Arabs of Israel, Suspects Until Proven Otherwise?

We must not accept a situation in which police 'errors' occur mainly with Arabs.

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Al-Ja’ar’s grave. Rahat, January 20, 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

The deaths of two residents of the Bedouin town of Rahat – Sami al-Ja’ar last week and Sami Ziadna on Sunday – demand a thorough investigation of police conduct. This is essential not only for the sake of the Arab minority’s faith in law enforcement, but also to prevent similar deaths in the future.

Sami al-Ja’ar, 20, was shot by police last Wednesday during the arrest of drug-trafficking suspects in Rahat. According to the Ja’ar family, Sami was not suspected of any crimes. He had left his house, near the place where the incident occurred, after he heard noise, to see what was going on. According to the family he was shot from about 40 meters away, and his father, who had run toward him, was then cuffed hand and foot. The father said he was beaten by police at the Rahat police station.

The family’s claims contradict those of the police, who said Sami al-Ja’ar was one of the suspects in drug trafficking. However, even if he were a suspect, it is unclear how the police action led to his death.

Sami Ziadna, 45, apparently died after he inhaled tear gas and suffered a heart attack during a clash at the Ja’ar funeral. The clash erupted after a police patrol car came to the cemetery area, despite an earlier agreement between the police, the organizers of the funeral and Rahat municipal leaders.

The department in the Justice Ministry that investigates complaints against the police announced it would launch an investigation in the case of Ja’ar’s death. However, it announced it would not do so in the case of Ziadna’s death, which would remain an internal probe by the police Southern District. In light of the tragic outcome, an internal probe in this case clearly is not enough.

The death of the two Rahat residents joins the death of Khayr Hamdan of Kafr Kana about two months ago, in which police evidently violated open-fire regulations, according to a video of the incident. These events raise concerns that police regard Arabs of Israel as suspects until proven otherwise, and as targets subject to a flexible interpretation of the rules of engagement.

It is hard to believe police would have acted toward Jewish suspects as they did toward Ja’ar, and we must not accept a situation in which police “errors” occur mainly with Arabs.

This attitude has a broader context among right-wing politicians, who, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, want to get rid of the Arabs forcibly or, like supporters of the nation-state bill, seek to restrict their presence in the public sphere. The policy of a light trigger finger is also a fatal manifestation of long-standing discrimination against the Arab minority. There is no place in a democratic country for such discrimination, above all when it leads to deaths.