Tuesday 19 January 2010

Israeli Arabs victims of legal double standards

In 1948, Israel's founding fathers issued a manifesto declaring among other things that the new state would uphold the equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race or creed.

Six decades later that is not a principal that many of Israel's Arab citizens - who make up about 20 per cent of the population - believe applies to them, especially in matters involving law and order.

In his film, One Law for All?, filmmaker Tony Stark investigates whether Israeli Arabs are regularly the victims of legal double standards.

On August 4, 2005, a Jewish soldier in the Israeli army boarded a bus on its way to the northern Arab town of Shafr'Amr.

It was just two weeks before Israel withdrew from Gaza and 19-year-old Eden Natan-Zada strongly opposed the plan.

As the bus entered the town, he began shooting passengers with his M16 rifle.

"I was looking through a window when I suddenly heard shooting. I looked and saw someone shoot the driver. I hid under the seats. As I lay flat, the firing continued, and I saw someone's finger fall to the floor. That's when I realised he was on a mission to kill everyone," says Ha'El al-Janhawe, a passenger on the bus.

"I didn't move a millimetre. I put my hands over my eyes and prayed and just waited for the bullets to hit my back."

During a pause in the shooting, al-Janhawe decided to try to prevent further bloodshed.

"I stood up and he had a chance to kill me. But, thank God, it seems that his magazine was empty. I pushed him near to the back of the bus. I got him onto his back and was on top of him - trying to hold the gun and stop him pulling the trigger. It was very hot and I burnt my hand."

Al-Janhawe pulled the gun away from the soldier and got off the bus. By then four people, including the bus driver, had been killed and 12 others were wounded.

As news of the shootings spread, an angry crowd gathered. Natan-Zada was still on the bus - now being held by several police officers.

"The bus was in chaos. People were falling over each other. Outside, people were screaming, climbing up trying to get on the bus. They didn't know if the killer was still alive. No one knew what was going on," says Amir Sabbah who witnessed it all.

People stormed onto the bus and Natan-Zada was attacked and killed.

"It wasn't a normal reaction. Someone had come to kill people in their hometown and they wanted to protect themselves and their town. We felt a kind of anger that can't be described," Sabbah explains.

Seven local men are now being tried for his attempted murder and a further five for lesser offences.

The decision to charge anyone caught up in the events of that day has hit a very raw nerve among Arab Israelis. Sadness at the waste of life is now mingled with anger at the prosecutions.

"This has been a racial decision at the highest level. It's obvious that the Israeli judiciary, security forces and police have two approaches: one for Arabs, another for Jews," says Morad Haddad who is part of a support committee for the 12 accused.

The court case has brought into the open a simmering distrust of the forces of law and order among Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens.

Protests have been held outside the court in Haifa where the trial is taking place. The claim is that Jews who kill Arabs in Israel are treated in a very different way to the Arabs now being prosecuted for killing Natan-Zada.

It is a view held by some of the most senior members of the Arab community.

"Definitely there is a double standard and discrimination in applying the law towards Jews and Arabs," says Ahmad Tibi, the deputy speaker of the Knesset.

Jafar Farah, a lawyer who runs a human rights group in Haifa, has been investigating incidents in which Jews kill Arabs and says that there have been 44 such killings since 2000 that raise very worrying questions.

"The case of Imad Hamdoun, for example. He was killed in 2002. He was on his bicycle, a Jewish civilian was shooting at the bicycle. He died. The family was compensated by the police but no conviction against the Jewish civilian that shot the bicycle.

"In the 44 cases we know for sure that the victims have not been involved in violence against state authorities or against Jewish civilians," says Farah.

Israeli law is meant to apply to everyone equally. But Farah is particularly critical of the way police investigate cases where Jews kill Arab citizens in Israel.

Some Israeli Jews working inside the legal system echo these concerns.

Michael Sfard is a lawyer who acts for a number of Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations.

"I think institutional racism is evolving in my country and I am embarrassed and very sad to say that," he says.

"The Israeli police, Israeli police investigators, they all are extremely professional and extremely motivated when it comes to catching Palestinians. They are much less motivated, much less rigorous when it has to do with Jews that operate on ideological grounds and their victims are Palestinians.

"The danger is that the more discrimination will infiltrate our system, the less our system will be legitimate in the eyes of the people. That's where we are heading."

Just how far away Israel's Arab citizens are from receiving equal treatment is shown, some Arabs believe, by the police examination of Natan-Zada's attack.

The police say he was a lone gunman, who acted without help, but that is not the view of Maher Talami, a lawyer representing one of those charged with taking part in his killing.

Talami is conducting his own investigation into Natan-Zada with the help of a former Israeli secret service agent.

The investigation has taken two years and has convinced him that the police overlooked evidence indicating that the attack was a pre-planned conspiracy.

"The police investigation was reckless. They didn't investigate this case seriously. They just wanted to close this file immediately because it kind of embarrasses the state of Israel because having a soldier who is a terrorist is really embarrassing for the country," Talami says.

He says the evidence of police failings begin at the bus station in Haifa where Natan-Zada boarded the bus to Shafr'Amr.

Just two weeks before the attack, Natan-Zada was spotted acting suspiciously at the same bus station.

"He was seen by security guards in the central bus station and he was in his army uniform; he had his gun with him and he was looking around in the area where Arabs get the buses to go to the villages and towns. So that made the security guard really suspicious because he had no reason to be there," Talami explains.

The bus station guard says he spoke with Natan-Zada and later recognised him when his picture was published in the press.

Talami says he also discovered that Natan-Zada had travelled to Shafr'Amr on the same bus the day before the attack and that this is further evidence that the attack was pre-planned.

When the bus reached the end of its journey, the bus driver found Natan-Zada asleep.

"The bus driver asked him what are you doing here and he said 'oh I fell asleep'. So he gave him some water. The next day he got on the same bus, the same line at the same time and he shot first the bus driver in the head and then he started shooting at all the passengers," Talami says.

Talami also says that there is evidence that Natan-Zada had help in planning his attack.

"Three eye witnesses at least saw a suspicious car during the time of the attack in Shafr'Amr. It had three people in it. They describe them as religious Jewish people and they had the orange ribbon in the car.

"Now this ribbon used to represent the struggle of the settlers against disengagement in Gaza. The car was waiting and when they saw a police car coming they just swiftly raced out of the town."

According to Talami, the strongest evidence that Natan-Zada did not act alone was found in his mobile phone records. The lawyer tracked down who he had been speaking to on the day before the attack.

"We found out we're talking about really dangerous criminals. They are all Jews from settlements, some of them got indicted before for doing terrorist acts. So what was said in these conversations we don't know. But he didn't call for example his family or friends. He called people from Tapuah - which is a really Jewish extreme settlement in the West Bank."

Talami is now calling for the police to re-open their investigation into Natan-Zada.

One in five Israeli citizens is Arab and if a growing number of them continue to feel alienated from the forces of law and order, the legitimacy of the country's democracy will eventually be undermined.

"We think that the Jewish community have to share responsibility. We need to see the president of the state of Israel and the leaders of the police forces, all of them standing as one voice and say that we will not allow ongoing violence against the Arab citizens," says human rights lawyer Jafar Farah.

"You have to know that everybody will be equal in front of the law and if people will be criminals and they are Jews or Arabs, they will face the same treatment in front of the law."

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