes Docu. The film tends to accept Jamal’s version of the events: that Salim was not killed by the terrorist but by someone else at the scene – but no unequivocal conclusion is reached.

“At first the film was divided into four parts, each of which provided a different version of Salim’s death,” Katz relates. “One is the police account, according to which he was stabbed by the terrorist. The second is that he was shot by a civilian. The third is that he was shot by a member of the security forces who didn’t realize that Salim was a police officer. And the fourth is that he was lynched or his body was abused after he had been killed either by the terrorist’s knife or the gunshots. In the end, the weight of the testimonies supported the version that he was shot by a civilian, so only that account was chosen for the film.”

A spokesperson for the Israel Police provided the following statement about the documentary to Haaretz: “Contrary to what is being alleged, and as was found unequivocally at the scene, in the thorough investigation and in the examination by the forensic institute, Salim Barakat, of blessed memory, was not shot during the course of the event and died as a result of a fatal stabbing by the terrorist, which put an end to his life.”

One fact is not in doubt: There was definitely an armed civilian on the scene who opened fire with his pistol. His name is William Hazan, known as Willy. According to both Hazan and the police, he shot the terrorist after the latter stabbed both Salim and him. But some allege that Hazan thought that Salim, with his Arab features and not in uniform, was the terrorist and therefore shot him.

Hazan, for his part, told journalists who visited him in the hospital after the event (as also quoted in Haaretz at the time): “I saw a hefty, tall person fighting with a short man who had an Eastern [mizrahit, in Hebrew] appearance. At first I thought, mistakenly, that the terrorist was the person with the Eastern appearance, I didn’t know whom to shoot, and then the tall man stabbed me and I realized that he was the terrorist. I moved backed a bit and shot him. It was lucky the terrorist stabbed me in the back, otherwise I would have shot the wrong person. I have no memory of whether the terrorist fell. Immediately afterward I put the weapon away – I was afraid that maybe people would think that I was a terrorist, too.”

'If I’d known then what I know now, I would have requested an autopsy.'

Jamal Barakat

At this point we need to recall another development, which occurred a few minutes later: People who emerged from the Seafood Market restaurant mutilated the body of one of the dead people on the ground, thinking – apparently mistakenly – that it was the terrorist. “People surrounded him, spat on him, extinguished burning cigarettes on him, kicked the body like it was a rag. That went on for more than 10 minutes. They rolled the body toward the street with kicks to the stomach and the chest. It’s a nightmare that still haunts me.” The speaker was one of the witnesses to the event, Amit Fisherman, who was working that night in an adjacent restaurant. His comments were quoted in a local newspaper two days after the attack, and he also appears in the new film.

The body that the restaurant-goers mutilated may have been that of Barakat, who had paid with his life in order to save them. But there’s no certainty concerning the description of the incident. The police did not comment on the possible savaging of the corpse, even though they were asked about it. The officers I spoke with deny that any such incident occurred.

Half-closed eye

We’re sitting in the yard of the Barakat family’s home in Yarka, in northern Israel. Jamal and Ramy Katz are sharing a water pipe; afterward we’re joined by Jamal’s wife, Ibtisam, and by their son, Adham. Before becoming an NII investigator, Jamal was a career officer in the Israel Defense Forces, with the rank of major. Ibtisam is an assistant kindergarten teacher in Yarka. Adham serves in the army’s mista’arvim undercover unit, another son is a police officer in the Yarkon District, a third son is a battalion commander in an IDF combat unit, and the couple’s daughter is a college student, studying biology.

On the table are date cookies made by Ibstisam, fruit, aromatic coffee and a variety of nuts. A fine view toward the west can be seen from the house, which is built on a hillside, and where each of the couple’s children lives on a different floor. On a clear day you can see the Mediterranean, although usually the view is spoiled by the smog from the Haifa oil refineries.

The scene of the 2002 terror attack outside the Seafood Market restaurant in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ariel Schalit

Yarka is a local council in Galilee whose residents are Druze. There is evidence that this community has existed here since the 11th century, when the Druze broke away from Islam and started to practice rituals of their own. The population of 17,000 constitutes 12 percent of all the Druze in Israel (who number almost 140,000), and the council’s socioeconomic rank is 3 on a scale of 10, in the country.

