Head to Head / Deputy State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, Was the State's Conduct Over the October 2000 Riots Biased?

A decade after the October 2000 riots, in which 13 Arab demonstrators were killed, the Israel Democracy Institute has published a comprehensive study thoroughly examining the investigations into the deaths of three of the men.

The researchers examined dozens of bits of evidence in every one of the cases, in an attempt to establish whether former attorney general Menachem Mazuz made the right decision when he decided to close the inquiries into the policemen suspected of causing the deaths.

Shai Nitzan
Alex Levac

The research was carried out by Hebrew University Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and former Haifa district attorney Lina Saba. Parts of the report were published in Haaretz.

The researchers found the state prosecution was biased in how it interpreted evidence gathered by the Justice Ministry's department for investigating police officers.

The study also says the state prosecution showed bias in how it treated incriminating evidence, and did not demand the investigation be continued when such evidence was found.

Attorney Shai Nitzan, the deputy state prosecutor, headed the team appointed by Mazuz to examine the affair in the wake of public criticism after the Justice Ministry closed the cases.

Why were you shocked at the Kremnitzer study's findings?

I was not shocked, but I was surprised. I was surprised to read that the institute had published a report that I heard about from the newspaper and that referred to the state prosecution's report and the former attorney general's decision over October 2000. I was surprised that the researchers did not think it necessary to get our response, as I would have expected from a reasonable research institute.

But regarding the actual criticism - perhaps the state prosecution's conduct was indeed biased?

In 2005, the Justice Ministry department published its decision after no basis was found for charging the policemen. Because the events were unusual and the results tragic, and because of the complaints, Mazuz decided there should be another professional examination of the decisions, this time by a team of five attorneys with decades of cumulative experience.

The team devoted thousands of hours of work to this, examined huge quantities of evidence and ordered further examinations when necessary. In some instances, we ordered that weapons be confiscated for examination.

The team left no stone unturned and concluded that despite the tragic nature of the events, there was insufficient evidentiary basis for indicting any of the policemen. The material was sent to Mazuz, and he held a long series of discussions with various Justice Ministry officials and they reached a unanimous conclusion.

Not one of them thought differently?

All members of the team came to the unanimous conclusion that the policemen could not be charged. Regarding the Justice Ministry at large, I do not recall anyone who opposed that stance.

But perhaps that doesn't refute the researchers' conclusion that the prosecution was biased?

That claim is baseless and unfounded and I regret it was raised. In general, many arguments are raised against the department investigating police officers, including that it does not allow the police to do their work and leads to indictments that restrict their freedom of operation. It is enough to mention the case of policeman Shahar Mizrahi, who killed an Arab [and was subsequently jailed] - the department was severely criticized for supposedly disturbing the police's work.

When there is evidence, we bring policemen to court without hesitation, like in the case of Shahar Mizrahi, and we are not deterred by criticism. Therefore the bias claims are illogical, and it doesn't matter whether it is a Jewish policeman who killed an Arab or vice versa.

Kremnitzer writes that when evidence was presented supporting the case against suspects, the prosecution completely ignored it or quickly dismissed it as inaccurate.

Any unbiased person who reads Mazuz's very detailed 500-page report will find a meticulous examination of all the relevant evidence. We did not ignore any bit of evidence and we did not conceal any relevant proof. We knew our examination had extreme public importance.

But as you know, the court supervises the decisions of the prosecution and the attorney general, and hundreds and thousands of petitions are filed with the High Court of Justice over decisions not to press charges, starting with the Bar-On Hebron affair, the Moshe Katsav affair, the Greek island ... No major case is closed without a petition being submitted to the High Court, because the High Court is the best place to examine such claims.

In this [October 2000] affair, Adalah, on behalf of the bereaved families, spoke out time and again against the decision to close the cases. But the claims remained only in the media, and to my great surprise, were not taken to the only legal forum authorized to hear them - the High Court of Justice.

The decision by Adalah, which we sent all the PID material, speaks for itself. I regret that they still are telling the media that the prosecution's decision was problematic.

The Arab community constantly is turning to the High Court of Justice and when it is appropriate, the court hears the case.

But in this case, the fact that no petition was filed is evidence that the relevant people did not think the court could be persuaded that the report was biased or mistaken.

Do you believe this wound will ever heal for Israeli Arabs?

I am not an expert in sociology. This wound is deep and it's hard to say whether it will heal. For our part, we did everything we could to carry out a thorough and comprehensive investigation and enable full transparency, in the hope that this would help even partly to heal the wound. Even if there was 2 percent of doubt, we held a second investigation for the sake of peace of mind.

How do you see the families' demand for an international committee of inquiry?

The State of Israel has a highly regarded judicial system that carries out reliable and proper investigations. We do not believe an external international investigation would be possible.