The Israel Police’s Secret (Nonviolent) Weapon for Quelling Violence in the Arab Community

Unofficial sulha agreements are considered desirable for keeping a lid on family feuds, even if witnesses then retract their allegations to the police

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Police walking the beat in the northern town of Afula.
Police walking the beat in the northern town of Afula.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Three logos of the Israel Police and the municipality appeared on a document being passed around outside a home in the northern town of Shfaram, where representatives of two families had gathered this month. They were trying to avert the rekindling of a blood feud following a fight between two young men.

The document bore the headings “Mediation Committee” and “Arbitration Agreement,” under which space was left for the details. At the end of the second page there was room for the two sides to sign after the signatures of the “committee members,” which included local notables and local council members. With the details and the signatures, the sulha – reconciliation – agreement would become official.

The sulha – a traditional Arab ceremony that sets down reconciliation conditions between two parties in dispute – has no legal status in Israel. Still, the police often cooperate with the ceremony in criminal cases in Arab society, in an effort to calm the situation – and now amid protests against alleged inaction in combating gun violence in the Arab community.

This can actually prove complicated. Sometimes the police contradict themselves and continue their enforcement efforts despite sulha agreements, and because a sulha has no official status, the parties can violate it at any time, despite the police’s involvement.

Two days after the sulha in Shfaram, the two young men who had scuffled were arrested despite the signed sulha. They were brought to the Haifa Magistrate’s Court, where the police asked for their detention to be extended by five days. Their lawyers used the sulha in their defense.

“The two groups have reconciled, there was a public sulha under the auspices of the Shfaram police and the municipality, and the atmosphere is very calm in Shfaram,” one lawyer said.

Judge Sigalit Matza was also surprised by the police’s apparently contradictory approach. “I have been presented with an agreement that the two sides arrived at under the auspices of the police and the Shfaram municipality, under which the sides committed to avoid violence,” she said. “Given all the circumstances, and in particular the sulha agreement, I order the suspects released.”

The Jerusalem District Court. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In response to a query from Haaretz, sources in the police’s northern district said they had not sponsored this sulha and didn’t know about it. Still, the police representative at the court hearing didn’t object to the document and the police didn’t appeal Matza’s decision to release the suspects based on it.

Senior police officials are divided over the costs and benefits of sulha agreements. While the top brass is strongly against, there’s a different approach out in the streets: Sulha agreements are desirable for preventing escalations in local disputes, even if they could potentially undermine current or future investigations.

“Suddenly witnesses change their stories,” said a senior police officer who’s against the agreements. “Other people don’t file complaints because they’ve already come to an agreement with the clan that harmed them. Sulhas may help maintain order in the communities, but they undermine the police’s ability to get to the truth.”

Another senior officer said, “You can’t ignore that the sulha is a long-standing institution in Arab culture, part of the culture and customs. Anyone who doesn’t understand that isn’t ‘living the field.’”

As a senior officer heavily involved in enforcement in the Arab community put it, “The sulha doesn’t replace criminal procedure. But if it helps prevent bloodshed, then yes, we’re there to do sulhas and be involved, even at a police station on official police stationery. No one gets a lighter sentence and we’ve gained the children’s future.

“Ninety-five percent of sulhas succeed. The worst that happens is that the victim comes to court and asks that the person who hurt him get a lighter sentence. It’s not all that different from a dispute between neighbors in the Jewish community when during a criminal proceeding the sides come to a compromise. Sulha committees often ask for our help; for example, to bring the murderer from prison so he can also sign the document. This doesn't come in the place of gathering evidence or serving time.”

Failures and success

In June 2017, representatives of the al-Obra and Sahwani families came to Ramle for a sulha, which was mediated by members of the Jarushi family at the police’s initiative, according to the Sahwanis. The family feud began with a clash at a food kiosk that deteriorated into the torching of cars and shooting at the Sahwanis.

But this time the agreement didn’t stop the harassment of the family, and in June, Gabi Sahwani was shot dead in the yard of a home just before the birthday party of one of the family’s children. The killing has still not been solved, and the family is pointing the finger at the rival al-Obra family – as well as at the police, whom they say initiated a sulha but didn’t prevent the shooting.

In contrast, in 2016, a judge at the Kfar Sava Magistrate’s Court Judge, Nava Bechor, praised the institution of the sulha after a suspect who appeared before her signed such an agreement under the auspices of the police. The accused, a resident of the town of Jaljulya, had allegedly assaulted a member of a rival family after the latter testified against him in a murder case.

At the Kedma police station at the entrance to the town of Taibeh, the two sides signed a sulha entitled “Tribal Sulha Document,” whose violation would trigger a fine of half a million shekels ($140,000). The father of the accused – who himself had been shot in the family feud – was brought out of Hadarim Prison to sign the document. The court took the sulha into account and the indictment was amended to reduce the charges. The accused received a suspended sentence.

