Usually when you murder two people in cold blood and become the country’s most-wanted man, people learn your name. Not so, last week in police commissioner Roni Alsheich’s Israel.
For three days Yan Gavrielov – the owner of a long rap sheet of violent offenses – was on the run with a loaded pistol after murdering his ex-girlfriend and her new love interest in her Rishon Lezion apartment. For all three days there was a gag order on the case – including the name and photo of Gavrielov, then the most wanted man in Israel, whose name and face were unknown to the general public.
There was only the briefest of statements given by police about the killings – and it was a local Rishon Lezion social services official, not the police – who revealed that the woman had a history of abuse at the hands of Gavrielov and had left a battered women’s shelter just hours before she was murdered.
For the next 72 hours, no updates were given by the police – not officially to the media or directly to the public – and only the morning after Gavrielov was shot dead by the police in Lod on Saturday night did they announce that the gag order had been lifted, including on the name of the dead man.
As the police later explained it, revealing Gavrielov’s name and picture could have harmed the investigation and caused him to become paranoid, thinking that bystanders are eyeing him, and lash out at members of the public. Better to lull him into complacency and then pounce. Besides, as national police spokesman Meirav Lapidot put it on Sunday, “he wasn’t a danger to the public, just to a woman and her new love interest, who are now dead.” (This explanation could be applied elsewhere, one assumes. For instance, “the fugitive bank robber with a loaded pistol isn’t a danger to the public, only to the two police officers he shot dead while fleeing the bank.”)
EARLIER LAST Wednesday, it emerged that for more than a week police had chosen not to report a violent gang rape of a mentally-disabled woman allegedly carried out by three Palestinians in south Tel Aviv. There was no gag order on the case, and the three previous remand hearings were open to the public, but at no point did police bother to tell the press, who only reported it after a reporter at Walla learned of the case.
True, the hearings were open-door, but police know how it works at the courthouse. Every single weekday at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court there are dozens of remand hearings, and outside the courtroom is a single sheet of paper with the handwritten last names of the suspects, arranged according to which investigative department is running the case. If a reporter didn’t know about the investigation, they would have to have been at the courthouse waiting for another hearing, or just decide on their own to hop down to the courthouse and peruse the docket. Securing a gag order on the case could have been a beacon telling reporters to look into the case, and begin chipping away at the media ban. But total radio silence? Arguably a good way to make sure that the case isn’t reported.
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As with the Rishon Lezion double murder, the public was left in the dark while a suspect was on the loose, in this case, the third suspect in the gang rape.
Since last week, it has emerged that the case is far less simple than many people – including the prime minister – thought it to be, lending some credence to the argument that they were waiting for the pieces of the puzzle to fall together.
Police also said last week that the case is highly sensitive, something that could be said about countless investigations covered by the Israeli press every year.
Regardless of the particulars of the case, the way it and the Rishon Lezion double murder were handled by the police spokesman’s office are an indictment of the culture brought to the police by Alsheich ever since he left his post as deputy head of the Shin Bet several months ago.
THIS CULTURE reached a new low on Sunday in a statement by police that was remarkable both for what it said and what it didn’t say. It stated that the fraud and breach of trust investigation against Sarah Netanyahu had concluded, but not a single word about the findings of the investigation.
In every example I can think of where police said they had finished their case against a public figure – be it a small town mayor, a former IDF chief of staff, or just a local celebrity – there is a line in their official statement that says whether or not police found evidence to support the allegations against them.
If the answer is yes, this is typically reported in the Israeli press as “police recommend an indictment,” even though the decision is made by prosecutors. Police like to emphasize that they don’t officially recommend indictments; rather they give their conclusion about whether or not the case includes enough evidence for an indictment, a distinction of less than colossal proportions and one that isn’t usually strong enough for the Israeli press.
It is true that one could read between the lines in the statement and figure out what it meant, but that’s not the point.
The problem here is the glaring absence of information that has traditionally been included in such statements, even in cases where there is far less public interest.
Instead, we have the former head of the secret police working to obfuscate information of great importance to the public he serves, in order – it appears – to protect the privacy or reputation of the prime minister’s wife.
This may sound like the workings of a third-world country and not the firstworld democracy Israel prides itself on being, but it has become the norm in the past several months. Alsheich has adopted a siege mentality of sorts, describing police as the “punching bag” of the media, and withholding most information that is not simple PR.
This does not bode well for a police force sworn to protect and serve the public. It is the calculus of a secret police force working on its own, independent of the public or the concept of “policing by consent,” in which transparency and accountability create a better service provided by law enforcement.
You don’t have to read between the lines to see it.
The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com
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