The trials of two police officers in Israel-Palestine and the U.S. collapsed within hours of each other on Monday. Both cases prove how difficult it is to secure justice for Palestinian and African-American victims of state violence.
On May 15, 2014, three Palestinian teenagers were shot by Israeli security forces with live ammunition as they attended a Nakba Day protest in the West Bank town of Beitunia. Nadim Nawara, 17, and Muhammed Abu al-Thahir, 16, were both killed. Fifteen-year-old Muhammed Azzeh survived, despite having been shot in the lung.
Just under a year later, over 6,000 miles away, a police officer in South Carolina shot Walter Scott, a 50-year-old African-American, in the back five times as Scott was running away from a traffic stop, killing him.
All four shootings were caught on camera, the gold standard for evidence of a crime. They were among the most clear-cut of the countless uses of lethal force by security forces in Israel-Palestine and the United States that have taken place over the last few years. But as so many bereaved families know, justice is thin on the ground when the victim is a member of a minority, and the perpetrator a man in uniform.
Of the three shootings that occurred in Beitunia, only one — that of Nawara — came to trial. Border Police officer Ben Deri was arrested six months after the event on suspicion of murder, with the charge reduced to manslaughter by the time his trial began. Michael Slager, the North Charleston police officer who shot Scott, was arrested shortly after the incident and went on trial for murder last month.
Both men protested their innocence over the killings: Ben Deri repeatedly insisted that no live bullets had come from his gun and that he had only shot rubber-coated rounds, a claim that was disproved by forensic evidence. (I was present at the demonstration when Azzeh was shot, and it was clear to all that we were witnessing the use of live ammunition.) Slager, meanwhile, claimed that Scott had tried to grab his Taser and that he was in fear for his life. His version of events was entirely debunked by the video footage that emerged almost immediately after the incident, showing that Slager did not appear in any danger when he unloaded five bullets into the fleeing, unarmed Scott’s back.
Why am I writing about these two stories in tandem? It is true, after all, that there are major differences between the situation of Palestinians — in Israel and in the occupied territories — and African-Americans in the U.S. But both communities face disproportionate levels of state violence, and immense barriers to legal recourse when they are the victims of such brutality: institutionalized racism, the impunity of security forces, and a criminal justice system that is stacked hopelessly against them. Both the cases under discussion displayed these characteristics in abundance. And on Monday, within hours of each other, hopes of achieving justice for either Nawara or Scott were dealt an almighty blow.
First came the news that Deri, the Israeli officer, was likely to benefit from a plea bargain that would reduce the charge against him even further, from manslaughter to causing death by criminal negligence. Even if he is convicted of this crime, the likelihood of his serving jail time has plummeted. According to details of the bargain reported in the Israeli media, the new rap sheet will say that although Deri did indeed fire a live round from his gun, the bullet somehow “poked” its way into the magazine, thereby removing the criminal intent aspect. One may have to go back to the shooting of JFK to find a bullet that acted so willfully of its own accord.
As for Slager, it was announced Monday that the case had ended in a mistrial after the jury, comprised of 11 white jurors and one black juror, was unable to reach a verdict. Leaving aside the shadow of how it is still possible to “stack” U.S. juries with white people, it is striking how 12 individuals were not able to agree on the content of footage that comes as near to documentation of an extrajudicial execution as one is ever likely to see.
As exceptional as both these cases seem, however, the depressing truth is that they are merely the latest in a stream of similar miscarriages of justice in both countries. Whether it’s Mohammed Sunuqrut, Sami al-Ja’ar, Kheir Hamdan, or Nadim Nawara in Israel-Palestine, or Michael Brown, David Latham, Tamir Rice, or Walter Scott in the U.S., both legal systems have proven time and again that they are incapable of holding security forces to account for their trigger-happy behavior. Lack of evidence is frequently cited as the reason that prosecutors failed to secure a conviction, yet even when a killing has been caught on camera and the video presented at trial, those responsible for reaching a verdict cannot bring themselves to see that justice is done for the death of a member of a minority.
For all the hate crimes, social inequalities and ghettoization we see in the U.S. and Israel-Palestine, there may be no greater example of the innate racism of both societies than how little value the lives of non-whites — whether black, Arab, or any other racial minority — have before the law. Racial inequality, it seems, persists in death as much as it does in life.