Police & Thieves: For all citizens, facing off against police is an uphill battle

"For the average citizen unlucky enough to be a victim of abuse at the hands of Israeli law enforcement, the statistics are not encouraging."

American teen Tariq Khdeir is greeted by his mother after being released from jail in Jerusalem on July 6, 2014 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
American teen Tariq Khdeir is greeted by his mother after being released from jail in Jerusalem on July 6, 2014
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
If you’ve seen the video of the assault, you may have found the penalty for the officer left something to be desired. Underage Jewish settlers who are resisting arrest but posing no threat are beaten repeatedly by a well-armed border policeman who seems to have no regard for the young age of the victims or the fact that it’s all being caught on video.
The officer in this case, Mordechai Mehager, was sentenced in July to six months’ community service at the Armored Corps’ Memorial and Museum in Latrun, and even that was considered an especially stiff sentence by the presiding judge, who said “the defendant didn’t stop with a single blow, but instead struck with his baton again and again and also kicked [the complainants].
The defendant did not hurt only one person; rather he hurt three minors and caused severe injury.”
That incident took place almost a decade ago during the February 2006 eviction of the illegal outpost of Amona in the West Bank, but it came to mind last week, when a Border Police officer was sentenced to six weeks’ community service for beating 15-year-old Palestinian- American Tariq Abu Khdeir on July 3, 2014.
The case garnered international headlines last year not only because Abu Khdeir was an American citizen and a cousin of Muhammad Abu Khdeir – the Palestinian teen kidnapped and burned to death by Israeli extremists last summer – but also because of the images taken of Tariq after the beating, an awkward teenager with eyes and lips swollen and blue from the beating.
Last week, in the hours and days to follow, the sentencing was seized upon as clear evidence of a glaring double standard in the Israeli justice system, proof positive that in a Jewish state there is no reason for Muslim citizens to expect equal protection under the law, or for police to fear the consequences if they harm them.
That conclusion is understandable, but it misses a bigger picture that is potentially more troubling.
According to figures published in a report by the Justice Ministry in March, the ministry’s Police Investigative Department (PID) – tasked with investigating complaints of wrongdoing by police – reached indictments against only 116 police officers out of more than 4,500 claims filed by civilians. The ministry said that a third of the cases were closed without even launching an investigation after the complaints were found to be “incoherent” or without any indication of wrongdoing or “public interest.”
Another third were investigated but closed after they were found not to have a basis for a criminal case. In around a third of the cases they opened an extensive investigation, and in 732 of those, they questioned one or more officers under caution.
In other words, only around 16 percent of the complaints filed to the PID in 2014 resulted in an officer being questioned under caution. Of these, in 116 cases an indictment was filed. Once an indictment is filed, the conviction rate is very high, with 92 out of 116 cases resulting in conviction.
In their defense, the PID investigators tasked with following up these complaints must take into account what are often very complicated situations carried out in the very often dynamic and difficult world of police work. They have to piece together what happened where often the evidence at hand is little more than the testimony of a citizen versus that of a police officer.
Nonetheless, for the average citizen unlucky enough to be a victim of abuse at the hands of Israeli law enforcement, the statistics are not encouraging. Furthermore, the weak penalties even in cases where the incidents are caught on video and the abuse is plain as day, give the impression that even for those who are victorious, justice can be rather toothless.
There are some signs of encouragement though. A series of highly publicized sex scandals in the Israel Police this past year and the resulting public outcry have made the PID by some accounts much more vigilant in its investigations.
While in those cases the vigilance is in regard to complaints of sexual misconduct by female officers, nonetheless, it’s a potentially encouraging sign.
Earlier, this year, protests by Ethiopian- Israelis against racism and police brutality broke out after a video was published of an Ethiopian-Israeli IDF soldier named Damas Pakada being attacked by a police officer in Holon. The subsequent protests and rioting briefly captured the attention of the media and public, shining a light on abuse that an entire sector of Israelis had for years said was rampant. While the protests have long fallen off the front pages and among Ethiopian-Israelis there is widespread dissatisfaction with the results of the demonstrations, they nonetheless managed to bring the issue of police brutality to center stage.
Finally, as early as January, police say patrol and traffic officers are to begin wearing body cameras while on the job.
The measure is meant to safeguard both sides – police from complaints of abuse or from videos shot by civilians that don’t show the entirety of incidents – and civilians from police who now know that every interaction they have on the job will be caught on camera.
In the cases of the teens from Amona and that of Tariq Abu Khdeir and Damas Pakada justice of any sort would have probably been impossible without video evidence, though even with proof of wrongdoing, without proper punishment meted out by the courts little if any deterrence can be established.
While Arabs in Israel face a wide range of disadvantages and discrimination, to see the punishment for the officer who beat Tariq Abu Khdeir as simply a case of yet another double standard for Arabs in the Jewish state is to miss the wider picture.
Any civilian facing off against the police, the army or any other security agency – even with video evidence – is facing an uphill battle.
However, perhaps it’s one of the exceptions of equality in Israel.
The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com.