The Druze creed is known in full only to the community’s male elders, though some of its principles are common knowledge. The first is loyalty to the government under which they live – a tenet that allows and encourages them to serve in the security forces of the Jewish state. This explains why members of the community, among them IDF soldiers of all ranks, are now angrily protesting the passage of the new nation-state law: They feel that they serve Israel and risk their lives for the state, but in return have been slapped with legislation that undermines them, defines them as second-rate citizens and downgrades their language.

In addition, the Druze are monotheistic and believe in reincarnation; speaking the truth is the first of their seven commandments.

During my visit to Yarka, an emotional father invited everyone to his son’s wedding that weekend, announcing the event from a van equipped with a loudspeaker that drove through the village. This old-fashioned mode of invitation speaks volumes about the transformation the Druze are undergoing. The older generation continues to cling to the trappings of a small, insular, conservative community. Yet at the same time, of all the ethnic non-Jewish groups in Israel, the Druze have the highest rate of women studying for an academic degree, and in general the modern world is insistently impinging on the community

'No one is trying to hide anything from the family. There’s no secret here. This is not a case of an unsolved murder.'

Maj. Uri Bar-Lev

This duality is also seen in the natural way that Jamal shows me images of his brother’s body, which he photographed from his file in the forensic institute. He’s using technological advances to take a hard look at death – specifically at his brother’s body, something which Jews traditionally avoid doing. By contrast, as well, the Druze burial ceremony starts with the open display of the body at the deceased’s house as an invitation to everyone to part with him.

Signs of violence on the body are visible in the images from the forensic institute. Salim’s left cheek is scratched, the result, Jamal thinks, of the mob violence, and one eye is half closed – possibly he was hit there, or maybe it’s due to a knife wound or a bullet that slashed through his body. A red stain at the base of the neck has preoccupied Jamal since he first saw it.

“I don’t forget things like that, and I have a good memory,” he says. “When I went to part from Salim, I saw four stitches on the chest – and not at the base of the neck – where he’s said to have been stabbed. The neck stain that you see here – I didn’t see that on his body. No one will persuade me differently, because I saw stitches here [pointing to the heart]. We know that when a body arrives at the forensic institute, it is photographed from every direction and from all angles, from bottom to top. The only photographs of Salim that we found are from the neck up. Not from the side, not from the back, nothing.”

Jamal received the forensic report about Salim only after his lawyer filed a claim under the Freedom of Information Law. Ramy Katz recalls: “It took two years before the photographs were shown to us. Finally, after repeated requests, I was referred the office of the Jerusalem district prosecutor, and after quite a few additional delays the file was brought from the State Archives. The file contained many documents related to the investigation, but it was missing a few things: the summary and conclusions of the investigation, various opinions, the results of ballistic tests based on findings at the site, x-rays of Salim’s body and the video police shot at the scene.”

Jamal, what is your theory about what happened that night? What do you think Salim died from?

“Unequivocally, Salim was not murdered by stabbing. The proof is that his DNA was not found on the terrorist’s knife. It’s certain that Salim was murdered by another person who was in the vicinity. Apparently, based on the investigation that we conducted, it was by shooting. The only person who had a pistol was that civilian.”

A frame from “Cause of Death.”Credit: Itay Raziel

The problem is compounded by the fact that no autopsy was performed. “Shortly after we were informed of Salim’s death, Jamal recalls, “Maj. Uri Bar-Lev, commander of the Yarkon District at the time, called me to say that they wanted him to be present at an autopsy, but they didn’t know whether it would work out in terms of the timetable for the funeral. We were in Yarka, and Salim was in Tel Aviv [the body was in the forensic institute], and it was already 8 A.M. and we wanted to hold the funeral at 3 P.M. Besides which, we – somewhat like your ultra-Orthodox – don’t like autopsies.

“I said, ‘Uri, you’re the commander, so I’ll ask you how Salim was killed.’ He said that Salim was at the event, shot the terrorist, bent over him to check, and the terrorist stabbed him. I asked him whether that was exactly what happened, if he was certain. He said, ‘Yes.’ I told him that if that’s really the story, there’s no need for an autopsy and would they please release the body so we could hold the funeral. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have requested an autopsy.”

