Why change to Israeli police will help hold those in power accountable

LAW ENFORCEMENT AFFAIRS: MK Moshe Saada explains why his plan to split the Police Investigation Department from the State Attorney’s Office will hold those in power accountable.

 MOSHE SAADA: Today there is no body that investigates the State Attorney’s Office.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
MOSHE SAADA: Today there is no body that investigates the State Attorney’s Office.

The Jewish people is a nation of law, faith and self-criticism – but in Israel, the Jewish state, faith in law enforcement is weakening. Critics of Israel Police have found its conduct lacking time and again, from the NSO scandal to the Umm al-Hiran incident.

Likud MK Moshe Saada explained in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday how belief in rule of law can be restored by fixing the state’s mechanisms of self-criticism, and demonstrating justice through holding those in power accountable.

A cop in the Knesset

Saada is a lawyer by training. He served in the State Attorney’s Office for 24 years, becoming the deputy commander of the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department, whose Hebrew acronym is Mahash, which investigates allegations of police misconduct. When his superior officer fell ill, Saada temporarily helmed the unit for a year.

“The job of Mahash in the State of Israel is as an independent department that both investigates and prosecutes” police officers, explained Saada.

While now sitting in the Knesset, Saada said that he didn’t really want to become a politician – he always saw himself continuing to serve as the head of Mahash, or as a state prosecutor. However, he found himself in conflict with the State Attorney’s Office, his unit’s parent body.

 MK Moshe Saada at a special committee metting in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 25, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) MK Moshe Saada at a special committee metting in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 25, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“I found myself against a State Attorney’s Office that lost its mind and gave immunity to senior officers out of external considerations,” said Saada.

“I found myself against a State Attorney’s Office that lost its mind and gave immunity to senior officers out of external considerations.”

Moshe Saada

He said that he found himself at a crossroads: Continue working in the system, or try to change the system and challenge people who he said were the most powerful ones in the country.

Who watches the watchmen?

Saada said that public faith in law enforcement had been damaged by former attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit, former state attorney Shai Nitzan, and former Israel Police commissioner Roni Alsheich by degrading Mahash, as in the Umm al-Hiran incident.

In that eventful case, a protest was held against the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran’s demolition in 2017. A police officer shot and killed resident Ya’akub Abu al-Qi’an, ostensibly as he was driving toward them. The out-of-control vehicle then careened into another police officer, killing him.

While Nitzan has contended that there was evidence that Qi’an had terrorist motivations, Saada had accused Nitzan and Alsheich of blocking Mahash from conducting a proper investigation into what could have been an unjust shooting. Saada believed that the Bedouin man was innocent.

Saada said that he had submitted official complaints at the time, and instead had been invited to a meeting with Alsheich and Nitzan in which they threatened him and his subordinates.

Nitzan has claimed that Saada was motivated by a personal vendetta for being denied the top rank in Mahash, but Saada said that the Umm al-Hiran incident happened before he sought the higher rank. If he had toed the line, he said, he probably would have achieved the rank.

Conflict of interest

The problem that Saada said that he identified was an inherent conflict of interest created by the system.

“If there’s a senior officer, he knows the state attorney,” said Saada. “If I come with information against the senior officer – for example, he sexually assaulted his subordinate – if I knock on the door of the state attorney, a lot of the time the person that will be in the room with him would be the same senior officer.”

The personal relationship leads to situations, Saada said, where, if an accusation is raised, the state attorney would update the senior officer.

Saada explained that there isn’t just personal interest, but operational contradictions. If the state attorney fires a senior officer, they’re cutting off the arm that investigates their cases.

Often, police and state attorneys are involved in investigations together, with the attorneys facilitating use of wiretaps and other regulated law enforcement tools, said Saada. If someone wishes to complain about police improperly wiretapping him, he’s complaining to the body that permitted it.

Mahash is also supposed to undertake information gathering of its own accord – not to simply wait until issues arise, said Saada. However, if there is no will to find anything, because it affects the investigating officers’ superiors, then they won’t create problems.

“The investigation unit isn’t working, the intelligence unit isn’t working, so why is there Mahash?” asked Saada. “To cover for the police? Mahash is there to protect the citizens of Israel!”

The State Attorney’s Office also lacks accountability, according to Saada.

“Today there is no body that investigates the State Attorney’s Office,” said Saada. If there is a complaint about the prosecutors, it goes to the subject of the accusation.

NSO scandal

Saada explained how the NSO police scandal highlighted a breakdown in the accountability system.

Between 2015 and 2021, the Israel Police was alleged to have used Pegasus spyware to infect between 1,000 and 1,800 phones. The malware, which Saada said was illegal, did more than wiretap.

“All your history from your applications, your locations, all your chats, all your emails, all your pictures, all your health information – you’re completely vulnerable,” said Saada.

When allegations first surfaced of police spying, Saada said that the Attorney-General’s Office should have ordered Mahash to review the matter and, if there were suspicions of unlawful action, to move to a criminal investigation. Instead, a deputy from the Attorney-General’s Office examined the matter.

“The person who was supposed to supervise the use of Pegasus, and of wiretapping, is the Attorney-General themselves,” said Saada.

Saada said the deputy attorney-general’s investigation didn’t investigate the police. The Likudnik explained how wiretaps had to be approved by judges at the request of senior police officers. Either the parties involved knew about the capabilities of the program and sanctioned invasions of privacy, or they were negligent and didn’t do their due diligence.

On May 1, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee held hearings on the NSO scandal. Saada recalled that he had asked Deputy Attorney-General Amit Marari, who compiled a report on the investigation, “who is going to pay?” Saada said that “the answer is no one.”

