Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
Issue No.562
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Dodging responsibility for past killings

The two men at the helm of the Israeli government in October 2000 take the witness stand over their role in the deaths of Arab Israeli citizens at the start of the Intifada 14 months ago. Jonathan Cook reports

Last week saw a crucial moment in the 14- month-old Al-Aqsa Intifada, launched in late September 2000 by the outpouring of Palestinian anger at Likud leader Ariel Sharon's visit to Haram Al-Sharif. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his internal security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, who headed the Israeli cabinet when the Intifada broke out, took the witness stand over their role in a spate of Palestinian deaths that spurred on the Intifada.

Both Barak and Ben Ami were giving evidence to the Or Commission, a judicial inquiry investigating the slayings of 13 unarmed Palestinian-born Israeli citizens by police in the country's Galilee region. It is the first time either Barak or Ben Ami have been officially questioned about the event, which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the start of the uprising.

Clearly determined to save their political skins, both claimed they had no responsibility for the deaths inside Israel. They also successfully stonewalled the inquiry in its attempts to clarify why at least seven more Palestinian demonstrators were killed by police marksmen at the Haram Al- Sharif in Jerusalem's Old City following Sharon's heavily armed visit to the site.

Neither politician dares risk censure by Justice Theodor Or. Although they have been out of the political spotlight since the Israeli electorate dumped the Labour government and propelled Sharon to power earlier this year, both harbour strong desires for a comeback. Ben Ami has hinted that he is likely to run for the Labour Party leadership next year. Barak, meanwhile, has been licking his wounds, feeling increasingly embattled over recent revelations that his peace offerings to the Palestinians at Camp David were nowhere near as "generous" as he claimed. He is believed to be keen on rehabilitating his international reputation and may be waiting in the wings should Sharon's coalition government begin to fall apart.

Hanging over both Ben Ami and Barak is the shadow of the Kahane Commission, which examined the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Lebanese camps of Sabra and Shatilla. The political career of Sharon, who was defence minister at the time of the massacre, suffered a major setback after Kahane ruled that he was indirectly responsible for the Christian phalangists' killing spree, as he allowed them into the camps. Sharon was forced to resign.

The Kahane Commission established a precedent for holding government ministers accountable for criminal actions taken under their supervision. Justice Or could similarly rule that Barak and Ben Ami are culpable for the 13 Palestinians killed by Israel's northern police force. It has been suggested by civil rights lawyers that some of the evidence already before the commission implicates Barak and Ben Ami. For example, it is known that Barak personally invited the police commanders to a meeting with him and Ben Ami on the night of 1 October following the first day of demonstrations in Galilee. The next morning Barak announced on Israeli radio that he had given police the "green light" to take whatever action was necessary to preserve the rule of law and keep the roads in the north open.

It was later that day that the district's commander, Alik Ron, brought in a unit of snipers to the towns of Nazareth and Umm Al-Fahm and the number of Palestinian casualties rapidly rose. It was the first time the snipers had ever been deployed inside Israel. Days earlier marksmen had been similarly used against Palestinians protesting at Haram Al-Sharif.

At the inquiry, Barak and Ben Ami adopted different strategies for denying responsibility for the deaths, though both agreed that there had been serious "intelligence failures." Presumably, they were secure in the knowledge that Shin Bet officers will not be testifying before the inquiry.

Barak directed his venom at an "extremist 0.5 per cent" of the Palestinian population in Israel that was bent on "deliberately fomenting violence by stoking the true feelings of frustration and discrimination of the Israeli Arab population." He pointed the finger at Knesset member Azmi Bishara's Balad Party and the outlawed Sons of the Village movement for trying to "echo" the violence in the occupied territories.

Of the heavily armed visit by Sharon to Haram Al-Sharif on 28 September 2000, Barak said that, while he would have "preferred" that Sharon did not make the visit, he blamed Yasser Arafat for fomenting the violence. He said had Sharon not visited the site, the Palestinian Authority chairman would have found an excuse to launch the Intifada anyhow.

Barak added that the police and Shin Bet had advised the government that the visit would not lead to public disorder. He also rejected accusations that the police had used excessive force in dispersing Muslim demonstrators at Haram Al- Sharif, even though five Palestinians were shot dead the day after Sharon's visit. "The rioters are responsible for the riots, as are those who incited them," he said.

The former prime minister used his testimony to lavishly praise the police in Galilee, singling out commanding officer Alik Ron, who he said was a man "you could see is honest just by looking at him." Throughout his remarks, Barak worked hard to adopt a tone of resigned neutrality -- as though he had simply been a passive spectator of the events of September and October 2000. His testimony was supposed to continue into a second day, but Justice Or cut it short -- apparently deciding that there was no point in continuing when the former prime minister was prepared to reveal almost no details about the events of last year.

Asked about the behaviour of individual officers, Barak repeatedly said that he could not speak definitively about past events. This prompted a pointed comment from one of the members of the inquiry, Professor Shimon Shamir, who said: "We are a commission of past inquiry."

Ben Ami was slightly more forthcoming -- using his testimony to settle scores with a police command he felt had disobeyed him and refused to implement his directives. His evidence, however, only served to paint a dismal picture of a security minister with almost no control over police leadership bent on seeking a violent confrontation with the country's Palestinian minority.

Unlike Barak, Ben Ami was severely critical of Ron, saying he behaved "like a general" rather than a policeman. Ben Ami suggested that police reports may have exaggerated the violence of the demonstrations to justify their tactics of brutal suppression. The former minister also claimed he was kept in the dark by the police command. He said he only found out that snipers had been used in Umm Al-Fahm and Nazareth when the admissions by the police to the Or Commission were made public earlier this year. Asked what he thought of the unit's deployment, he said it was "one of the worst things I can conceive of in a democracy."

Ben Ami opposed the use of rubber bullets, he said, and ordered the police to show restraint from the outset. He also ordered chief police inspector Yehuda Wilk to disarm the police on 4 October, when the number of casualties became clear. Wilk refused, saying the situation was too dangerous.

In an illuminating moment, Ben Ami showed his exasperation with the discriminatory attitudes of Israel's security services towards its Palestinian minority. He said he was pleased to hear from Wilk that rubber bullets were being used against Jewish rioters in Acre. "I jumped when I heard this. I said, 'Finally, there is equal treatment [for Jews and Arabs]'." The report, however, turned out to be untrue: no rubber bullets had been used against the Jewish rioters.

Ben Ami added to the inquiry's confusion about the orders concerning the Wadi Ara road, the strategic highway close to Umm Al-Fahm where police shot dead three protesters. Ron had testified that Wilk ordered him to keep the road open at all costs, while Wilk said he gave no such instructions. Ben Ami, however, said he told Wilk to close the road. "The road was opened contrary to the order," he said.

Justice Or questioned Ben Ami closely about his failure to order an immediate investigation into the shootings, suggesting that such an investigation could have thrown much light on what really happened. Ben Ami replied that he had been too preoccupied with preventing the killings. Or observed: "There is no contradiction between ordering a report and stopping the killing."

The next stage expected by lawyers is for the inquiry to recall selected officials for more detailed cross-examination before recommending criminal charges be lodged against some of the participants in the event.

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