Justice Ministry Lets Off Cops Who Use Violence in East Jerusalem

According to NGO, the department closed the probes without making even minimal efforts to investigate the allegations.

The Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct has improperly closed cases against dozens of policemen involved in violence against left-wing protesters in East Jerusalem, according to three appeals by a rights group over the last three months.

According to the appeals by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, the department closed the probes without making even minimal efforts to investigate the allegations.

The appeals relate to three of the weekly demonstrations in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in 2010 and 2011. Following these demonstrations, held to protest Jewish settlement in the predominantly Arab neighborhood, 35 demonstrators submitted complaints alleging that they had been beaten by the police.

The complaints gave the names or descriptions of about 35 different policemen, along with medical records, videotapes of the demonstrations and the names of dozens of people who witnessed the alleged assaults. But all the cases were closed without charge due to "lack of evidence" a year to 18 months later, with the exception of one policeman who was put on disciplinary trial for assaulting an Israel Radio reporter.

The appeals accuse the department of taking testimony from only a small fraction of the complainants and witnesses. Moreover, they say, it ignored numerous cases in which policemen's statements contradicted either those of other policemen or the video footage.

Some of the complaints alleged serious violence. For instance, Prof. Freddie Rokem, a man in his 70s who chairs Tel Aviv University's theater department, said that when he tried to prevent a policeman from beating another demonstrator, a second policeman grabbed him by the hair and tried to fling him to the ground.

Other demonstrators tried to drag him to safety, the appeals said, but "the policeman held on tightly, while he and others rained blows on him from behind." Another demonstrator, Uri Agnon, was beating a drum during the demonstration, and when police tried to take his drumsticks away, "one of them twisted my arm until it broke," he said.

Yet when the rights group requested the case files to prepare its appeals, it discovered that they contained almost nothing beyond what the complainants themselves had submitted. For the most part, Justice Ministry investigators made do with the incident reports written after the demonstrations by the accused policemen themselves or other policemen to whom they had reported orally. Only once did the investigators question a policeman under caution, and they never questioned most of the witnesses at all.

"The files say they called and got no answer, so they just went on to the next one," said attorney Anu Luski, who prepared the appeals. "They didn't make any effort whatsoever."

This failure to even "minimally investigate" alleged police violence against the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators undoubtedly contributed to the recent police violence against social justice protesters in Tel Aviv, she added.

The Justice Ministry also ignored glaring contradictions in the police's own testimony, Luski said. For instance, following a demonstration in March 2011, David Hayun, commander of the local police station, wrote that "dozens of demonstrators attacked residents of the building who were standing in the courtyard," and when he and other policemen rushed in to rescue the residents, they were met with "active physical resistance by the demonstrators."

Yet the video footage clearly shows that only two demonstrators even entered the courtyard, and nobody was either attacked or rescued from it. Moreover, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, which threw out the police's request to remand the demonstrators, blamed the violence squarely on the police.

"It seems the police escalated the incident, and the suspects found themselves caught against their will in a riot, during which some of those present suffered blows and violence from the policemen," the court wrote.

The Justice Ministry responded that the video footage clearly showed the demonstrators engaged in "provocative behavior," adding that the complaints contradicted both each other and the footage. It insisted that every complaint was thoroughly investigated, including by watching the footage and collecting testimony from eyewitnesses.

The demonstrations in question got out of control and became illegal, the ministry statement continued, and in such cases, "police are legally authorized to use force to disperse the demonstration," as long as the force isn't excessive. But collecting sufficient evidence to prove excessive force during a riot is often difficult, it added.

Border Police arresting a left-wing activist during a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah in 2010.