Standing Before Or With Unclean Hands (25/3/01)

The serious disturbances during last weeks sitting of the Or Commission has once again proved that the police and Israeli-Arab leadership are coming with unclean hands to the hearings on the riots last October with unclean hands. Their responses appear dictated by underlying hypocrisy - perhaps even feelings of guilt - creating a vicious cycle of mutual recrimination, alienation and distrust. Before the upcoming Land Day events this week, it is important that both parties be aware of their contribution to the serious confrontations that took place half a year ago and the responsibility they have to halt the deterioration in Jewish-Arab relations.

Police weep crocodile tears while protesting at the way the Or Commission hearings are being held. In his complaint that the police officers called on to testify were "not properly prepared" Major General Alik Ron prove that he has learned nothing. Does he expect officers to be briefed beforehand so as to make it more difficult for the members of the commission to uncover the truth concerning the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 13 Arab citizens (and one resident of the territories who happened to be in the area of the riots)?

Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki's outcry over the exposure to the aggressiveness of the bereaved families of police officers giving testimony was exaggerated. Everything must indeed be done to protect witnesses, but there is an enormous gap between that and Aharonishki's generous offer to come and personally protect each and every police officer. The police sound as if they are actually taking advantage of the violent outbursts of the bereaved Arab families to improve their public relations image before the Or Commission.

A number of politicians (Michael Kleiner, most prominently) have been following suit with demands to close down the work of the Or Commission. In their view, the deliberations of the commission are an absurdity in which the police who defended the country from anarchy have become victims of the panic that gripped the Barak government.

Those who think so should be reminded that while it's possible for the police to believe from their point of view that the force fulfilled its duty properly - nevertheless they remain under the influence of their anti-Arab prejudices that led a number of officers to be a touch too quick on the draw. The experience of police departments world over shows that this is a widespread phenomenon. Policemen beat suspects to death, proclaiming they are doing only what is necessary to follow their orders - remaining blind to the racist impulses that motivate them. That is one of the subjects the Or Commission will examine, and it must be allowed to do so undisturbed.

But the responses of Israeli-Arab leaders to the Or Commission are also unconvincing. They, after all, demanded a state commission after rejecting the initial idea of an investigative committee. Now these leaders do not hesitate to assail the commission, casting a priori doubt on its conclusions.

MK Azmi Bishara has told the media that since representatives of the bereaved families are not being allowed to cross-examine witnesses, the truth is being distorted. Other Arab leaders are casting doubt on the reliability of the commission, saying it did not bother to question those wounded in the riots. MK Ahmed Tibi rushed to declare the police guilty as soon as they finished their testimony. And these are just a few examples.

Just as prejudice and flawed perceptions of reality motivated police in the October riots, so the involvement of the Arab leaders in the events derived from their residual feelings and their relationship to the country. The riots were not ordinary civil disturbances.

They were an uprising with nationalistic - even racist - overtones. The undermining of the stability of the country and its character as a national haven for the Jewish people will not be quickly forgotten. These tendencies continue to seethe in the Arab community and its leadership.

When planning for Land Day this week, the police and the Arab leaders must assimilate the lessons from October and to act responsibly. The should be a clear understanding that both the majority and the minority have a common interest in keeping well away from any point of no return.