Police Face Heat After Sandak Death: Pressure Mounts to Shut Settler Crime Unit

For years, settlers and right-wing activists have been calling for the closure of the police section in charge of nationalist crime perpetrated by the so-called hilltop youth. This week, even defense officials joined in

Police and protesters clash during a demonstration following the killing of Ahuvia Sandak, near National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, December 26, 2020.
Police and protesters clash during a demonstration following the killing of Ahuvia Sandak, near National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, December 26, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The death of the teen Ahuvia Sandak and the wave of protests over the police’s conduct in the case have put the spotlight on the Shai District Police in the West Bank.

Settlers and right-wing activists have been calling for years to close down the police section in charge of nationalist crime perpetrated by the so-called hilltop youth – young, radical settlers who have enacted violence against both Palestinians and Israeli forces, which tries to curb their building of illegal West Bank outposts.

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The unit was designated to deal with Jewish perpetrators of hate crimes against Palestinians. Now that a teen has been killed after his car overturned during a chase by the unit’s detectives, the protest is growing and spreading among national-religious groups and even rabbis.

Lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, who is seen as the West Bank settlers’ representative in the Knesset, has called to dismantle the unit.

“If there was any culture of investigating performance in Israel, the nationalist crime unit would be branded a total failure and closed long ago,” Smotrich says.

“The unit acts like a bull in a china shop, persecutes settlers...and its shameful failure to prevent crime only leads to increasing fomentation and violence.”

“The unit wastes its resources on chasing a few youths with sidecurls instead of dealing with thousands of terror acts against Israel. The new commissioner would do well to close this redundant unit down,” he says.

The nationalist crime section in the Shai district was set up in 2013, after dozens of rightist activists broke into a military base near the Kedumim settlement where they attacked the deputy commander and destroyed cars.

The section, consisting of about 100 police troops – about two thirds of the district’s central unit – is solely intended to deal with crimes committed by Jews against Palestinians.

The district is small with few murder cases, and most of the attacks on Jewish settlers are handled by the Shin Bet.

A protester holds up a sign bearing the face of Ahuvia Sandak at a demonstration against his killing, Jerusalem, December 30, 2020.

The section’s police handle hilltop youths and perpetrators of hate crimes as leaders of crime organizations, putting them under surveillance and tapping their phones. But most of the time they’re occupied not with murder cases but with lower grade offenses like graffiti spraying, stone throwing and entering closed military areas.

At first the unit’s operations produced meager results, but police sources say it solved the Duma murder, in which the Shin Bet was also intensively involved, and found the radical right-wing activists who had set fire to the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha on Lake Kinneret.

In recent years several right-wing activists who had been indicted following the unit’s actions were acquitted in various courts, and the judges slammed the police failures in the investigation.

The settlers’ main complaints are that while considerable funds are invested in activities against Jewish perpetrators, the police ignore or fail to prevent Arab crime against settlers.

A right wing NGO found that in 2016-2018 the unit dealt with only three cases of Palestinian nationalist crime, compared to 331 cases of Jewish nationalist crime. In fact, in those years about 85 percent of the unit’s investigations were classified as having a a “Jewish nationalist background.”

A relative stands on Jan. 3, 2016, inside the burned-out home of Saad Dawabsha, who was killed alongside his toddler and his wife when their house was firebombed on July 31, 2015 in Duma, West Bank.Credit: AFP

Some of the offenses the unit is occupied with are relatively minor. One example is the “breach of a legal order,” which usually means an individual’s breaking the terms of a restraining order to stay away from an illegal outpost, issued by the court or a police officer.

However, the police rarely get rightist activists to talk in interrogation and have had little success in inserting any agents into the radical groups.

Defense officials joined the settlers’ criticism this week, claiming the police are “losing control over the violence perpetrated by hilltop youth and radical Jews.”

Emanuel Shilo, editor of the Haredi nationalist settlers’ newspaper “Besheva,” wrote after Sandak’s death: “The Shai District central unit commanders have distorted priorities. This is a systemic failure that has been going on for years, a result of senior state prosecution officials’ discrimination and over-policing against the Jewish population in Judea and Samaria. This policy has become part of the DNA of the law enforcement agencies in Judea and Samaria.”

The right-wing organizations forget to mention that while the police may not go after Palestinian terror acts, these are investigated by the rest of the law enforcement agencies in the West Bank, headed by the army and the Shin Bet.

At a demonstration against the killing of Ahuvia Sandak, Jerusalem, December 26, 2020.

Since Sandak’s death daily protests have been calling to close down the Shai District central unit. A Facebook page called “Closing down the Shai central unit” uploads settlers’ posts about the police’s treatment and conduct and their allegd inaction against nationalist Palestinian crimes.

Writers tell of sudden police visits in the middle of the night, violent arrests and chases. In one post Hillel, 30, of Kochav Hashachar settlement, says he had been chased by the police for no reason.

He had been staying on a mountain near Kochav Hashachar one night he says he drove down the mountain in his car at about 5 or 6 at night. “Suddenly a car appeared behind me and stuck to my tail, with high headlights. I didn’t see a flashing police light and there had been terrorist attacks on that road in the past, so I raised my speed and drove about 160 kilometers per hour on a winding road.”

The chase lasted about 15 kilometers and finally the police put the police lights on the car and he stopped, he said. “I was so afraid for my life that when I got out of the car I started shouting at the policeman.”

The policeman told him they were looking for suspects of a hate crime and chased him after seeing him come down from the mountain late at night. Ahuvia Sandak’s death, he says, made him remember the incident.

“They’ve lost direction, they behave like policemen who have been given too much power,” he said.

Numerous interviewees say the police have a practice of waiting in ambush near wedding celebrations and photographing guests to make sure they’re not in breach of restraining orders.

In 2019 a minor was charged with violating an order and entering a closed military area. Judge Shimon Leybo acquitted him although he believed the prosecution had proven that the defendant had entered the closed area, despite having being warned not to do so.

He acquitted him because before the minor had been interrogated, he had been searched and left in his underwear. A policeman who testified as a witness for the prosecution said “that’s the procedure we have here, the kind of activists we deal with every day.”

The campaign to close the unit down is reminiscent of a campaign launched by rightist organizations in 2015 to close the Shin Bet’s Jewish section following torture allegations made by the primary suspect in the Duma case.

Retired police commander Shlomi Michael, who headed the Shai District Police during the Duma event, rejects the criticism.

“I understand the settlers’ feelings about this unit and in the past perhaps there were things that should have been done differently, but the problem is that the moment there’s a group of extremists acting against innocent civilians, against the security forces and the gatekeepers and harming state’s institutions, the police can’t do anything. You can’t shut down the unit like you can’t close the Shin Bet’s Jewish section.”

“The murder in Duma is an event that took all of Israel in an undesirable direction. It’s an event that doesn’t add to our honor as a Jewish people and doesn’t serve as a deterrent, as the radical side thinks. I know that 99.9 percent of the settlers condemn it. But ultimately a tiny part of the Judea and Samaria population produces such radical events, so there’s no choice but to use a special unit to deal with it. The attack on the church in the Kinneret caused us huge damage on a global scale. Every building arson can lead to loss of life. Vandalizing and spraying graffiti on a church or a mosque can arouse the other side to carry out radical acts of their own.”

The four policemen who took part in the chase in which Sandak died are protected by bodyguards, after receiving threats against their lives.

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