Analysis |

Why Israelis Care About the Killing of an Autistic Palestinian, but Are Silent About Others

The innocence of an autistic Palestinian broke through a wall of apathy, and the decision to try the officer who shot him is a rare one. Still, for Israelis, this case is far too convenient

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The mother of Eyad Hallaq mourns her son at their home in East Jerusalem, June 1, 2020.
The mother of Eyad Hallaq mourns her son at their home in East Jerusalem, June 1, 2020.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

At least six people were in the small garbage disposal shed near Lions’ Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on the morning of May 30, where Eyad al-Hallaq was shot dead. They included a sanitation worker and a member of the Waqf religious trust, whose names are unknown, Warda Abu Hadid, who was Hallaq’s caregiver at the Elwyn school for children with special needs, two policemen whose names are under a gag order, and Hallaq.

Abu Hadid, who knew Hallaq, fled there when she heard shots in the street. Hallaq, who was being chased by the two policemen, also tried to find refuge there. He didn’t and couldn’t understand why they were chasing him and what they wanted from him. In fact, according to his family, he didn’t know that there were Arabs and Jews in the world, or about the conflict, policemen and weapons.

According to the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct, surveillance cameras in that shed did not document what happened there, because a day earlier, someone disconnected the cameras from their power source.

But the unit’s announcement was in accordance with Abu Hadid’s testimony regarding what transpired there. She saw Eyad running into the shed and lying down near a small caravan situated there. He was shot and injured, and she yelled at the police officers that he was a person with disabilities.

The policemen yelled: “Where’s the gun, where’s the gun?”

"What gun?" Abu Hadid replied. Hallaq tried getting up, pointing at Abu Hadid and explaining that she knew him, perhaps trying to get her to help him. The younger officer saw this as a threatening move and shot him to death.

The Justice Ministry unit announced on Wednesday that it would prosecute the policeman for reckless homicide, subject to a hearing.

Pictures of Eyad Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man who was shot and killed by police officers in Jerusalem, stuck to the door of the police investigation unit, Jerusalem, June 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Hallaq’s case is not an exceptional or unusual one. What's exceptional is the relatively fast investigation and eventually the decision to prosecute the policeman. B’Tselem knows of at least 11 cases in the last two years in which Palestinians were shot to death by security forces even though they were fleeing and posing no danger. Most of them were shot in the back. In none of these cases were the perpetrators, soldiers or policemen, prosecuted.

Hallaq was not shot because he was autistic, he was shot because he was a Palestinian. His fate was sealed when his behavior was interpreted as dangerous and a policeman shouted on the radio that there was a terrorist nearby. One can assume that this killing would not have led to a prosecution were it not for the public outcry that followed.

Hallaq not only breached the wall of Israeli indifference, he became a symbol. Along with cries of “Bibi go home” and “Bibi to jail”, “Justice for Eyad” also became a popular slogan during demonstrations outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence. His symbol became two hands holding a small flower pot, part of a picture of him taken in the school garden.

Police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators as one holds a banner reading "justice to Eyad Hallaq" in Jerusalem, July 24, 2020. Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

How did Hallaq's death manage to break through the wall of apathy in the Israeli public and media? The answer is unpleasant.

Eyad Hallaq is a convenient case, too convenient. His helplessness, his nature as a child in a man’s body, managed to allow the public to see him in his humanity. Unlike Hallaq, Israelis do distinguish between Jews and Arabs. Only when the victim is sufficiently helpless so as to completely dismiss any possibility that he harbored malicious intentions, are they viewed beyond their national category. It's the justified outcry in Hallaq’s case that underscores the roaring silence in all the others.

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