In a split decision, the Haifa District Court on Sunday sentenced the four "vigilante" policemen convicted of planting bombs aimed at two Nahariya underworld figures, to one year in jail and a suspended sentence of another year.
The presiding judge, Yosef Elron, recommended sentencing the policemen to three years in prison and two years suspended sentence. However, he was outvoted by Judges Kamal Saab and Rivka Lemelshrich.
"We are not dealing with a worrisome phenomenon and the fear that crimes of this kind will be perpetrated by other policemen is extremely slim," wrote Saab.
"Therefore we can regard this affair as an utter exception which does not reflect the attitude of all law enforcement officials," he said.
"There is no reason to hand down a deterrent punishment but rather one that is fitting and proper, balanced and measured and one which will express the entire gamut of considerations, so that in certain, grave instances, the scale will tend more towards mercy than towards the full weight of the law."
The policemen who were sentenced were Rami Mousa, Eldad Hadad, Yossi Levy and Yaniv Ashur. The four, plus another policeman who later turned state's witness and testified against them, planted one bomb on a window sill in the home of Rafi Ben-Shalom. The bomb exploded, causing minor damage to the house.
They also planted a pipe bomb under the car of Michael Mor, said to be
the head of a violent crime organization in Nahariya. This bomb did not explode.
The policemen said they took these measures against Mor and Ben-
Shalom after they had threatened them and their families and threw hand
grenades at the homes of two of them.
The judges agreed that the situation in Nahariya had become "scandalous," as Elron put it, and that there had been "dozens of violent incidents in the city including attacks and attempted attacks on policemen."
The fact that the policemen were sentenced to jail means that they will have to leave the force. They were stunned by the court's ruling.
"We are disappointed," said Ashur. "We will study the sentence and
decide how to respond."
Levy added that "we had intended to put this affair behind us. Now it looks like we will have to continue to fight to prove our innocence."
Sunday's decision means that the policemen would be serving a longer sentence than the man that threatened them. Mor, who had been convicted of threatening judges and policemen, was sentenced last month by the Nazareth Magistrate's Court to only 11 months in jail.
The policemen's lawyers have said they would appeal the sentence to the Supreme Court.
The question facing the judges was how to balance between the obviously illegal actions of the policemen and the extenuating circumstances, including the fact that the law enforcement authorities could not control the criminals in the city; that these criminals had threatened policemen and their families and, in some cases, attacked them, with impunity; that the policemen feared for their lives and the lives of their families; and that they had clean records and were considered good policemen.
In his minority opinion, Elron wrote that the actions of the defendants were "extremely" grave, especially considering that in both cases, innocent bystanders could have been hurt or killed."
He added that the fact that policemen had resorted to the same methods as criminals made the residents of Nahariya feel less, rather than more, secure. He also warned against showing compassion for the policemen because sympathizing with their actions could lead to a state of chaos when Israeli society needed to be governed by the rule of law.
He also said he believed the regret expressed by the policemen for their actions was insincere.
Attorney Avital Ben-Nun, who represented Ashur, said she believes the judges were against the defense from the beginning of the trial, and made up their mind to punish the officers "before they even heard our defense."
Ben-Nun slammed the court's ruling, which she called "absurd and ridiculous," and mentioned in particular how one judge wrote that the threat against the lives of the officers was not serious and that once a grenade was already thrown at their house, it no longer posed a threat.
Ben-Nun also said she had never in her career encountered a situation where the defense says they will appeal, the prosecution agrees, and the judges only allow 24 days to issue an appeal.
She said Ashur was handling the news of the sentence well, and described his feelings as being in "aftershock."
"It's terrible that these days you need to wait until someone throws a
grenade at your house before you can take action to defend yourself," Ben-Nun told The Jerusalem Post Sunday.
Prosecutor Moshe Sadeh on Sunday praised the court's decision, saying that the punishment fit the gravity of the crime.
"The charges were very serious. These men could have hurt innocent bystanders. They left a bomb outside a house in which an innocent 10-year-old child was living," Sadeh said.
Sadeh added that the punishment "sends a clear message that we are not the Third World, in the State of Israel there is law and order. A police officer is not the judge, jury, and executioner."
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch issued a statement saying that the court's decision Sunday must be honored, but "we can't ignore that they were moral and professional police officers who had waged a long, exhausting fight against criminals who lacked any values and tried to harm them and their families."
Aharonovitch added that "the war against organized crime will continue on all fronts."
Prior to the sentencing, the police called the incident unusual and unprecedented in police history, adding that the force must learn from it.
While the police insisted that its officers were not to take the law into their own hands, it said the four convicted members were "professional and normative field officers."
"The men were forced into a very difficult situation, showed poor judgment and chose the path of wrongful action, which must be unequivocally condemned," said an Israel Police National Headquarters statement.
The statement added that "every police officer knows that danger is part of the job and it must be dealt with solely within the confines of the law, the values and the procedures of the organization. This is the basis for public trust in the police."
Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. David Cohen on Sunday said he accepted the court's decision, which he called "tough for a tough crime."
Cohen added that every police officer "must know that they have the full support of myself and the Israel Police," and vowed police would examine and repair the failings revealed by the affair.
Northern Police Chief Cmdr. Shimon Koren also commented on the sentence Sunday, saying that it was a hard day for the police.
"This was a severe and out-of-the-ordinary incident that raises complicated moral dilemmas," Koren said, but stressed that law enforcement personnel must stay within the boundaries of the law.