Bar-Lev tells me by phone: “With due respect for the family, no one tried to persuade anyone to perform an autopsy or not. The idea was to respect the family.”

But Jamal isn’t convinced: He says he’s certain that the truth is being kept from him, that someone in the police is making efforts to ground the theory that Salim died from being stabbed by the terrorist.

'If Salim were alive, he would want to get to the truth even more than me.'

Jamal Barakat

Why would they behave like that?

Jamal: “Maybe they were afraid of our revenge. To reinforce this line of thought, I’ll tell you that after the event I wanted to meet with Willy, the civilian who was the last person to see my brother. The police told me I could meet with him only in a police station. I didn’t accept that. Why should I have to meet a civilian in a police station? Finally, when I met Willy in his home [the meeting is documented in the film], he had a pistol. I think he was afraid that I would take revenge on him, heaven forbid. I was flabbergasted and I was offended. [In the film Hazan explains that since the incident, he never goes anywhere without the pistol.] And another thing: I know Willy was interrogated three times by the police, but in the file we were given, only two testimonies appear.” The police did not comment on this allegation.

Racist genie

If Jamal is right that Salim was killed by gunfire, and not by the terrorist, it begs the question of why someone would want to hide the truth. To find the answer, it’s important to note two events – one that occurred a year and a half before Salim’s death, the other a month afterward. In October 2000, the Druze Border Policeman Madhat Yusuf died from loss of blood after being shot by a Palestinian sniper at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. He lay dying for four hours without being evacuated by the IDF. The episode stirred a public furor, and some surmised that if he had been Jewish, a greater effort would have been made to evacuate him and try to save his life.

Amid the conspiratorial thinking that imagines that someone wanted to cover up the true cause of Salim Barakat’s death, one conjecture is that someone in the defense establishment wanted to avoid awakening the specter of racism in regard to the Druze community in Israel.

Jamal comments, “There’s a proverb that says that you can recover from one blow to the head, but two blows can kill a person.”

Jamal Barakat in a scene from "Cause of Death."Credit: Itay Raziel

The second event occurred in April 2002, with the arrest of Marwan Barghouti, the leader of a Palestinian militia. Barghouti was charged with perpetrating 21 acts of terrorism and was convicted on five counts of murder. Three of those murder victims were killed in the Seafood Market attack, and one of them is police officer Salim Barakat. If Jamal’s theory is correct, and someone lied about the circumstances of Salim’s death, it’s possible (though this is purely hypothetical) that the lie was intended to strengthen the case against Barghouti and add a police officer to the list of those for whose killing he is responsible.

When presented with this theory, Bar-Lev, the commander of the Yarkon District of the Israel Police in 2002 and today a businessman, laughs: “Marwan Barghouti has enough blood on his hands, there was no need to add this. There’s no tiebreaker here. There’s no plot here.”

You arrived at the scene of the attack that night. What do you remember?

Bar-Lev: “It’s important for me to note that 16 years have passed since then. I remember the investigation and arriving at the scene. When I arrived, there was a terrorist who was covered with a blanket, someone else who had been killed, and there was Salim’s body with a blanket on it. There was a great deal of blood on Salim’s body. There was Salim’s radioed comment, in which everyone heard the shots, when he says, ‘Calm things, everything is under control.’ The police vehicles arrive a few minutes later and find Salim lying [on the ground] with a great deal of blood. No one is trying to hide anything from the family. There’s no secret here that someone has discovered. This is not a case of an unsolved murder.”

What do you know about mutilation that was done, or not done, to Salim’s body?

“I have no knowledge of anything like that, and I don’t know anyone who saw any sort of mutilation done to the body. There were two bodies there, one of the terrorist and the other one Salim’s. That whole story sounds preposterous.”

Like Bar-Lev, Nimrod Daniel, a retired police chief superintendent and the officer in charge of the team that investigated the events of that night, is now able to speak without the mediation of the Israel Police spokesperson’s unit. In regard to the documentary, he says, “My concern is that injustice will be done to Salim Barakat. He was and remains a hero. Both I and the police officers saw Salim at the scene – Salim had a stab wound in the throat. Never mind if I hadn’t seen that, never mind if Prof. Yehuda Hiss [the director of the forensic institute at the time] hadn’t examined the body, and never mind if there weren’t findings at the scene and eyewitness testimonies. But to claim that Salim did not die from being stabbed is completely unfounded and does Salim a great injustice.”

