Israeli Arabs decry inquiry report

Monday's report reprimanded police and pointed to poor treatment of Arabs.

In an already poisoned atmosphere, the findings of an official Israeli inquiry into the death of 13 Arab citizens at the hands of Israeli police in 2000 seems to have no chance of bringing about catharsis, or even much relief.

Arab reactions to the findings of the three-member commission yesterday were generally negative, stressing that it did not find any of the police criminally culpable or make operative recommendations against the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak.

The deaths of the 13 Arabs deepened wounds and distrust between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority, which accounts for 19 percent of Israel's population. The killings are considered by Israel's Arab citizens clear proof that their lives are cheap and they are seen as enemies, while Jewish memories tend to focus on the images of Arab citizens throwing stones and blocking roads, similar to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"The commission has displayed callousness to our wounds and our grief," says Hassan Assiyleh, whose son Asil was among those killed. "This is a tunnel without light."

But the reaction of the mainstream Arab leadership, perhaps surprisingly, also contained a whiff of praise for the probe's detailing decades of government neglect of Arab grievances, listing that as the backdrop to the eruption of violence.

"We commend their dealing with the issue of discrimination and hope there will be implementation," says Shawki Khatib, who heads a committee composed of Arab leaders.

An official summary of the report says that "the events of October [2000] were the result of deep causes that created an explosive situation. The state and the government throughout the generations failed to deal in a meaningful way with the difficult problems. Policy was characterized by neglect and discrimination."

It took issue with the minister of internal security, Shlomo Ben Ami, for "being passive" about police conduct and recommended that he never be allowed to hold the post again. Similar recommendations were made against two senior police commanders. It also sharply criticized several Arab leaders whom it said had heated the atmosphere in advance of the violence.

Shuli Dichter, director of Sikkuy, a nongovernmental organization promoting equality, says the commission "is providing good directions for the Israeli public to take." Mr. Dichter, who testified before the commission, praised it for stressing a need to immediately close budgetary gaps between Jews and Arabs and afford Arabs chances to get building permits.

But the overall trends are getting worse, says Issam Makhoul, an Arab legislator. "The policemen were ready to shoot from zero distance and ask questions later, because the targets were Arabs," he says. "It's part of the mentality that the Arabs are a security question. The official policy is not to deal with the problems of the Arab minority, but to deal with the Arab minority as a problem."

"Arabs are being pushed into a corner," he adds. He and other Arab leaders cite:

• An increase in demolitions of homes built without permits, even as the government pursues plans to build 30 new Jewish communities in the southern Negev area and Galilee. According to Arab leaders and Jewish activists, Arabs are forced to build illegally since, unlike in Jewish areas, the state generally never devised or approved plans that would enable legal building.

• A budget cut last month reducing Arab child allowances compared with those of Jews, in effect reversing a reform by Yitzhak Rabin that equalized them during the early 1990's.

• A recent law, officially described as a security measure, which proscribes Palestinian spouses of Arab citizens from living in Israel, potentially impacting thousands of families. Unless the public and government attitude changes "this country is doomed to chaos," says Dichter. "Countries which don't conduct civic equality among citizens are doomed to internal turbulence. We have here a time bomb and the clock is ticking and October 2000 was just the beginning."

Moshe Arens, a Likud legislator, says gaps in government allocations is only a part of the problem.

"In the last decade we've seen a radicalization of some of Israel's Arab population that expresses itself in vociferous and violent verbal attacks against the Israeli government, be it expression of support for suicide bombings, for the Hizbullah, or lauding [Syrian] President [Bashar] Assad," he says. "In any country, such behavior by citizens would be considered outrageous. I do not believe theses voices are a majority, but the rest are silent and this creates the impression among the Jewish public that the entire population is subversive."

Mr. Arens believes what is needed is for the "silent majority to "speak up more and more and make clear these voices do not speak for them."

In Israel's 55-year history there have only been four other major state-ordered inquiries: a 1974 investigation into the 1973 mideast war, the 1983 commission into the massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Lebanon, an inquiry into the 1994 killing of 29 Palestinian worshipers by a Jewish extremist at holy site in Hebron, and an investigation into the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The commission's recommendations are not legally binding.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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