Iyad al-Halak’s killing raises concerns over police behavior towards Arabs

Increased numbers of parking fines and other penalties in the neighborhood led to an ever escalating series of clashes which have resulted in numerous arrests, injuries, and even deaths of residents.

An Israeli border police officer and Israeli soldier at a temporary "checkpoint" in Jerusalem on April 16, 2020. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
An Israeli border police officer and Israeli soldier at a temporary "checkpoint" in Jerusalem on April 16, 2020.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The slaying of 32-year-old Iyad al-Halak in east Jerusalem on Saturday by Border Police, who shot him after a pursuit outside Jerusalem’s Old City, has sparked anger once again among Israel’s Arab community over police treatment of Arab citizens.
The police have said the officers involved believed that Halak was holding a gun, although he was actually unarmed. A caretaker who was escorting Halak — who was autistic and on his way to a special needs institute — said she told the police numerous times that he was “disabled” before they shot him.
The incident was the third of its kind in May, during which an Arab citizen was killed by police personnel or security guards, and the 15th incident in the last decade in which an Arab citizen has been killed by police.
In light of these incidents, questions have again arisen regarding police attitude toward the Arab population and its behavior when dealing with the community.
One individual who has looked into the issue is Dr. Guy Lurie, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, who published a study in 2018 on the use of arrests by police as a tool in its law enforcement work.
Lurie found that 48% of all arrests between 2012 and 2017 were of Arab citizens, a figure which is significantly higher than the percentage of Arabs within Israel. Arabs constitute approximately 20% of Israel’s population.
Additionally, only 34% of Arab citizens who were arrested were convicted, compared to 50% of the Jewish population, suggesting that a significant proportion of arrests in the Arab sector could be unnecessary, said Lurie.
He noted, however, that excessive use of arrests by police as a tool of law enforcement exists as a problem across Israel’s societal sectors, but the problem is more acute in the Arab community.
“There is a problem with Israeli police attitudes to Arab population and there is a problem of excessive policing,” Lurie said.
He argued that the police were not doing enough to monitor and regulate their use of arrests in the Arab sector and are therefore unable to correct the problem.
In regard to the use of excessive force, Lurie said that complaints of such incidents made to the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department were not recorded by the ethnic background of the complainant so there is no reliable data on this issue.
But Nicolas Nissim Touboul, a projects manager at the Institute for Zionist Strategies think tank, argued that regarding the situation in east Jerusalem specifically, the police have been working to improve their conduct and interaction with the Arab population.
He notes that in the last three years, the Jerusalem District Police Department has opened five community policing centers in Sur Bahir, Silwan, Beit Hanina, Shuafat, and one in French Hill to serve Isawiya.
These centers provide various communal services as well as helping connect citizens and community leadership to the Jerusalem Municipal Authority, and in general create a community policing structure that connects the police personnel to the neighborhood.
Arabic-speaking police officers have also been brought in to further strengthen understanding and trust.
One ongoing problem has been the numerous and intense police incursions into Isawiya for more than a year, during which there were numerous violent clashes with residents, especially youth.
The problems actually arose from an initiative to engage in more community-oriented policing, but the new policy was not well explained to residents in a neighborhood known for its hostility and for its nationalist sentiment.
Increased numbers of parking fines and other penalties in the neighborhood led to an ever-escalating series of clashes that have resulted in numerous arrests, injuries and even deaths of residents.
Still, an agreement to de-escalate in Isawiya was reached recently and it is hoped that the situation in the neighborhood will normalize.
Regarding the killing of Halak, Touboul said it is an “extreme case” and that such events do not happen on a daily basis.
He noted that the location of the incident outside the Lion’s Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem is a notorious terror hot spot, where numerous attacks against police have been taken place, and that police officers stationed there are particularly suspicious of any potential threat.
“This is not something which would happen in [the east Jerusalem neighborhood of] Sur Bahir or Jebl Mukaber, where the police presence is extremely slight,” said Touboul.
Jafar Farah, founder and director of the Mossawa Center, which advocates for Arab civil rights in Israel, argued that use by the police of excessive force around the country is indeed a systemic problem.
According to the Mossawa Center, 27 Arab citizens have been killed by police personnel since the October 2000 riots, when 13 Arab Israelis were killed by police and led to the Or Commission’s investigation into the deaths.
Of those 27 deaths since October 2000, 15 happened in the last decade, two of which took place this May, including Halak on Saturday, while another man was killed by security guards outside Sheba Medical Center, also in May.
Mossawa counts 18 Arab citizens in total who were killed by security guards and IDF soldiers since the October 2000 riots, on top of the 27 killed by police officers.
The organization also states that only four indictments have been issued for these incidents, and just two convictions secured against police officers responsible for these deaths, with sentences of six months and 30 months.
Farah also notes that these statistics leave out other incidents of the police’s excessive use of force that did not result in death, data for which he does not have.
In one prominent incident from 2017, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan was shot and killed by police during the demolition of structures in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, where he lived.
The police officer who killed Kiyan said initially that he did not feel threatened by him and no evidence was found linking the slain man to terror groups, yet the state prosecutors closed the case against the police officer.
Farah noted that in another incident from 2015 in which Iyad Abdallah was shot and killed in Kiryat Anavim, it took three years for the State Attorney’s Office to rule that it could not prosecute the police officers involved, and alleged that no real investigation was carried out.
The Mossawa director laid much of the blame at the Justice Ministry and the State Attorney’s Office, as well as the Public Security Ministry, which he said have failed to prosecute police personnel involved in the slaying of Arab citizens.
One critical problem, he said, was that the police were often negligent in the gathering of forensic evidence at the scene of an incident, which often leads to the collapse of a case when the precise details of what happened and what caused the death of the individual cannot be ascertained.
He noted, in an incident this month when Mustafa Yunes was shot and killed outside Sheba Medical Center by security guards.
Yunes, whose family said he was epileptic, had threatened several people with a knife in the lead-up to the incident, and was shot six times by three security guards when he stabbed one of them.
Mossawa argued, however, that he could have been disarmed without being killed. When his body was taken to the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, however, it was found that two of the bullets that hit him, and which had been removed by doctors in the hospital in efforts to try and save his life, were missing.
Farah said that this means it will be impossible to determine which security guards actually killed Yunes, and that any criminal case against them will be impossible.
These complaints against the State Attorney’s Office, as well as the Police Investigation Department, are similar to those made by the Ethiopian immigrant community, who have also long complained of a failure to prosecute police officers involved in the killing of members of their community.
Indeed, the issue of over-policing itself has also been a prominent feature of the Ethiopian community’s resentment toward the law enforcement agencies.
Ethiopian minors and adults are both over-represented in the number of overall arrests and investigations made by police, compared to the relative size of its community.
Regarding Halak’s killing, Farah describes it as “cold-blooded murder” and says it had “no justification whatsoever.”
And he roundly condemned recent comments made by new Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who said last week in a visit to a police station in Tel Aviv that “anyone who attacks a police officer, his blood is on his [own] head.”
“What we saw in the past was the justice system backed up the individual police officers, but today after Ohana’s comments, it looks like it is the policy of the minister himself,” Farah said. “They are losing the balance between the need to use violence and the job of being professional police officers.”