In a surprise campaign on Monday, Israeli authorities launched “Operation Law and Order,” in which thousands of national police officers, Border Police members, and army reservists arrested hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel accused of participating in this month’s mass wave of protests.
In their announcement to the press, the Israeli police claimed that they were looking for “the rioters, the criminals, and everyone who was involved in the events, in order to prosecute them” and to “settle the score” with those who took part. In the two weeks prior, the police had already arrested more than 1,550 people and filed about 150 indictments, some against more than one defendant.
The High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, an umbrella organization that is regarded as the national representative of the community, held a press conference Tuesday morning in Haifa to address the operation. According to the committee, between 80 to 90 percent of the offenses that were listed as reasons for the arrests were for insulting a police officer, disturbing an officer in the line of duty, assaulting an officer, or taking part in illegal gathering, rather than property damage, stone throwing, or assaults on civilians.
The Palestinian leadership in Israel claimed that this is the most widespread wave of political arrests in decades — even more so than during the infamous events of October 2000, when police violently repressed mass demonstrations led by Palestinian citizens at the start of the Second Intifada, killing 13 and wounding hundreds. The committee emphasized that the purpose of the current operation is to oppress and punish Palestinian citizens for daring to protest Israel’s oppressive policies in Gaza, Sheikh Jarrah, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and so-called “mixed cities.”
The committee’s chairman, Mohammad Barakeh, described the operation as a “campaign of intimidation and terror against the Arab public to exclude it and justify the repression and persecution” against it. Barakeh noted that the 2003 Or Commission, which criticized the police’s conduct in October 2000, clearly stated that the police were treating Palestinian citizens as an enemy — yet since then, “there has been no change.”
During the press conference, Atty. Hassan Jabareen, who heads the Haifa-based Palestinian legal center Adalah, read aloud a police statement on the operation, which declared that “some of the goals [of the operation] are returning deterrence and increased governance in designated places in the State of Israel.” Such arrests, Jabareen argued, are clearly illegal: “Criminal procedure does not allow you to arrest a person for the purpose of deterrence.”
Punishing Palestinian protest
The decision to launch such a large-scale operation, in which most of the detainees were allegedly arrested over suspected crimes unrelated to property or physical assault, contradicts what a senior Israeli police officer told +972 at the height of the violence in Lydd 10 days ago.
According to the officer, the police set themselves the goal of arresting anyone who committed serious offenses such as arson, attempted lynching, or using live fire. “A 15-year-old boy who threw some stones is not a police target. It is better to meet him at one of the welfare programs sometime in the future. There is no need to punish him,” the officer told me.
However, it seems that the top political brass, and particularly Public Security Minister Amir Ohana — who has repeatedly claimed that the riots were one-sided, committed by Arabs against Jews — have a different idea of how to deal with the violence. In fact, it now appears that the operation is part of a wider attempt to restore pride and confidence in the police force, which according to sources in the police itself, was not at all prepared for the scale of the Palestinian uprising. Their first method, therefore, is to “punish” the Palestinians who participated in the protests.
In Lydd and elsewhere — despite the claims of the authorities and the Israeli media — it was the police that began violently suppressing Palestinian civilians at protests, just as it did in Sheikh Jarrah and Damascus Gate in Jerusalem last month. This brutal repression stoked some violent demonstrations by Palestinians, which led to property damage, arson attacks, stone throwing, and physical harm to Jewish civilians. The fact that police arrested over 1,500 Palestinians before its latest operation strongly indicates that the new round of arrests is intended first and foremost for political purposes.
According to Jabareen from Adalah, between 30 to 40 percent of the detainees required medical treatment following their arrest. He said that the state prosecution is appealing any decision by judges to release the detainees — even if the chances of them successfully appealing are low — in order to keep people in custody. He added that the police have even been requesting that those arrested for minor offenses remain in custody until the end of legal proceedings.
Jabareen also said that the involvement of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, into the investigation of the recent violence is illegal. “Most of the offenses are civil ones, not security based,” he explained. “The Shin Bet’s intervention is used to frighten and deter Arabs rather than dealing with the things that are allowed by law.”
