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As was to be expected, this week's announcement by the Police Investigations Department that it was closing the files on all 13 shooting deaths from the October 2000 riots without indicting a single suspect reopened wounds that have festered below the surface for the past five years.
Back again was the extreme rhetoric of Israeli Arab political leaders, who had been somewhat mollified two years ago by the conclusions and recommendations of the Or Judicial Commission of Inquiry, which not only called for the investigation of the killings, but also acknowledged longstanding government discrimination against the Arab sector.
"The state is killing our children," charged Hadash MK Mohammed Barakei after PID head Herzl Shebiro announced that the files were being closed. "The PID cleared the criminals of the crime and blamed the victims," said Ahmed Tibi.
Inflammatory and manipulative rhetoric is unfortunately part of routine dialogue in this overly passionate country. We saw a great deal of it within the Jewish sector during the debate over disengagement, which included comparisons between the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements and the Holocaust.
As in most, if not all, cases, the distorted rhetoric regarding the October riots is not a neutral factor, but contributes to making the rift between the disputing parties that much wider.
Whatever doubts there might be over the quality and good faith of the PID investigation or the way the government and police handled the riots of October 2000, it is a fact that the Arab leadership has never acknowledged the aggressiveness and violence of the riots or the threats, real and perceived, to the police and to Jewish civilians living in or passing through the area.
The Arab leadership makes it sound as if the police opened fire with tear gas, rubber bullets and live bullets on a benign and peaceful citizenry more or less out of the blue.
This, of course, does not mean that under the layers of rhetoric, the Arab leaders do not have a case. They do, and the Or Commission report paid great attention to it.
In that sense, the criticism of the PID report by one of the members of the commission, Tel Aviv University Prof. Shimon Shamir, was even more disturbing than that of the Arab politicians. Shamir is an expert on Arab society and a great admirer of its culture. But the last thing that could be said about him is that he is an enemy of the Jewish state or a man of dual loyalties.
Yet Shamir's criticism of the PID report, while lacking the inflammatory quality of the Arab leaders, was just as damning. Shamir pointed out that the Commission had identified two policemen who had allegedly violated the law and police regulations when they shot and killed Israeli Arab rioters.
One of the two was Guy Reiff, who fired live bullets at demonstrators during a riot at the Terodion industrial center near Sakhnin on October 2. Amad Ganaim and Walid Abu Saleh were killed in the incident, in which, apparently, other policemen also fired live bullets. The other incident involved border policeman Rashed Murshad, who fired rubber bullets during a protest in Jatt on October 1. In that incident, Rami Gara was killed.
PID head Shebiro tried to play down the differences between the findings of the Or Commission and his department. He said that in nine of the 13 killings, the commission had failed to identify any suspect. The implication was that the commission and the PID were in the same boat regarding the large majority of the incidents. Shebiro failed to note, however, that the Or Commission investigation was not a criminal investigation. It did not have the tools to carry out a criminal investigation, nor was that its mandate. The PID did have the tools and the mandate.
More important, however, were the differences in the findings of the Or Commission and the PID regarding three deaths allegedly involving Reiff and Murshad.
In the case of Reiff, the Or Commission came to the conclusion that he had opened fire on the demonstrators without justification.
"It is true that the demonstrators threw rocks at him," wrote the Commission. "But there is a big difference between this and immediate and substantial threat to life Reiff's life was not in immediate and substantial danger so as to justify firing live bullets. Furthermore, according to the objective facts in the field at the time of the incident, we were convinced that Reiff could have chosen to leave the area because the circumstances of the incident prove that the intention of the youths was to attack Reiff with rocks, not to attack the factory at Terodion."
The PID came to the exact opposite conclusion.
"We concluded that we could not establish with the certainty required by criminal law that the casualties were caused by Reiff," the PID summarized. "Even if we could have determined that, there would still be doubt over whether the shooting was unjustified in light of the circumstances of the incident, which were such as to grant Reiff the authority to shoot at the lower half of the bodies of the rioters Therefore, we decided to shelve the file for lack of sufficient evidence."
There are similar contradictions in the accounts of the Or Commission and the PID regarding the incident involving Murshad, who allegedly shot a rubber bullet that hit Gara in the eye.
These are not minor disputes and they constitute the difference between indicting and not indicting specific suspects.
Why should we believe the account of the PID more than that of the Or Commission? The public has been asked to trust in the professionalism and good faith of the PID investigation. The Or Commission investigation, on the other hand, was transparent and, as we therefore know, transparent and thorough.
Putting aside the rhetoric that has plagued the public controversy of the past few days, the very minimum question that still requires an answer is: Should the Israeli public accept regarding Reiff and Murshad that of the PID or that of the Or Commission?
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