Or Commission Calls for ‘Real Equality’

By Ori Nir

Published September 05, 2003, issue of September 05, 2003.
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The Israeli judicial commission charged with investigating the death of 12 Israeli Arabs during riots in 2000 has released a final report slamming police and the government and calling for steps to establish “real equality” between Jewish and Arab citizens.

Headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, the three-member commission rebuked top Israeli political leaders and police officials over their handling of the violence but did not limit itself to a probe of the riots. Instead, the so-called Or Commission identified equal treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens as “the most important and sensitive domestic issue on the country’s agenda,” adding that the issue had been “neglected and mishandled for many years.” The commission called on the Israeli government to “erase the tarnish of discrimination against the Arab citizens” through a series of immediate and long-term efforts tied to timetables and supervised by the prime minister.

The commission said Israel’s national police force frequently treats Israeli Arabs as “enemies” and is consequently perceived by them not “as a body that renders service but as a hostile force serving a hostile regime.” The police, the report said, “must instill in its people that the Arab public is not an enemy and should not be treated as an enemy.”

The report did not unequivocally identify any individuals directly responsible for the Arabs’ deaths, prompting angry criticism from relatives of the victims. At the same time, the commission urged Israel’s Ministry of Justice to pursue criminal investigations into the matter. The ministry responded by ordering prosecutors to begin preparing an investigation, which officials warned would be extremely complex and could take years.

The 860-page Or report, based on testimony from 438 witnesses over more than 19 months, describes the bloody October 2000 riots chiefly as an expression of Arab citizens’ frustration over years of deprivation and discrimination. During the riots, the most violent ever inside Israel proper, police forces shot dead a dozen Israeli-Arab citizens and one Gazan residing in Israel. One Israeli Jew was killed by a rock thrown at his car by Arab rioters.

The commission, created weeks after the riots by then-prime minister Ehud Barak, was made up of Or, Arab judge Hashem Khatib and former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Jordan Shimon Shamir.

The commission criticized Barak’s performance as prime minister, charging that he failed to “appropriately attend to an issue of strategic importance to the state of Israel and to the well-being of its citizens.” Barak is accused of failing to prepare for the possibility of widespread riots inside Israel and for mishandling them when they erupted. The panel does not recommend taking action against Barak, leaving open the possibility of him running for prime minister again.

The commission recommends barring Barak’s then-minister of internal security, Shlomo Ben-Ami, from serving in that post in the future. It recommends suspending the promotion of several senior police officers, dismissing two others from the police force and ensuring that several other former senior police officers do not hold internal-security positions in the future.

Some Arab critics were angry at the commission for its strongly worded criticisms of several Arab public figures, including Knesset members Azmi Beshara and Abdulmalik Dehamshe, whom it accused of inciting the rioters.

Still, many Arab-rights activists were hailing the report this week. “This report is a revolution,” said Shalom Dichter, director of Sikkuy, a Jerusalem-based organization that advocates equality for Israeli Arabs and monitors government actions.

The report adopted terms such as “distributional justice” of state land resources and talked about “closing gaps” rather than “reducing gaps” between the Jewish and Arab citizens. It described the Jewish state’s Arab community as an “indigenous” population with a Palestinian national identity that still feels the trauma of its defeat in 1948. The report found that Arab citizens believe the state systematically favors the interests of the majority group over the minority.

“The commission did not deliver the goods in terms of direct personal responsibility,” said Muhammad Darawshe, an Israeli Arab who directs One Voice, a grassroots group promoting Jewish-Arab understanding. On the other hand, the commission’s “recipe for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel satisfies most of the Arab citizens’ aspirations in terms of what is feasible in a Jewish state and could serve as a basis for redefining majority-minority relations in Israel.”

The report’s political implications are unclear. Barak, who emerged relatively unscathed, is openly considering a return to political life following his landslide defeat at the polls by Ariel Sharon in 2001. Ben-Ami appears more seriously damaged, having been singled out as unfit to head the Internal Security Ministry. But some observers note the irony in the fact that Ben-Ami is now ostensibly barred from a post he never wanted in the first place, having been demoted to it from his previous position as foreign minister. They note, too, that such censure by a judicial commission has murky precedents. A similar commission appointed in 1982 to probe that summer’s massacre of Palestinians in a Beirut refugee camp recommended that Sharon be barred from returning to the post of defense minister.

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