The agreement was signed in the presence of two police intelligence officers; the conflict between the two families had gone on for more than 20 years and included several shootings and killings. “These are exceptional and extraordinary circumstances in which those involved were able to bridge the low points of the past,” the judge wrote in her ruling.

“From here we see the importance of the sulha, which has been recognized as an important institution in the Arab community and in our case .... With a clear preference for quiet between the parties, I am reducing the defendant’s sentence.”

The Kedma police station at the entrance to the Arab town of Taibeh.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One of the witnesses in that trial was Chief Superintendent Yigal Ezra, today the head of the central district’s investigations branch and at the time the head of the intelligence division and its adviser on Arab affairs.

“I’ve taken part in sulhas not as a police initiator but as a police enabler,” Ezra told the court. “The process is welcome if you prevent the exacerbation of the interfamily dispute while continuing the criminal proceeding.”

Sulha shortcomings

But Sulha agreements can fatally upend investigations and legal proceedings. From the moment an agreement is signed, witnesses often change their testimonies, whether to police investigators or on the witness stand.

A trial after a fight between two men in Beit Hanina that involved clubs and guns is an example of this. The sulha between the two was arranged without police mediation, and once the agreement was signed, witnesses in court “forgot” what happened during the fight while others and asked the police that their complaints be withdrawn.

In the end, at the Jerusalem District Court last month, the suspects were convicted of assault and battery, but this was based on their original testimonies during police questioning after later versions of the evidence changed.

In interviews in 2017 between police-station commanders in Arab towns and researchers at Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology, the police discussed the difficulties posed by sulhas.

“In every investigation you’re dealing with an hourglass,” one commander said. “You realize that if you don’t act quickly, it will go to channels that are more a matter of culture, which is the sulha, and the sulha closes the matter. Afterward the procedures are disrupted, witnesses retract, testimonies change. That’s why it depends on how fast you get to the scene. What you collect, you’ve collected.”

Another commander said, “A person can come and say that someone harmed him, and after a week he’ll come and say they’ve come to a sulha. ‘Everything I said isn’t true,’” the person will then say, according to the commander.

Sheikh Khairi Iskandar, a member of the sulha committee in Baka al-Gharbiyeh, told Haaretz that in recent years he has seen more sulhas under police auspices, even though they remain a very small minority of sulhas. “The sulhas that the police are involved in are over small things, relatively light violations. Sometimes the police call us and try to get us to cooperate in resolving disputes,” he said.

“Sometimes the police contact us for help and we continue the process under the police. In any dispute that begins with the police and we come to a sulha, we inform the station commander so that the case can be closed.”

Iskandar agrees that sometimes sulhas undermine police investigations or legal proceedings, but he says it’s preferable if the dispute is resolved by agreement.

“Sometimes during sulhas we also judge the people; sometimes we punish the person who committed the crime, sometimes there’s some kind of compensation,” Iskandar said.

“In these cases it’s better than court and there’s no need for a legal proceeding. Still, there are things for which we’re not willing to do sulhas for, like murders, which are the work of the police.”

Iskandar says that nowadays he’s busy with sulhas every day. “So that it doesn’t come to murder, you have to wrap the issue up when it’s small, through the sulha committee,” he said. “Sometimes we see efforts by the police themselves to arrange sulhas, which at times leads to more disputes.”

The police said in response: “Mediation and compromise proceedings that are conducted within the community in Arab society, as in other societies, have existed for hundreds of years. These are procedures that take place almost every day, mostly without the knowledge of the Israel Police and without their involvement, and they do not conflict with the law.

“To remove any doubt, it must be stressed that there is no connection between acts of enforcement, investigation or prosecution of criminals who have already committed crimes and the resolution of a dispute aimed at preventing future crime and violence that could lead to harm to people or property. As proof, in the cases mentioned in this article, there were investigations, arrests and uncompromising acts of enforcement by the police, and the details and links provided are not accurate.

“An example of this is the incident in Shfaram in which the police arrested three suspects and brought them to a court hearing to have their detention extended. During the hearing the suspects’ lawyer submitted a document bearing the logo of the Shfaram municipality, the Shfaram community policing center and the Israel Police bearing the title, ‘Mediating Committee, Arbitration Agreement.’

“Despite the presentation and arguments by the defense attorneys, the document bears no mention or signatures of police officials, and the document or procedure has nothing to do with the police .… If the Israel Police had validated the arbitration agreement signed by the parties and linked it to the enforcement procedure, they would have released the suspects at the station and not sought to extend their detention.

“Along with crime prevention and dispute-resolution activities that take place with or without the police’s knowledge, the police will continue to carry out ... uncompromising enforcement activities against violence and the use of weapons in Arab communities and elsewhere.”

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