Or Commission Milestones Israeli Jewish-Arab Alienation

Israeli governments have never formulated any clear, consistent policy towards the country’s Arab citizens, who today number some 1.3 million, representing one fifth of the population. This evasiveness is reflected in the justice meted out by the judicial system to the members of this minority. Many Israel Arabs admit freely to living in an intolerable no-man’s land betwixt and between their Arab and Israeli identities, especially in times of conflict. At the same time, justified or not, policy-makers in Jerusalem claim “security considerations” as their rationale for selling Israeli Arabs short on civil rights and equality of opportunity. At least three generations of this minority have learned to view “Israeli justice”, as a synonym for separate codes of justice for Jews and Arabs.
These longstanding grievances and sense of injustice were behind the bitter skepticism with which Israeli Arab leaders greeted the state commission’s findings published on September 1 on how 13 Arabs came to be shot dead by Israeli police in the course of tumultuous, admittedly anti-Israel, riots staged in most Arab centers in northern Israel in October 2000 in support of the Palestinian confrontation.
The commission said clearly that the police were wrong to open fire on the demonstrators and that 7 of the 13 Arab deaths were unjustified. But Israeli Arabs were not mollified and retained their deep animosity to the findings.
The police were just as resentful. In a passionate defense of the police performance, Yehuda Wilk who was police commissioner at the time, reminded his critics that in October 2000, the country had come perilously close as never before to civil war between Arabs and Jews. For ten days, tens of thousands of inflamed Arab rioters attacked Jewish traffic on the northern highways. The police warded the mobs off as best they could without proper equipment or preparation. They were forced to obey orders from the top level of government to clear the rioters off the highways linking northern and central Israel and open them to traffic at any price.
Wilk claimed that anywhere else, the army would have been brought in with tanks to quell the violence. He did not see how the commission sitting in a nice, clean glass-walled office could possibly judge the unprecedented ordeal the police faced at the time.
Most Israelis reading the report turned first to the heavily condemnatory findings against Labor politicians no longer in power, notably the former prime minister Ehud Barak, whose recent bid for a comeback as head of his fading party will have been sharply stalled. The panel did not hold him personally responsible for the 13 deaths, but the criticism of his performance was too scathing not to fatally harm his prospects.
(The Or Commission’s report is summed up in separate article on this page.)
That criticism and the denigration of his minister of police Shlomo Ben-Ami will not be lost on the families of the Arab victims. They can be expected to use those sections of the report for litigation and may not stop at Israeli courts. Eagerly egged on by Arab Knesset Members, they may take their complaints to international tribunals. In this respect, the Or Commission was wrong to omit the names of all the police officers suspected of shooting Arab demonstrators. Had the judges done so, they might have dispelled the dark cloud hanging over the force and drawn a line on a one-time episode. However, only two officers were named, Guy Raif who is accused of shooting two demonstrators dead and Murshad Rashid who fired at another from 15 meters. Other cases were referred to the police investigation unit.
The panel members’ failure to produce strong and clear-cut conclusions means that loose threads will be hanging over the courts for years to come and occasion endless debate and animosity between Jews and Arabs. The definition of a police that behaves like a gang of Rambos will not be forgotten in a hurry and it will keep Jews getting into arguments on the matter on the defensive.
The voluminous 830-page report has two parts – a historical section reviewing Jewish-Arab interaction that led up to the clashes of 2002, that was penned by the scholar-diplomat Professor Shimon Shamir; and a practical section drawing judgments on the actual event.
The two parts do not always fit together. This emanates from the untenable posture struck by every Israeli ruling establishment, whether Likud or Labor; they all insist that the prevailing frameworks and conceptions supporting official policies are perfectly sound, even though the house is on fire.
No inquiry commission was needed to pick up the irreconcilable realities of day to day life in Israel. After more than three years of warfare, the government has never declared the country at war or shifted into emergency mode but persists in the pretense that the trouble will blow over soon and normality round the corner. The same is true in other fields. Israel has promulgated exceptionally progressive social laws, but in recent years they are applied less and less.
