Almost a year and a half has passed since our friend Samir Dari was gunned down by an Israeli policeman. Samir, an Israeli resident and father of two, approached a group of policemen who had just detained his brother on a street corner not far away from his house and demanded the latter’s release. There are conflicting versions about how the events unfolded, but there is no dispute about the following facts: Samir was unarmed and the policeman Shmuel Yechezkel shot him from close range in the back.
The Israeli police were quick to disseminate a fallacious version of the incident which portrayed the killing as an act of self-defense. This is a typical and almost automatic police response, one which inverts the order between victim and aggressor. When an Arab is killed, he is said to have been violent; when he is beaten up, he is said to have struck the policeman first; when he is oppressed, he is the one who is guilty.
Also typical was the lack of public interest in Samir’s death. The killing of an Arab is, after all, not the kind of event that makes headlines in Israel.
The non-violent protest which Samir’s friends organized in response to the killing did, however, attract attention. Israeli Jews cannot easily digest angry Arabs in the streets, and many did not hesitate to openly threaten the protesters: “An immediate and forceful response is necessary”; “A missile attack on their village is needed,” were some of the responses that appeared in the local newspaper.
But now, a year and a half later, it turns out that the Israeli legal system shares the public’s perception, although the way it expresses itself is less strident.
Judge Noam Solburg recently acquitted the policeman Yechezkel. Ironically, in his verdict the judge states that Samir had not threatened Yechezkel, at no point was there physical contact between Samir and the policemen on the scene, and Samir was actually moving away from the policemen when he was shot in the back. “The accused made an awful and terrible mistake,” the judge concludes, adding that “The deceased was killed for no reason.”
The judge, nonetheless, exonerated Yechezkel because, in his opinion, it is not beyond probable doubt that the policeman felt he was acting in self-defense. Thus, when the “mistake” is killing an Arab, no one pays the price — except, of course, the victim, his wife and children.
Judge Solburg’s verdict sends a message to Samir’s family and all Arab citizens of Israel: they should not expect justice and protection from the Israeli state. While the law’s role is to protect citizens and the police’s responsibility is to uphold the law, often these basic truths are ignored when it comes to Arabs. Since September 2000, thirty-four Arab citizens have been killed at the hands of the police, security guards and soldiers. Nonetheless, only four indictments have been issued, and only after a vigorous public campaign. Not one of these cases has resulted in a conviction.
And yet, at times, naivetÃ© stubbornly tries to challenge political reality. When Samir was killed, we thought it was worth demanding justice. Initially, Samir’s family refused to allow an autopsy. Only after considerable pressure from friends and lawyers, who argued that without concrete evidence the policeman would walk free, did the family agree, against their religious convictions, to permit the forensic procedure. The doctor’s report was unequivocal: Samir had been shot in the back from short range.
Apparently, Judge Solburg has no patience for naivetÃ© and ensured that political reality would win the day. He did not allow the autopsy results or, in his own words, “the objective dimension” of the case to alter his verdict and thus sent a very clear message to Arab citizens of Israel that evidence is not the most important criteria for determining guilt. It will, accordingly, be no surprise if the next victim’s family refuses to consent to an autopsy.
The verdict also sends a clear message to the police: “don’t worry.” Israeli policemen can rest assured that everything will be done to cover up violence against Arabs. If internal affairs won’t do the job, then a judge, who will acquit the policeman, can be found, even when the officer is guilty of shooting a man in cold blood.
Moreover, the verdict reinforces the idea among the Jewish public that not all blood is the same. Not that this should really surprise anyone. A year and a half ago, when Samir was killed, we wrote an article for the Israeli press that ended with the following lines:
“Samir is gone. We would like to hope that someone will be courageous enough to hold the person who shot him in the back accountable. We would like to believe that this incident will begin revealing the web of lies and racism that serves to perpetuate the circle of violence. We would like to know that Samir’s children will be the last ones orphaned by the violence of the secret services, police and military. But no. We won’t delude ourselves.”
To our great sorrow, our pessimism has not been misplaced.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel and can be reached at [email protected]
Yigal Bronner teaches in the South Asian Department at the University of Chicago, USA and can be reached at [email protected]