Israel's police too quick to shoot first, ask questions later

There have been numerous complaints about police being quick on the trigger, especially regarding the Arab community in Israel.

Israel Police Special Operations Unit (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
Israel Police Special Operations Unit
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
 It’s beginning to sound like a broken record. Police encounter a situation involving a suspect who’s behaving erratically, they feel like their lives are threatened and they open fire.
It turns out that the suspect was not necessarily posing a physical threat to law enforcement, but was mentally unstable or disabled, or unarmed.
The latest incident occurred on Monday in Haifa when police were called to the Anabtau family’s home. The parents of Munir Anabtau, 33, whom they labeled mentally disabled, said their son was acting unruly and asked the police to intervene.
When they arrived, according to the police version, Munir attempted to stab one of the officers, and officers opened fire, mortally wounding him. According to a forensics analysis, five bullets were fired, three of which hit Munir.
Anabtau’s sister, Shairin, claimed that Munir was not armed.
“We saw the knife on the table,” she said. “He put it on the table and got down to wait for me. He was running away from them [the police].”
Regardless of the circumstances, the situation did not justify five bullets being fired, she added.
Monday’s incident echoed similar police responses to situations that have involved minorities.
Last year, Border Police shot and killed 32-year-old special-needs student Iyad al-Halak, a resident of Wadi Joz in east Jerusalem, near the Lions’ Gate of the Old City after they noticed him holding a “suspicious object” that they said looked like a gun.
When Halak fled the scene, police officers pursued him, shooting at him multiple times and eventually killing him. Halak’s social worker reportedly shouted at the officers that he was autistic. The suspicious object was never found.
In October, the Police Investigations Department informed the officer who shot and killed Halak that he would likely be charged with Israel’s equivalent of second-degree murder.
In another high-profile incident that shook the country and led to nationwide protests by the Ethiopian community, Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah was shot and killed by an off-duty policeman in 2019, who claimed that he and his family members were pelted with rocks thrown by a group of teenagers including Tekah. The officer said he drew his weapon and fired at the ground, but that the bullet ricocheted and killed Tekah. It was unclear why he shot in the ground instead of into the air, as is the regulation in attempting to defuse a violent situation.
Tekah’s death sparked nationwide protests that included violent demonstrations based on accusations of police brutality and racism toward Israelis of Ethiopian descent.
The officer, who is on trial for the negligent homicide, was restored to full-time operational status last month, in a move that shocked both the Ethiopian community and the Police Investigations Department.
Are these isolated incidents that distort a usually impeccable track record of police conduct, or are they indicative of an endemic problem within law enforcement agencies – a problem that derives from a change of attitude and behavior when they encounter a potentially volatile situation involving suspects who are Arab or of color?
Whatever the answer, it’s obvious there are issues that must be addressed by the police. There have been numerous complaints about police being quick on the trigger, especially regarding the Arab community in Israel.
There are clear rules of conduct and engagement for subduing a suspect that every policeman learns. Shooting to kill is always the last resort, and only in the event that there’s a clear and present danger to the officer’s life. Unfortunately, we’ve seen far too many cases in which suspects are killed when there was no apparent reason to open fire.
We can’t put ourselves in the shoes of a police officer who puts his life on the line every day. On the other hand, as these incidents of shooting deaths at the hands of the police continue to pile up, there needs to be a reminder that in their effort to protect the citizens of Israel, all citizens must be treated in the same fashion.
Too many people are dying because of erroneous police assessments of the situation or because of overreaction by officers at the scene. The sooner that police review their policies regarding conduct in the field, the safer we will all be.