Saada said that he was advocating for a parliamentary inquiry into the scandal.

Saada law

The former Mahash commander said that he loved the unit, but that to protect it he had to fix it.

In December he proposed a law that would split Mahash from the State Attorney’s Office. The law is currently still in committee deliberations.

“If Mahash goes out from the State Attorney’s Office as an independent body, it would be able to investigate also the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), also the police, and also the state attorney.”

“If Mahash goes out from the State Attorney’s Office as an independent body, it would be able to investigate also the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), also the police, and also the state attorney.”

Moshe Saada

An association claiming to represent lawyers in the State Attorney’s Office protested the bill soon after, threatening to go on strike. Saada said that he understood that the State Attorney’s Office was against the law, as “no organization wants to be investigated,” but against powerful organizations in a democracy there needs to be an equally powerful independent body.

However, the State Attorneys’ Organization argued during its strike in February that while Mahash would no longer be subordinate to the State Attorney’s Office, it would instead be subservient to the Justice Ministry. Not only would this open up Mahash to dangers of political influence over its investigations, but it would be a less professional authority that wouldn’t know how to properly manage the unit, the lawyer’s group chairman Orit Korin said at the time.

Saada’s solution was vindicated on May 2 when the state comptroller issued a report highlighting severe problems in Mahash, and suggested that law enforcement leaders explore the idea of a new system, in which police internal affairs is separated from the State Attorney’s Office.

“The state comptroller investigated things in the most objective way,” said Saada.

The comptroller also found that there were professional and resource allocation issues within Mahash.

Saada said that the authorities didn’t care about Mahash. Police didn’t respect it, in part because it didn’t challenge them in any way.

“If you’re strong, the police will work with you. If you’re weak, they don’t pay attention,” said Saada.

Consequently, the police didn’t provide Mahash with important tools like body cameras or intelligence equipment.

“If you don’t have the tools, you’re not professional,” said Saada.

Saada said that there were other problems within the police that needed to be addressed, beyond Mahash, that he was developing solutions for. He said that there was a severe problem with sexual assault.

Saada said he was working on another major law enforcement reform, but he needed first to sufficiently research and speak to the public on it.

He said there exists a continued problem of protection rackets in Israel, which the Israel Police lacks the tools to address. He wants to empower law enforcement.

Saada identified that there were many ways in which the Israel Police had failed to protect civilians and safeguard justice, leading to broader issues.

Dereliction of duty

The lack of belief in the rule of law was demonstrated in actions during the recent judicial reform protests, Saada said.

The former cop said that it was important to protest, but not to break the law.

“Blocking a street is a violation of the law. It endangers pedestrians and drivers,” said Saada, referring to protest action in which demonstrators would block major traffic arteries. “But the police didn’t act – they’re afraid to enforce the law.”

Saada said that the police had failed to establish redlines as soon as it happened, so people ignored the law.

This was seen again with the police and IDF allowing for insubordination in its ranks and involving themselves in the protests.

“The moment you don’t keep the law, someone else decides not to keep the law in another way,” said Saada.

A broader reform

Saada’s police reform and the judicial reform are seen by some critics and proponents as a part of a broader reform of the system.

“The end goal of the general reform, and the reform that I’m leading, is to protect and ensure justice,” he said.

He said that if the system isn’t working, you need to stop, check, and then fix it. He explained that the current judicial system isn’t working.

He said that he had been following one major case at the Jerusalem District Court which had continued for almost nine years without resolution. It wasn’t efficient, he said, and was not worth it for some people to turn to the courts.

Punishment is still too soft. For those who break into someone’s house and commit rape, the worst crime, he said, they receive only up to 20 years. Saada said that a Jewish girl was raped in Jerusalem by an Arab man, and the court weighed releasing him pending his trial. There was a lack of proportion, he argued. There was talk of the rights of criminals, but they didn’t pay attention to the victims.

“People come to me and beg ‘Moshe, pass a law; the courts don’t see us,’” Saada related.

Justice and truth shouldn’t be a matter of politics, he said. What happened in Umm al-Hiran, or with Ahuvia Sandak, who died in a high-speed chase with police, deserved justice.

Saada hopes that negotiations and agreement between the coalition and opposition will succeed, because “we’re all brothers.”

However, he doesn’t think that the negotiations are advancing. At the content level, if they want to reach an agreement, they could, but a lot of the opposition is political.

While he sees the reforms as matters of optimizing institutions of justice in Israel, Saada doesn’t think that his police reforms should be included in the outlines being negotiated in the President’s Residence.

They address two different branches in the justice system, and there is more agreement on police reform, which he hopes to advance in the coming week.

Restoring faith in law enforcement

“At the moment, there’s no public faith [in police],” said Saada.

The public needs to see change in the system and accountability, for faith in the police and law to be restored, said Saada. There can’t be two separate senses of justice, one for police and one for civilians.

No one should be above the law, he said. If high-ranking politicians can be indicted, so should senior police officers and state prosecutors.

Saada said that when Mahash submitted indictments against deputy police commissioners, faith in the system increased because people felt as if the truth could come out.

If authorities don’t exercise proper self-criticism, there will be no faith in the law.

“Public faith is essential for democracy. Without public faith in the system, we’ll have more problems,” he said. “More people will violate the law. They’ll feel like there’s no law.”

Saada said that he has a lot of difficult work ahead, but it is necessary.

“We don’t have any other state, and we don’t have another police force, and we need to restore public faith in the police.” •