Police check the IDs of Arab men on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I have worked with cops.
I went to a state university whose sizable security force was an adjunct of the state police, and whose armed personnel were authorized to do anything a cop on the beat in the toughest of cities could do. To help pay my way through school, I worked for the force, and if I took anything away from this mid-1970s experience – a time when longhairs like me generally didn’t think too highly of The Law – it was that cops could be really good guys, even on the job.
At 45, after completing my IDF reserve service, I felt a need to contribute to public security in some other way, so I volunteered for the Civil Guard and patrolled my neighborhood one or two evenings a month. The police I worked with were dedicated, decent and, for the most part, quite pleasant.
But there have been times in this country when I’ve found that interaction with cops can be irritating, and for no good reason at all.
One that stands out is when I ran a stop sign. The policewoman asked me why I did it. I told her I didn’t see it. “Why?” Because I probably wasn’t paying sufficient attention. “Why?” Sheepishly, I came up with some reason. “Why?” I gave a possible reason for my reason. “Why?” There was an ad on TV at the time for Clalit Health Services. It featured a little kid who, with every explanation he got from his elders, asked “Why?” So, thoroughly exasperated, I said to her: “What is this, a Clalit commercial?” She was kind enough to let this wiseass go with just a NIS 250 fine for failing to heed a stop sign. But things probably would have worked out differently for Maysam Abu al-Kiaan, who recently had his face smashed in by plainclothes Border Police personnel after having had the temerity to take out the trash while Arab.
THE POLICE say the two cops were on undercover duty in Tel Aviv looking for young West Bank men lacking the necessary permits to enter Israel. That’s an important and necessary job when there’s a knife intifada going on. But Kiaan, a Beduin citizen of Israel working at the Super Yuda grocery store, claims they approached him and demanded to see his ID while refusing to identify themselves. So he refused, too.
Judging by the after photos of Kiaan’s face, the cops didn’t take too kindly to this wiseass. Nor did the reinforcements they called in.
The incident, caught on one of the security cameras that have become such a big part of the landscape of late, went viral, and there was an outcry, also from The Jerusalem Post in its May 25 editorial “Police professionalism.” But one line in the editorial caught my eye: “The border policemen at the Super Yuda might have mistaken Kiaan for a Palestinian from the West Bank and therefore felt they were not obligated to identify themselves.”
Huh? I can understand such behavior beyond the Green Line, where plainclothes Israeli security forces don’t identify themselves when confronting someone suspicious.
(At the gut level I have a problem with this, although at the brain level it makes perfect sense.) But within Israel proper? These undercover cops were working about as far inside the Green Line as you can get, where police personnel in civilian clothing must identify themselves as such when exercising authority over civilians, even someone who looks like “a Palestinian from the West Bank.” Why is this even a consideration when wondering why the Kiaan incident happened? I know one thing: If anyone with no outward sign of being a cop starts nosing into my business – say, by asking for my ID in the middle of the street when nothing untoward seems to be happening – I’ll demand to know why. And if the person says he’s a cop, I’ll demand he prove it.
Should I expect to have my face smashed in? I mean, what’s the difference between me and Kiaan? So I have blue eyes. Is there anyone who’s been around a bit who hasn’t seen an Arab, even a Beduin, with blue eyes? What if I looked like my army buddy Kapah? He’s a Yemenite with blood that’s probably far more Jewish than mine, yet he once told me he was often mistaken for an Arab and therefore felt obligated, as many Mizrahim once did (and perhaps still do), to wear a Star of David as prominently as possible.
If one of Kapah’s kids looks anything like him, should he expect to get his face smashed in if he asks plainclothes cops to identify themselves when they stop him for no apparent reason? I know – we live in a tough neighborhood and these are difficult times. Our cops, just like our soldiers, do dangerous work. But this is not Ferguson, Missouri, where in August 2014, a white cop shot and killed a black teenager, setting off weeks of rioting.
Unlike in Ferguson, no one resembling Kiaan had been reported shoplifting or committing an assault in the area just moments before. His apparent crime was that as an Arab who was minding his own business, he stood his ground when officers of the law failed to do something that is standard procedure.
There were no bullets flying, no crowds out of control. The plainclothes cops didn’t have to say please or thank you (though it would have been nice). All they had to do was extend to Kiaan the same rights they’re expected to extend to anyone inside Israel – by law.
INTERNAL AFFAIRS said it would investigate.
But the Kiaan incident goes way beyond mere police brutality.
We citizens have to ask ourselves, especially in light of all the proposed legislation that could seriously erode the liberty of citizens who are unable to take out the trash while Jewish: Are we becoming indifferent to the cloud of inequality that’s enveloping more of life here each day? I’m afraid we are, whether we know it or not – or perhaps just don’t care.