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A decision by Israel’s Supreme Court to double a 15-month jail term for a policeman who shot dead an unarmed Palestinian driver suspected of stealing a car has provoked denunciations from police commanders and government officials.
Yitzhak Aharonovitch, the internal security minister, condemned the judges for “sending a terrible message to police officers”.
On the advice of police lawyers, the accused policeman, Shahar Mizrahi, had appealed his conviction last year in the expectation that the ruling would be overturned by the Supreme Court.
Mr Aharonovitch and Dudi Cohen, the police commissioner, said they would immediately seek a presidential pardon for Mizrahi. “I won’t merely support a pardon bid, I’ll lead it,” Mr Aharonovitch said.
But groups representing Israel’s large Palestinian Arab minority said the outrage at the doubling of the 15-month sentence for Mizrahi reflected the reality that the police force expected impunity when it used violence against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.
At Mizrahi’s original trial last year, the district court judge, Menachem Finkelstein, ruled that the policeman had acted “recklessly” during an operation to stop car thefts in the Jewish town of Pardes Hanna in 2006.
Despite his life never being in danger, Mizrahi had used the butt of his gun to smash the window of a car in which Mahmoud Ghanaim, 24, was seated and shot him in the head from close range. The court also noted that Mizrahi had changed his testimony several times during the investigations.
According to Mossawa, an advocacy group, 40 Palestinian citizens have been killed in suspicious circumstances by the security forces over the past decade. Mizrahi is the first policeman to be convicted in such a case.
As of yesterday, an online petition calling on the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, to pardon Mizrahi had attracted more than 5,000 signatures in a few days, and a Facebook page supporting the policeman had 1,300 fans.
Gideon Levy, a columnist with the liberal Haaretz newspaper, warned yesterday that those “siding with Mizrahi are eager to have a police force that kills — but just Arabs, of course”.
Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, said: “The atmosphere of racism in Israel is being used to destroy the legal system from the inside, using the justification that Arabs are being killed.
“The reality today is that the police can kill an Arab citizen in any circumstances and know that there is almost no chance they will pay a price. The safeguards are being stripped away.”
Relations between Israel’s Palestinian minority and the police have been marked by profound distrust since late 2000, when police shot dead 13 protesters and wounded hundreds more during largely non-violent demonstrations in the Galilee at the start of the second intifada.
A subsequent state commission of inquiry found that the police had a long-standing policy of treating the country’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens “as an enemy” and recommended that several officers be prosecuted for their role in the 13 deaths.
After a long delay, state prosecutors announced in 2008 that no one would be charged.
In several speeches since he took over as security minister last year, Mr Aharonovitch has promised measures to restore the minority’s faith in the police, including recruiting more police officers from the Palestinian population and fighting high rates of crime in Arab communities.
According to a police report submitted to the parliament earlier this year, only 382 of more than 21,000 police officers are Muslim – or less than two per cent.
At the appeal hearing last week, the Supreme Court increased Mizrahi’s jail sentence after ruling that Judge Finkelstein had not given enough weight to the victim’s life and the value of deterring similar police behaviour in the future. Under police regulations, Mizrahi was entitled only to shoot out the car’s tyres or fire at Ghanaim’s legs.
Immediately after the ruling, Mr Aharonovitch reported that he had called Mizrahi to tell him: “Your fight has become all of our fight.”
He was backed by several retired police commanders and a Likud MP, Danny Danon, who said he would submit a bill barring the indictment of police officers who open fire when they believe they are in danger.
In a sign of the mounting pressure from police groups on the Supreme Court, it issued a rare “clarification” statement of its judgment, pointing out that Ghanaim’s car was travelling too slowly to have ever put Mizrahi in any danger.
Mr Farah added that Mossawa’s investigations had revealed that, despite police claims, Ghanaim was the documented owner of the car he was driving.
The police, Mr Farah added, had supported Mizrahi throughout the case and had continued paying his police salary after his conviction.
The court’s decision to increase Mizrahi’s sentence came in the wake of strong suspicions that police officers executed a Palestinian driver in East Jerusalem last month, shooting him twice in the head from close range as he lay on the ground.
Moments earlier, Ziad Jilani, who was married with three children, had fled on foot after driving into a detail of police, injuring several officers, in the Wadi Joz neighbourhood. Witnesses said a stone had smashed his windscreen seconds before he swerved.
In one of the few other recent prosecutions of a policeman for killing a Palestinian citizen, Rubi Gai was acquitted last year of the manslaughter of Nadim Milham, who was shot in the back during a police search of his home for weapons. Witnesses testified that police had beaten Milham and that he was shot as he fled.
A survey published last month by Haifa University found that only one in five Palestinian citizens expressed faith in the police.
Mr Aharonovitch upset the Palestinian minority last year during an inspection of undercover narcotics agents in Tel Aviv. He was caught on camera telling one detective dressed as a drug addict he looked like “a real Araboosh”, a derogatory Hebrew term for Arabs.
The minister, who is a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, apologised but added that the comment was a “moment of banter”.
Mahash, the justice ministry’s police investigations unit, has been harshly criticised for the small proportion of complaints against the police it agrees to investigate. It rarely prosecutes officers.
The police have also refused to cooperate in imposing official sanctions on wayward officers, with critics saying that officers found to have acted negilgently or violently towards Palestinian citizens are often rewarded with promotion.
The state commission of inquiry into the killing by police of 13 Palestinian protesters in October 2000 recommended that several officers be dismissed from service or denied promotion. The recommendations were disregarded.
In one notorious case, the commission found that Benzi Sau, a northern Border Police commander, had acted with gross negligence in allowing snipers to shoot at stone-throwing demonstrators. Despite suggesting a ban on his promotion for four years, he rapidly rose through the ranks, becoming head of the Border Police in Jerusalem in 2001 and national head of the Border Police in 2004.
JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.