JERUSALEM — Israel’s two top security officials decided this week to appear personally before a special Knesset committee rather than permit officers to testify in an investigation of the violent clashes at the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona.
The two officials, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra, said they were ordering officers not to testify, because of the committee’s decision to invite Knesset member Uri Ariel of the right-wing National Union Party to join the investigating panel. Ariel was among the politicians who led the resistance to police during the evacuation of the outpost.
Having housed some 30 families, the outpost was evacuated February 1 following a Supreme Court order finding that nine permanent buildings had been erected on privately owned Palestinian land. The operation turned into a melee, pitting some 6,000 police and soldiers against at least 1,000 pro-settler protesters. More than 200 people were injured, including two Knesset members who had joined the demonstrators.
Ten protesters, including Knesset member Aryeh Eldad of the National Union Party, have filed formal complaints alleging police brutality.
The investigative panel was created at the insistence of lawmakers from the Likud and other right-wing parties, who accuse security forces of using excessive force during the evacuation. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ordered the evacuation, has dismissed the investigation as pre-election grandstanding by the opposition.
Israelis go to the polls March 28 for parliamentary elections. Olmert’s Kadima party holds a healthy lead, with the Likud running third behind the left-wing Labor Party.
Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, which launched the investigation, called the ministers’ decision “an attempt to obstruct the Knesset from carrying out its work.” He said the move was “not devoid of political considerations.”
Steinitz said the decision infringed on the Knesset’s authority. Once a committee is established, he said, all citizens — including Cabinet ministers — are required to obey its instructions.
Ezra accused the Knesset panel of seeking to politicize the military. “The political echelon should not undermine a police officer or soldier under any circumstances,” he told reporters Tuesday after informing Steinitz that police commanders who had been called to testify would not appear.
“I expect the committee’s chairman to back the security forces, the police officers and soldiers, and not permit incitement by people such as Uri Ariel,” Ezra said.
Police officials say they used force only after protesters began hurling cinder blocks and other dangerous objects at them. Critics say the police attacked indiscriminately with batons, trampled demonstrators under their horses’ hooves and abused female protesters. Video footage of the melee has been posted on numerous pro-settler Web sites to bolster the protesters’ allegations.
Among the army officers called to testify by the panel were the chief of Central Command and the commander of the West Bank brigade. Police officers included the commander of the Judea and Samaria district and the officer who commanded the evacuation itself, Meir Bokovza.
Bokovza has received repeated telephone threats since the evacuation. He has been under round-the-clock protection since February 14, after his car was torched outside his home near Ben Gurion Airport. No arrests have been made.