The widely shared video of the violent arrest of a young man from Holon after police officers stopped him for not wearing a face mask highlights once again the problem of police violence in Israel. As a result of the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and of social media, such violence is often made public, and law enforcement can no longer conceal irregular incidents. Moreover, the publicity forces police to acknowledge a problem that it tries to ignore, and instead to contend with it. No part of the population is immune to police brutality: Arabs, Haredi Jews, secular Israelis and settlers all face it, in the name of “maintaining public order.”
Police often attribute the problem to a few “rotten applies.” But the abuse of authority through the undue use of force has long since stopped being the province of a few. It exists in any police unit whose members have contact with the public, from patrol officers to the Yasam riot control unit, whose duties these days are mainly using violence to disperse the growing number of protests spurred by the pandemic and the associated economic crisis.
The problem is not unique to Israel. Americans suffer from terrible police brutality, seen most recently in the video of the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes. But in Israel, in contrast to the United States, the police enjoy a lack of oversight. Violent officers have the support of their commanders, and the force’s dirty laundry is aired in disciplinary tribunals that at most reprimand violent officers, who return to their units.
The Justice Ministry unit that investigates allegations of police misconduct deliberately rendered itself impotent: Since a new director was hired two years ago, the number of indictments against offices fell by 50 percent and the department, which is supposed to lead the fight against police brutality, passes more cases of police violence back to the force, to be dealt with internally. And even when there are indictments, the judges tend to go lightly on violent police officers, to the point of voiding their conviction so they can avoid dismissal.
In the absence of a permanent national police commissioner, the “spirit of the commander” is that of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who recently said that if a person assaulted an officer, the assailant would have “blood on his head.” In effect, he gave officers license to exercise disproportionate force against civilians, even “coronavirus criminals” who refuse to identify themselves for fear of being fined or who, more egregiously, try to flee.
The only weapon remaining to civilians in the face of police brutality is the camera lens. Only the recording and distribution of evidence of violent incidents can hold a mirror to the police and bring about change. Until that day, and in the absence of proper oversight, civilians will remain at the mercy of the officer, no matter how low in rank.
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The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.