A Palestinian commission of inquiry has recommended that criminal charges be filed against two high-ranking Palestinian police officers over the violent suppression of a demonstration in El Bireh on March 12. Disciplinary proceedings were also recommended against the two, the Ramallah district commander and the head of the police special forces unit.
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The commission, which was ordered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and by Prime Minister and Interior Minister Rami Hamdallah, also offered praise — for the governor of the Bethlehem district, who gave the police clear orders to show restraint in dealing with a demonstration in his district that same day, and for the district’s security forces, which used measured force to disperse demonstrators who threw rocks, firecrackers, Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs at the city’s police headquarters. The report recommended prosecuting anyone whose participation in that violence could be proved.
The report was issued on March 26. It was the first time a Palestinian inquiry commission set up to investigate a domestic issue has published its findings and recommendations in full, and that earned it immediate and widespread praise.
Such transparency fits well with one of the main issues the report addressed — its urging that journalists’ work be respected, and that official spokespeople and official media outlets demonstrate responsibility and loyalty to the facts. Indeed, one of its more noteworthy recommendations, aimed at the Palestinian government, was to accelerate the enactment of a freedom of information law.
On Wednesday, Hamdallah signed off on all the report’s recommendations relating to the government and the Interior Ministry and promised to implement them in full. Other recommendations related to the High Judicial Council (which regulates the legal system), the official media and the political parties.
The purpose of both of the demonstrations examined by the commission — the nonviolent one in front of the El Bireh courthouses and the violent one that began outside the Deheisheh refugee camp before moving to police headquarters in Bethlehem — was to protest the decision by a Palestinian magistrate’s court to continue hearing criminal cases against six people suspected of illegal weapons possession and endangering human lives.
One of the six was Basel al-Araj from the village of Al-Walaja, who had been in hiding for several months because the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service sought to arrest him. On March 6, a group of Israeli soldiers and Border Police officers discovered his hideout in El Bireh and killed him. Some reports said he was shot while firing his gun, after refusing to surrender. The commission, though, adopted the version according to which he was “executed” by Israeli forces.
Four of the other five defendants have been in Israeli custody since their arrest by the army in September. Thus, only one of the six defendants appeared in court.
Before Araj went underground and the others were arrested by Israel, they had been arrested by the Palestinian General Intelligence Service for possession of an old rifle.
Both demonstrations were protesting against the fact that the trial was still taking place (though in practice, hearings were repeatedly postponed because five of the defendants weren’t present). Nevertheless, as the commission’s report noted, the charges against Araj were dropped on the morning of March 12, before the demonstrations began.
The report criticized the legal system’s insensitivity in continuing a trial against people detained or killed by Israel and recommended that the High Judicial Council investigate the circumstances of the magistrate’s court hearing on March 12. But unlike Hamdallah, who adopted the report’s suggestions, the High Judicial Council denounced this recommendation, saying it constituted illegal intervention in the legal system’s work and was an attempt to appease public opinion.
The inquiry commission’s three members were the director general of the Interior Ministry, Gen. Mohamed Mansour; the head of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, Amar Dweik; and the chairman of the Palestinian Bar Association, Hussein Shabaneh. They wrote that they had worked on the report “around the clock” for two weeks.
The report found that the Ramallah police had immediately set up an internal inquiry into the handling of the demonstration. It also launched disciplinary proceedings and imposed punishments on some of the policemen who used force against the demonstrators — including one policeman who used a Taser, which isn’t part of the equipment Palestinian police are allowed to carry.
The 35-page report opened with a quote from the Palestinian declaration of independence, which was written by the poet Mahmoud Darwish. The quote deals with the nature of the Palestinian state as a parliamentary democracy that respects its citizens’ political and religious rights and their human dignity. The report also listed the international conventions that the State of Palestine has signed, which mandate respect for the right to protest and freedom of association.
Under Palestinian law, no permit is needed to hold a demonstration, but organizers are supposed to inform the police about the planned demonstration 48 hours in advance to enable the police to maintain order. The report recommended adapting Palestinian law to the relevant international conventions.
Police were not given prior notice about either of the March 12 demonstrations. The one in El Bireh blocked a major road. It was dispersed with violent blows, tear gas and stun grenades, and journalists were assaulted. Nine wounded demonstrators were treated in the hospital.
In Bethlehem, police fired shots in the air and tear gas grenades only after the demonstrators turned violent and set a guard booth on fire. Several members of the security forces were wounded by thrown rocks.
The beginning of the report discussed the widespread feelings of frustration among the Palestinian public, and especially the young, due to the absence of a political horizon and the high unemployment, as well as the feeling of a lack of personal security due to the Israeli occupation regime and its daily assaults (especially in the refugee camps), executions and arrests. The settlement enterprise, the report added, gives Palestinians a feeling that their very existence, and that of their children, in this land is under threat.
Frustration also stems, the report noted, from the internal Palestinian schism and the failure to hold elections. In addition, it said, the Israeli occupation does everything in its power to embarrass “the official institutions of the State of Palestine” and portray them as weak and powerless, and to provoke chaos in Palestinian society.
The report also included a general discussion of the work of the Palestinian security services. It expressed understanding for the difficulties they face due to various Israeli prohibitions and also listed some of challenges they face within Palestinian society — primarily the proliferation of illegal weapons among civilians and the rise of organized crime rings, which deal mainly in drugs and unlicensed vehicles. The political challenges in Palestine and the region and the brutal occupation require a high level of responsibility and national cohesion, the report said.
All this provided the political and emotional basis for the report’s authors to address the demonstrations, which erupted against the background of accusations of treason against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian police for alleged collaboration with Israel that led to the death of Araj death and the arrest of his friends. These are accusations of incomparable gravity, and the report criticized those who made them and urged the political parties not to descend to accusations of treason. But at the same time, it voiced expectations that the authorities would demonstrate understanding for and sensitivity toward their public, which lives in a permanent state of emergency.