Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak apologized on Tuesday for the killing of 12 Israeli Arabs by security forces in October 2000, during a wave of protests that began following a controversial visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount.
Twelve Israeli Arab citizens and a Palestinian were killed by Israeli forces in clashes across Israel and the West Bank in the weeks following Sharon's visit, which was perceived as an assertion of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem's holy sites.
"I take responsibility for what happened during my tenure as prime minister, including the October 2000 events, when Israeli Arab citizens and a Palestinian from Gaza were killed," Barak told Israel Public Radio. "There is no place for protesters to be killed by security and police forces of the State of Israel, their state. I express my regret and apology to the families [of those killed] and to the Arab community."
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The deadly clashes, which took place in the early days of the second intifada, have been a major point of strife between Barak and the Israeli Arab public. Meretz lawmaker Esawi Freige, who is Arab, rejected earlier this month calls to join forces with Barak's Democratic Israel party ahead of the September 17 election, citing his role in and reaction to the October 2000 protests.
Following the incidents, commemorated last year in marches and a general strike, Barak ordered a commission headed by a Supreme Court justice to launch an inquiry, which on Tuesday he said he "told the truth to, against my lawyers' advice."
The commission criticized in its 2003 report senior police officials, but ruled that those responsible for the 13 deaths would not be charged. It also stated that Barak hadn't been attentive to the Arab community.
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Abdel Moneim Salah, whose son Walid was killed in the clashes near the northern city of Sakhnin, called Barak's apology "worthless" and a "lame excuse that we will not accept under any circumstances." It was Barak, Salah said, who gave the orders to shoot at his son and neither the former prime minister nor any of the police officers who used live bullets have been brought to trial.
Ibrahim Siam, whose son Ahmed was killed in clashes in northern Israel, told Haaretz he wouldn’t accept Barak’s apology, which he said changes nothing. “We have no interest in Barak and his political thoughts,” Siam said. “I don’t think the Arab society will agree to let Barak return” to politics, “at least not with its votes.”
“As far as we’re concerned, he was the one who murdered our children and gave the orders, and he, just like other officers and commanders, belongs behind bars,” he added.
Earlier on Tuesday, an opinion piece by Freige was published in Haaretz in Hebrew, urging Barak to apologize and take responsibility for the deaths, if he wishes "to be part of the solution for our future."
Barak addressed Freige's article in his apology, saying it was written "from a place of pain." He added that he "took responsibility and apologized before... things like that should never happen, not then and not today. I am not evading responsibility, but I believe I can be part of the solution and am truly committed to change."
After Labor Party leader Amir Peretz announced last week a joint run with Gesher's Orli Levi-Abekasis, he stressed that his party wouldn't join forces with any other political parties ahead of the September ballot. This has led to growing calls for a joint Democratic Israel-Meretz run.
Freige called Barak's remarks "a good start," saying the former premier, who since his return to politics in June has urged left-wing parties to run on a joint ticket, "opened the door for dialogue with the Arab community, and it is our responsibility to help him open that door and not slam it in his face."
"Now it is on us to do everything we can to form a strong center-left bloc," Freige, who was seen as the main opposition within Meretz for talks with Barak, added, in a major shift of rhetoric by a politician who only two weeks ago called for Barak to withdraw his Knesset nomination and "go back to your luxury apartment building."
Later on Tuesday, Friege and Barak spoke on the phone. Freige told Haaretz talks between the two parties are ongoing, stressting Meretz "wouldn't shut the door before anyone, and Barak is one the options" the party is looking into for possible mergers.
Some other Arab lawmakers also welcomed Barak's apology, but argued that with election it sight it wasn't fully sincere. "It's a pity it took Barak almost 20 years and an election campaign in which he finds himself in trouble to issue an apology," Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman said. "Is there anything they wouldn't do to get Arab votes? … The apology is a start, but what's down the line?"
The Arab-Jewish Hadash Party, which ran on a joint slate with Ta'al in the April election, has been in talks with three other Arab-majority parties to reconstitute the Joint List, but negotiations have so far failed. Meanwhile, pollsters predict exceptionally low turnout among Israeli Arab voters, raising concerns among Arab parties over their chances of passing the 3.25-electoral threshold in September.
Fellow Hadash member Yousef Jabareen said Tuesday that the October 2000 events, which reflect "a racist, hostile and violent attitude" are "still an open wound in the body of the Arab society." According to Jabareen, "This 'electoral apology' of Barak … will not change the fact that he is standing at the top of the pyramid that oppressed and continues to oppress Arab citizens, and for many years had been evading responsibility and a frank apology."
"We are still demanding that those responsible be brought to justice for the crimes of October 2000, including Ehud Barak himself," Jabareen added.
Human rights group Adalah, which supports Arab minority rights in Israel and represented in court the families of those killed, said Barak bears “direct responsibility” for the deaths, to which “has was indifferent.”
Barak’s apology “has no value, as long as no charges were filed against all those responsible, including those who used live fire and sniper fire, which led to the killing of those 13 young Arabs.”
Adalah also said “police violence against Arab citizens, which still carries on” further shows that the authorities have not learned their lessons from the Ocotber 2000 events.
The October 2000 protests erupted following a tense year, during which the Israel Police and Israeli Arab citizens clashed on various occasions. The protests began in Jerusalem following Sharon's September 28 visit to the Temple Mount, but quickly spread to other parts of the county.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee announced a general strike on September 30, 2000, after which demonstrations took place between October 1 and October 8, 2000. Some of those killed in the protest were hit by live fire, while other by rubber-tipped bullets.
A Jewish Israeli man was also killed in central Israel after rocks were thrown at his car.