Opinion |

Holding Top Brass Accountable for Their Underlings' Acts? Not in Israel

It feels as if there is a department in the Population and Immigration Authority tasked with ensuring that nothing good enters Israel from the U.S., home of movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter

Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard
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Demonstrators holding up a banner bearing Eyad Hallaq's name at a protest against Israel's annexation plan, in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020
Demonstrators holding a banner bearing the name of Eyad Hallaq, who was killed by Border Police, at a protest in Tel Aviv against Israel's annexation plan, on June 6.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard

George Floyd was murdered a month ago by a white cop, and America has been roiling ever since. The day after the murder, all four police officers involved in the incident were fired from the Minneapolis police force.

Three days later, the officer who had choked Floyd to death was charged with third-degree murder, with the indictment being changed to second-degree murder four days later. The other three officers were charged with aiding and abetting the murder.

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Ten days ago, Rayshard Brooks, a black American from Atlanta, was killed by a white police officer who was pursuing him, after Brooks had snatched his Taser and was attempting to use it while fleeing. Less than 24 hours after this incident, Atlanta’s police chief resigned. Four days later, the officer who fired the lethal shots was charged with murder.

Twenty-four days ago, Eyad Hallaq, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, was shot dead by a Border Policeman. Seven shots were fired at him as he was on his way – just as he had been every day, during the last six years – to the Elwyn special needs school he attended. Two shots struck and felled him.

The policeman who fired the shots and the officer who was with him were questioned, but so far, the two have not been charged. The commander of Jerusalem’s Border Police isn’t dreaming of resigning, and it seems as if the acting chief of the Israel Police didn’t even feel the slightest “tremor in the wing” that former Israel Air Force commander Dan Halutz said a pilot feels when he launches a missile aimed at killing wanted Palestinians.

The life of Eyad Hallaq, the young Palestinian who was on the autistic spectrum, did not matter. It did not matter as that of a Jew does, and it did not matter enough to warrant all the trouble associated with a reckoning, with an immediate and determined investigation, an indictment – and, mainly, the taking of responsibility by the chain of command.

It sometimes feels as if there is a special department in the Population and Immigration Authority that’s tasked with ensuring that nothing good enters Israel from the United States. Cultural and political trends constantly find their way to the Holy Land (even during the pandemic, when the skies are supposedly closed) from the home of constitutional democracy, of the civil rights movement and of movements like MeToo, and now, Black Lives Matter.

But apparently the same immigration officers who keep peace and human rights activists from entering Israel, under the aegis of the ministry for political control (aka the Ministry for Strategic Affairs), carefully go through American suitcases, allowing only Trumpism, white supremacist racism, McCarthyism and incitement against gatekeepers, journalists and the courts pass through border control.

Thus, the U.S. exports to us problems without the solutions, evil without the culture of dissent and opposition, the aggressiveness of a presidential system of government without the constitutional checks and balances. We also get the light finger on the trigger, used against a community that suffers from systemic and institutionalized discrimination and an inferior status – without the public demand to hold the men in uniform accountable for their acts.

International criminal law and criminal codes in many countries include a doctrine known as “the responsibility of commanders.” The idea is that superior officers who did not take advantage of all means at their disposal to prevent crimes from being committed by their subordinates – by issuing appropriate orders or by ascertaining that these individuals did not behave in a prohibited manner – could be personally liable for offenses perpetrated by their underlings. Real, criminal responsibility.

This doctrine is absent from Israel’s lawbooks. In 2013, the Turkel Commission, which examined whether Israel meets the required legal standards of investigations into allegations of violations of the law of armed conflict, recommended filling this gap and making commanding officers personally responsible by law. Ministry of Justice staffers probably split their sides laughing when they read that recommendation. A panel charged with implementing the Turkel report brushed away that part entirely.

The idea of imposing responsibility for crimes committed by their subordinates on superior officers stems from an understanding that in hierarchies based on the use of force, as long as such commanders are not held accountable for the actions of those they command, it will be impossible to contend with the tendency of young armed men to overuse their weapons against minorities and weaker sectors of the population.

In the current condition of Israeli law enforcement on men and women in uniform, asking for even less than criminal responsibility of commanding officers is wishful thinking. Even more basic responsibility is unheard of here – the one requiring that commanders resign or be dismissed when people under them abuse the lethal power they have.

Thus, 24 days have passed since Eyad Hallaq was shot to death in a roofless garbage shed, not far from the institution he attended, and not only has no one been charged, there is no discussion of the responsibility of the top brass. Every day that passes without the chairs of every officer above the man who fired the shots trembling – including those at national police headquarters – is a day in which we get closer to the next criminal killing of someone like Hallaq.

Michael Sfard is a lawyer specializing in human rights law.

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