Daniel continues, “When I met with Ramy [Katz], he gave me some of the testimonies [he’d collected]. He’d checked them out and I analyzed the material I received and explained to him where his mistakes were. He based himself on initial testimonies, which are sometimes confused; a doctor at the scene didn’t have tools to determine the cause of death, and he’s working in the midst of the chaos of the wounded and killed. [A paramedic at the site determined that Salim died in the wake of being shot; later that night, in the forensic institute, it was determined that the cause of death was stabbing.] But Ramy insisted, he had a hard time taking it in, because it spoiled the theory he was locked into.

“Beyond the professional misunderstanding that led to the creation of a false theory, he should have asked himself what motive someone would have for whitewashing something like that. Even if we take, for example, the worst case – that it was friendly fire – even then, why cover up something like that?”

Maybe the police supposedly didn’t want another story in which Jews cause the death of a Druze and didn’t want to admit that he was killed because he looked like an Arab.

Daniel: “It’s terrible that an allegation like that is even raised. It’s a baseless conspiracy allegation. As though investigators were meeting in some dark room and thinking how they can hide the circumstances of the death of their buddy. It’s preposterous. But what won’t people do for a movie?”

The paramedic at the scene wrote in his report that the cause of Salim’s death was shooting. Why was it changed to stabbing afterward?

“I asked Ramy whether he’s ever been at the scene of a terrorist attack. I, regrettably, was at quite a few. The scene of a terrorist attack is very frenzied place. Shouting, pressure, the need to treat many casualties, to go from one to the next. A paramedic doesn’t have the tools to understand at that moment what someone died of. It’s not like he’s performing an autopsy at the scene. He saw a hole in the throat, so he wrote that the cause of death is shooting. To determine cause of death there is the forensic institute, which examines things in depth.”

One-man journey

Salim and Jamal, who were born six years apart, have between them four sisters and two brothers. But only Jamal embarked on this journey. When asked why him, he takes a deep breath, fights back tears, and replies, “We grew up together, we were very close. In our community, the children go to work in order to help provide for the family. Salim and I rode a mule every day after school to cut down trees and turn them into charcoal. In the army I was an officer, and when Salim was drafted he was a soldier in our unit and I was his deputy company commander. We had a special relationship. I set out on this journey from pain, as though someone had stabbed me in the heart. I didn’t believe that the police were capable of betraying me like this – I guess I was naive.”

Still, don’t you want him to rest in peace? Maybe all this fuss is disturbing the dead?

“If Salim were alive, he would want to get to the truth even more than me. On the contrary: I think Salim would be angry with me for not having dug into this from the beginning. But we were tricked, we were manipulated, they took advantage of our good-hearted character, our Druze nature. I say this with sorrow. They took advantage of the fact that we are honest, we contribute, we are prepared, we believe in man and in the system.”

If that’s your opinion of the police, how do you feel about the fact that your son is serving in the Yarkon District?

“I am doing all I can to prove two things. One, that we will always remain loyal to the system; two, that the system must admit the truth.”

Police response

A spokesperson for the Israel Police stated in response: “We regret that the production of the film ‘Cause of Death’ chose to ignore the facts, the findings of the investigation and the examination of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, and not to make the Israel Police part of the preparation for a film about that deals with the circumstances of the death of a police officer, who was murdered by a terrorist in a cruel attack. Had they done so, they would certainly have avoided the kind of inaccuracy that goes so far as to desecrate the police officer’s legacy of heroism, misleads the public and grossly distorts reality.

“Immediately after the terrorist’s neutralization and the death of the policeman and other persons in the attack, the Israel Police launched a thorough investigation, following which all the terror agents who had assisted the terrorist were indicted, convicted and sent to lengthy prison terms. Since then, the Israel Police has been in continuous touch with the family and has taught tens of thousands of police officers the legacy of the heroism of Salim Barakat, of blessed memory, who to our sorrow forcibly joined the long list on the monument of bereavement of the Israel Police in protecting the security of Israel’s citizens across the years.”

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