"This looks bad, this looks really bad.”
Those were the words that ran through my mind when I first watched the surveillance video of cops shooting 22-year-old Kheir al-Din Hamdan dead in Kafr Kana Friday.
Needless to say, I wasn’t alone.
It all began with a routine arrest on a weapons charge, linked to an ongoing family feud in the city. Special Patrol Unit officers who police the area, partly in order to fight firearms crimes, had arrested a friend of Hamdan’s on suspicion of throwing a stun grenade. Shortly thereafter, Hamdan began to attack the police car, banging on the windows while holding something in his hand, before he was cut down by a single bullet from an officer – which now threatens to have widespread repercussions.
The bullet that killed Hamdan has also brought the Israel Police to the latest and possibly most dangerous scandal of Yohanan Danino’s term as commissioner.
At the moment, we know how this mess started, but no idea how it will end.
If you watch the video, you don’t have to be an internal affairs investigator to know that something went terribly wrong. Hamdan – who yes, appears to have been armed and was banging on the windows of the police van – was shot after he had turned his back to the cops and was walking away.
When the shot rang out he wasn’t charging the police, and it’s unclear why the four well-built and well-armed Special Patrol of - ficers sitting inside their van thought their lives were in danger.
You also don’t have to be a journalist with decades of experience to know that police again dropped the ball when it came to getting ahead of the story. On Saturday morning, the Northern District spokesman sent out a message saying that police had come under attack by a knife-wielding man, and fired a warning shot into the air. Realizing their lives were in danger they shot the man, badly wounding him. Hours later when the video emerged, it was clear to all that no warning shot had been fired, and that police had lied about this – and arguably, there was no clear and present danger to the officers’ lives.
At the very least, they could see the man was not trying to attack the police at the moment he was shot.
It’s a bit ironic that police were exposed by surveillance camera footage, when there has been such a push by the Public Security Ministry in recent years to deploy more and more CCTV cameras in the public sphere to fight crime. Police must be aware of this, especially considering how at any outdoor murder scene, especially at car bombings and mob shootings, their detectives make sure to pass by all surrounding businesses and traffic junctions to collect surveillance footage to piece together what happened.
Somehow, it must just not have registered that there was, in all likelihood, a camera nearby – just like there almost always is these days in Israel.
In the first 24 hours since the shooting, there were two main arguments I heard over and over again. First: Wouldn’t the same thing happen if Hamdan attacked a police vehicle like that in America? And: Don’t you think he was asking for it, running up to a police car with a knife and banging on the windows?
BOTH ARGUMENTS are correct – and also very flawed. First off, yes, it’s safe to assume that American police would have used deadly force in such a case, and may have fired far more rounds into Hamdan.
But does that make it just? Does all of the controversy this past year over the Ferguson shooting and all of the other cases of deadly police violence, especially towards minorities, arguably make the point that American police might not be the ones to emulate? Secondly, even if Hamdan was asking for it, since when does “he was asking for it” make it justifiable homicide? Since when is terrible judgment a capital offense? For that matter, since when does being an idiot pose a deadly threat to police? There’s a feeling that some of these arguments are being made defensively, to stave off criticism of police and of Israel, especially as the Jewish state contends with grassroots terror attacks and daily assaults on police and motorists. Those defenders would do well to keep in mind that police brutality can affect anyone. Even if you are not a member of a minority and even if you are a law-abiding citizen, when police brutality and abuses of power are tolerated or common, everyone can be a victim at some point.
Timing couldn’t be worse for the shooting, which comes after weeks of some of the worst tension in Jerusalem in a decade – repeated, fatal “ramming attacks” by Palestinians, and constant predictions that a third intifada is just around the corner, if it isn’t here already. The shooting is the type of incident with the potential to send the situation in Israel over the edge, causing the protests and rioting in east Jerusalem to wash over the Arab sector in the North and beyond, sparking a real popular uprising with untold consequences.
At the moment, the protests seem to be localized mainly in Kafr Kana and the surrounding areas, and have not led to clashes between rioters and police across the Arab sector, certainly nothing on the scale of the October 2000 riots. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean the situation could not decline further if police continue to fumble their handling of the issue, like they have so far.
Also, further down the road, how the Justice Ministry handles their investigation could play a very significant role. If it clears the police of all charges, if it closes the case or recommends merely firing the offending cop, the situation could again spin out of the control.
One thing’s for sure: The people who are certainly not helping right now are Israeli politicians, especially those on the Right.
With the Arab sector enraged and a general strike set to begin the next day, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett wasted no time Saturday evening throwing gasoline on the fire, saying of the incident that “a crazed Arab terrorist attacked a police car with a knife, in an attempt to murder the officers inside.”
Never mind that the investigation of the incident had yet to begin, and that it took place during a criminal incident and not a violent protest against the state. Never mind that Hamdan had still not been buried; Bennett would bury him as a terrorist, come what may.
The politician whose words stuck out the most, though, was Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. A few days earlier, after police last Wednesday shot dead a Palestinian man who had just run over and killed a Border Police officer and wounded a dozen more Israelis, Aharonovitch went beyond saying the officers reacted correctly, adding that “a terrorist who harms civilians is sentenced to death.”
On Saturday, the quote came back to haunt him, as politicians on the Left and countless protesters in the Arab sector accused him of inspiring the shooting of Hamdan, who they said in chants and on posters “was guilty of being Arab and sentenced to death.”
The statement also came to mind on Monday, when Aharonovitch toured the scene of a terror attack in south Tel Aviv, where an 18-year-old man from a village near Nablus stabbed and killed an IDF soldier before fleeing on foot. The suspect was arrested a couple of blocks from the scene by officers from the Special Patrol Unit and Border Police, who apparently showed that you don’t always have to kill these guys.
Whether Hamdan was killed because police have an itchy trigger finger when it comes to Arabs or if say, an Ashkenazi man in Ramat Hasharon banging on a cop car window would have been shot too, depends on who you ask. But whether or not it’s the case, for the 20 percent of the population that lives in Arab towns, villages and neighborhoods, the perception is already there that deadly force was used because Hamdan was Arab – and sometimes, it’s all that matters.The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post . He also writes and hosts “Reasonable Doubt,” an English-language crime news podcast on TLV1.FM. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com