While Palestinian citizens face mass arrests, one cannot help but notice the leniency with which the Israeli authorities have treated the hundreds of Israeli Jews who took part in the violence this month. For example, police arrested only four of the participants in a lynching of Palestinian driver in the city of Bat Yam — which was captured live on Israeli television — even after the newspaper Haaretz was able to locate around 20 of them.
In Lydd, I documented armed Jews throwing stones at Palestinian citizens while police officers looked on, as well as other incidents in which police turned a blind eye to Jewish violence. The religious settlers who shot and killed Musa Hassuna in Lydd, which spurred the riots in the city, were released on bail last week. It is impossible to imagine that a Palestinian who opened fire on a Jewish Israeli woulwd receive the same treatment.
According to Jabareen, only nine percent of the indictments filed so far are against Jewish Israelis. While Jews were summoned for interrogation and later released on suspicion of incitement to violence, Jabareen said that only Palestinians were actually arrested for incitement.
The most notable case is that of Sheikh Kamal Khatib, the deputy leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, who Jabareen says has been in custody for 12 days over incitement. “There is no detainee in the State of Israel who has been detained for such a long time [on suspicion of such an offense],” said Jabareen. “Jews were interrogated for incitement to violence after making explicit calls to kill Arabs, yet they were not arrested following their interrogation.”
The State Attorney’s Office argued in response that “the claim that the office discriminates against suspects or defendants due to their origin is unfounded, and considers riots and harm to members of the security forces to be very serious, and believes that the cause of danger in such a period does not, as a rule, allow for alternatives to detention. Therefore, the prosecution filed appeals for release from detention. As stated, this policy applies to all rioters, Jews and Arabs alike, and any other claim is unfounded. Now, with the decrease in riots, this policy is being re-examined.”
Living in a pressure cooker
The police statement on the operation explicitly states that, as part of its campaign, officers will conduct searches for illegal weapons and arrest those “belonging to criminal organizations” — referring to the organized crime syndicates that operate in Arab towns, and which have long been a major social and political concern for Palestinian citizens.
The statement, however, only reinforces the criticisms leveled by Palestinian citizens for years: as long as illegal weapons in the Arab community were directed solely against Arabs, the police would do nothing to stop the violence they produced. But now, after a small number of Palestinians opened fire at Jewish police officers and right wingers, the police are suddenly in a hurry to act.
The confiscation of illegal weapons took place following the gun murders of three residents of the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, where activists have led a massive grassroots campaign against gun violence for months.
Based on past experience, though, the chances that the perpetrators of these murders will be caught are very slim. “In a week’s time, when they end this unbearable wave of arrests, and after they say ‘We showed them,’ [the cops] will disappear, and we will be left with a dysfunctional police force,” said Mudar Yunis, who chairs the National Committee of Arab Local Authorities, at the press conference.
The large-scale arrest operation was orchestrated by the police as the situation in Jerusalem and in “mixed cities” began to calm down. At the press conference, Barakeh claimed that the Israeli government is now consciously trying to escalate the situation with the aim of “bringing about another round of confrontation.”
The police are evidently redirecting the resources at their disposal in order to show who is really in charge. As such, the current operation is not about restoring “peace.” Peace in Lydd, for example, was only achieved after the police belatedly realized that right-wing Jewish activists, many of whom came from West Bank settlements, needed to be forced out of the city, and only after offices began speaking directly to the Palestinian residents there.
Of the many young Palestinians I have spoken to these past two weeks who have taken to the streets of Lydd, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and elsewhere, some have indeed resorted to forms of violence against property, police, and civilians. They described living in a bursting pressure cooker; the daily brutality and harassment by the Israeli police, long before the recent wave of protests ever began, was one of the biggest reasons for their rage. Many of these young Palestinians have already been arrested over the last two weeks — and no police operation is likely to “deter” people who feel they have almost nothing to lose.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.