“My Son was executed by the Israeli Police”

Families are angered by the promotion of Israeli officer accused of killing protesters to post of national police chief

Fifteen years after Israeli police shot her 19-year-old son Ahmed in the eye, killing him instantly, Hadiya Jabareen has yet to lay his ghost to rest.

Instead, the mother of six has watched Bentzi Sau, the commander who oversaw the police operation in which Ahmed and 12 other demonstrators died, rise rapidly through the ranks.

His success has come despite a judicial-led inquiry into the killings in 2000 that harshly criticised Sau and recommended that he be barred from promotion for at least four years.

The inquiry found he had used – for the first time inside Israel – an anti-terror sniper unit, directing live fire at demonstrators belonging to Israel’s large Palestinian minority who posed no threat to his officers.

Jabareen, aged 54, said Sau’s career triumphs have been a bitter pill to swallow. This month she suffered a further indignity when the Israeli cabinet approved Sau’s appointment as acting police commissioner, making him the highest-ranking police officer in the country.

“Sau’s promotion is like seeing my son killed all over again,” she told Al Jazeera. “He was executed by the police and there has been no justice since, only continuing insults like this one to the families.”

Use of snipers

Sau is now the leading contender for the permanent post, which must be filled by September.

That will be just weeks before commemorations mark 15 years since the October 2000 protests, which erupted across the Galilee region in solidarity with the second Intifada – then raging close by in the occupied Palestinian territories.

An official inquiry, led by a supreme court justice, Theodor Or, concluded in September 2003 that Sau had ignored directives from his superiors and taken a contingent into the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm to quell protests there. At the time, he had been the northern commander of the Border Police, a paramilitary force that operates in Israel and the occupied territories.

Sau, the inquiry found, had no understanding of the police’s open-fire regulations, ordering his officers to shoot live ammunition and rubber bullets at demonstrators who threw stones. The Or Commission was shocked by police testimony revealing that Sau had overseen the use of snipers, personally directing their fire.

It noted an incident in which three sharpshooters fired on one stone-thrower. “There was no justification for shooting this way,” the inquiry members stated.

Sau’s appointment has angered the hundreds of families in Israel whose loved ones were killed or seriously injured, as well as the Palestinian minority’s leadership.

Place ‘behind bars’

All 13 members of the Israeli parliament from the Joint List, a Palestinian party, signed a letter of protest this month urging Gilad Erdan, the public security minister, and the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, to cancel Sau’s appointment.

“The correct place for Sau is behind bars,” they wrote. “It is impossible for Sau to enjoy the cooperation of the Arab community or its leadership… He should not be placed in charge of our community’s wellbeing.”

The public security ministry was unavailable for comment.

Adalah, a legal centre for Palestinians living in Israel, investigated the October 2000 events, and issued a statement saying that “Sau holds the lowest level of confidence among the Arab public”.

An Adalah spokesman, Majd Kayyal, added: “This decision sends a very ugly message. It tells other police officers that not only will it not harm your career to commit crimes against Arabs, but it can take you to the very top.”

But Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said: “It is a shame that Israeli Arab residents feel that way about Bentzi Sau’s appointment. It has been approved and cleared at all levels, and he has the support of the government.”

In its report published in 2003, the Or Commission concluded that the police were driven by an institutional approach that treated Palestinian citizens as “an enemy”.

Despite recommendations from Justice Or that several officers be put on trial over the 13 deaths, state prosecutors waited five more years before announcing they would not issue any indictments.

More than a decade after Or’s findings, said Kayyal, attitudes were unchanged in the government and security services.

Shot in the back

Sau’s promotion follows a justice ministry decision in May not to charge any of the officers involved in the killing late last year of Kheir Hamdan, a 22-year-old resident of Kafr Kana, near Nazareth.

Hamdan is one of 50 Palestinian citizens who have died in suspicious circumstances at the hands of the police since the October 2000 events, said Jafar Farah, director of Mossawa, an advocacy group for the Palestinian minority.

Hamdan’s death sparked particular outrage because a video showed that the police had shot him in the back as he was fleeing from them and then dragged him into their van rather than calling an ambulance.

“The problem lies not just with the police,” said Farah. “The police can act with immunity because they know they have protection from the wider security system, from the government and from the legal authorities.”

Farah added that only one policeman had been jailed for killing a Palestinian citizen since 2000. Shahar Mizrahi was jailed for 30 months in 2010 for shooting dead an unarmed car theft suspect.

Mass arrest of children

The police have also been sharply criticised in the past for abusing their powers by arresting Palestinian citizens at demonstrations.

A recent study found that police had arrested seven times more Arabs than Jews for “illegal assembly” last year, many of them for protesting against Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer.

Hundreds of Palestinian children in Israel were arrested by police following those protests, in night-time raids on their homes that echoed the treatment of Palestinian children in the occupied territories.

Despite more than 11,000 complaints against the police in the three years to 2014, many of them from Palestinian citizens, more than 93 percent were either not investigated or closed without action.

A freedom of information request by Adalah revealed that in most cases when police officers were found to have used excessive force – a criminal offence in Israel – the investigation was closed without legal action.

“Every day the security forces are killing Palestinians in the occupied territories. Why would we imagine that such violence, and the mentality behind it, does not find its way into Israel too?” asked Farah.

“The standards that apply against Palestinians there [in occupied territories] apply to us [Palestinian citizens of Israel] as well.”

• Article first published in Al Jazeera

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.