Its criminal laws are detailed and enlightened, but Israeli streets are increasingly ruled by lawbreakers rather than law enforcers.
No efficient ruling establishment stands guard to step in and reconcile these inconsistencies and weed out destructive elements. It is easier to paper them over by drumming up a false consensus. This is why the Arab Israeli judge Hashem Khatib on the Or panel was prevented from publishing a minority report. Instead, Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or and Professor Shamir insisted on subordinating some of their own judgments to the minority view in order to produce a unanimous report. The validity of this report has thus been diluted; something for everyone can be found in some part or other of the report. The prime minister and police are found blameworthy in one part and so, by the same loose yardstick, is the Islamic leader Sheikh Salah, who faces trial for collaborating with anti-Israel terrorists such as the Hizballah.
This sort of laxity was conspicuous during the tenure of the Barak government. Before the outbreak of the Palestinian confrontation in September 200, Knesset Member Azmi Beshara began dividing his time between Knesset sittings in Jerusalem and trips to Damascus to consort publicly with President Hafez Assad and later his son Bashar, as well as the Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. It is hard to say how many laws he broke in traveling to a country which proclaims itself Israel’s enemy, yet he was not stopped.
So why should that same Beshara refrain from inflaming anti-Israel hatred and “projecting violence” among Israeli Arabs whom he represents in Israel’s parliament? The Or commission did not penalize him in any way either.
These anomalies are the natural outcome of the dual political norm practiced by every Israeli government in the last decade until the present day: On the one hand, each swears solemnly to fight terror to the finish. The same governments at the same time hand out concession after concession to the masters of terror hoping to buy diplomatic breakthroughs that never materialize.
The commission recommends urgent official attention to the Israeli Arab problem as a primary national strategic objective. This recommendation is likely to stay on paper. Israeli Arab leaders thrive on their community’s grievances and underprivileged status. Should, heaven forbid, any Israeli government remedy this inequity, they would lose their most important asset for furthering the interaction and close affinity between the plight of Israeli Arabs and the Palestinian national struggle. Since most Israelis in high places regard this linkage as inevitable, they see little advantage in investing in measures to correct inequalities at the cost of national security.
That situation was read accurately by Barak. As prime minister, he offered to add a secret clause to a projected final-status settlement whereby large portions of the Israeli Arab population living in the “Triangle” north of Tel Aviv and Israeli identity card-holders in Arab Jerusalem would become citizens of the future Palestinian state. This would reduce the Israeli Arab population by one half while also ceding chunks of territory to the Palestinians. Barak had no thought of treating the community in the spirit recommended by the commission. He just wanted to see the back of them.
The report will do little to dispel the progressive alienation of Jews and Arabs in the Jewish state:
1. Today, few Jewish Israelis dare venture into many Arab localities for fear of being attacked. Public services, such as posts, electricity, national insurance, send their personnel in with armed escorts and only after touching base with the local police. Israeli Arabs have no such fear and move unafraid around Jewish and mixed districts up and down the country. This asymmetry instills in Israelis the sense of harboring an enemy in their midst.
2. Certain Israeli Arab groups are increasingly drawn into the anti-Israel militancy of the Palestinian Fatah, Tanzim, Hamas, Jihad Islami and Hizballah – and even al Qaeda. Their cars with Israeli plates have been caught transporting suicide terrorists to target.
3. Intelligence sources report a fresh wave of Israeli Arab violent demonstrations in the offing that threaten to be more violent and extensive than the 2000 outbreaks that so shocked Israelis.
4. Prosecutions of a group of Israeli Islamists led by Sheikh Raed Salah on charges of collaborating with the Hamas, Iran and the Hizballah, have deepened the sense of persecution preying on Israeli Arabs.

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