The police brutality haunting Tel Aviv’s ‘backyard’

The shooting death of a young Palestinian man exposes simmering fault lines in Jaffa, where rapid gentrification has left much of the population blind to the world of police violence and intimidation in which their neighbors live.

For nearly an entire week in early August, it felt as if Jaffa was teetering on the edge. Enraged over the shooting death of 22-year-old Mahdi Sa’adi at the hands of an Israeli police officer, hundreds of Arab youth hit the streets for several days of spontaneous demonstrations on one of the ancient port city’s main thoroughfares.

Mainstream media ran a story most Israelis have become desensitized to, portraying the youth as Arab rioters burning trashcans, smashing car and storefront windows, blocking roads, and throwing stones at security forces.

The killing catalyzed the city’s youth — most of them from its poorest neighborhoods — to protest years of firsthand police brutality and a growing sense of disillusionment over any potential for change. The headlines missed the real story: the Arab residents of Jaffa saw Mahdi’s death not as a random killing resulting in a confrontation gone wrong — they saw it as murder.

Mahdi Sa’adi was killed in the early hours of July 30 when police were called to respond to a shooting an incident on Yefet Street, in the heart of Jaffa’s mostly-Palestinian Ajami neighborhood. Sa’adi and a friend, Suleiman, were reportedly driving on a motorcycle in the area. Suspecting that the two were somehow involved in the shooting, police attempted to apprehend them. A chase ensued. Mahdi was reportedly shot between four and six times in his upper body on one of Jaffa’s backstreets, not far from Army Radio station. A single bullet hit Suleiman, severely wounding him.

At around noon the following day, a few dozen Arab youth gathered around Haj Kahil Square and began burning tires and throwing stones at police, sounding the opening salvo of a week-long standoff between a small group of protesters and large numbers of riot police stationed along Yefet Street, which was immediately sealed off.

Yefet Street, in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, is shut down by local youth a day after police shot Mahdi Sa’adi to death in the city, July 29, 2017. (Oren Ziv/
Yefet Street, in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, is shut down by local youth a day after police shot Mahdi Sa’adi to death in the city, July 29, 2017. (Oren Ziv/

“What happened that day was extraordinary,” recalls Abed Abu Shehada, a local activist and a member of Jaffa’s Islamic Council. “We haven’t seen young people take to the streets spontaneously since the first days of the Second Intifada in 2000. To do so requires a certain political culture that I didn’t even know existed.”

Minor clashes continued throughout the day and into the night. News outlets sent out spurts of push notifications, effectually tying the confrontations to clashes at the Temple Mount that had broken out a week prior. For the average Israeli, the headlines only reaffirmed long-held stereotypes about violent Arabs. Local residents reported that Jaffa’s more touristic areas, including its usually teeming commercial centers, were for the most part empty.

Abu Shehada, a well-known activist who was on the frontlines of the first protest, was arrested along with seven other young men after being singled out by Jaffa’s police district commander. He spent the night in jail for alleged illegal assembly and was released on the condition that he stay away from Jaffa, where he lives, for nearly a week. Over the course of the following days, police arrested at least 30 others whom they claimed participated in the “riots” that took place after Mahdi’s death. For Abu Shehada, the clashes were the logical conclusion of a reality personally known by nearly every young Arab man and boy in the city.

“To understand what happened in Jaffa, you need to understand the relations between the police and the Arab public,” he says. “This did not begin with Mahdi’s shooting. In the eyes of the police, every Arab is either a criminal or a potential criminal. More than that, at the very highest level of the establishment, we are viewed as part of the Palestinian people — that’s why they treat us this way. That’s a central reason for what we’re seeing happen in Jaffa.” (Many Palestinian citizens of Israel use the terms Arab and Palestinian interchangeably to describe themselves and their identity.)

Clashes continued into Sunday night, when Mahdi’s body was laid to rest.

Despite claims by Israeli officials that external forces, such as the Islamic Movement, were inciting young Jaffa residents to violence, a closer look at what happened that week tells a different story. Mahdi’s father, Jamal Sa’adi, repeatedly beseeched the youth to refrain from violence, while head of the outlawed Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, who delivered a sermon at the mourner’s tent, denied all accusations he or his movement were driving young men into the street.

This was certainly not the first time tensions in Jaffa had risen to a fever pitch in recent years. In the summer of 2014, as war raged in the Gaza Strip, police set up makeshift checkpoints across numerous entry points into the city, in an attempt to create a buffer between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators protesting on opposite ends of the city. In the years prior, ultra-nationalist settler groups had staged large marches in the city aimed at provoking the local Arab population.

From military government to militarized police

Jewish workers demolish homes in Jaffa following the 1948 battle that cleared the city almost all its Palestinian residents, October 6, 1949. (Fritz Cohen/GPO)
Jewish workers demolish homes in Jaffa following the 1948 battle that cleared the city almost all its Palestinian residents, October 6, 1949. (Fritz Cohen/GPO) “Arabs who remained after the war, the most impoverished of the city’s residents, were placed under the auspices of a military government and hounded into Ajami, which was promptly enclosed by a barbed wire fence and labeled ‘The Ghetto’.”

Jaffa is considered one of the oldest cities in the world, and before the establishment of the State of Israel it was also a hub of cultural and political activity in Palestine. According to the 1947 Partition Plan, the city was slated to be an Arab enclave in the heart of the future Jewish state. During the height of the 1948 War, however, Zionist militias captured Jaffa following massive bombardment on three sides. Approximately 120,000 people fled the city in 1948. By the time a ceasefire was declared a year later, only around 4,000 Palestinians remained.

Arabs who remained after the war, the most impoverished of the city’s residents, were placed under the auspices of a military government and hounded into Ajami, which was promptly enclosed by a barbed wire fence and labeled “The Ghetto.” Jaffa, or whatever was left of it, was annexed to Tel Aviv, then just barely four decades old. The moment proved to be a pivotal one, says Daniel Monterescu, an associate professor of urban anthropology at Budapest’s Central European University, and the author of the recent book, Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived Coexistence in Israel/Palestine. “Once Jaffa’s Palestinians were forced from their homes into the Ghetto, they were deemed a security threat to the new regime. That attitude has remained consistent since 1948.”

Overnight, Jaffa became one of a small number of “mixed cities” — former urban centers of Palestine that were transformed into Jewish cities during the first years of statehood. Today 10 percent of Israel’s Palestinians, approximately 130,000 people, lives in mixed towns, where they are always a minority.

Early Israeli leaders, says Monterescu, were keen on ensuring separation between Palestinians and the new Jewish immigrants. The allure of Jaffa’s “authenticity” had been enough to convince Israel’s leaders to annex Jaffa, yet they continued to treat it as Tel Aviv’s backyard. Segregation and systematic impoverishment, as in most Arab or mixed cities, was created by design, and would continue to affect Jaffa for decades to come.

Prior to 1948, Jaffa was a cosmopolitan city rife with political activity. Following the war, “Bride of the Sea,” as Palestinians call it, became a relatively muted. Far less politically inclined than the Arab cities and towns of the Galilee in northern Israel, the activists and dissidents of Jaffa nevertheless remained under close surveillance of both the police and the Shin Bet, which often resorted to torture and arbitrary imprisonment. But if in the early years of the state Jaffa had to contend with a shadowy security apparatus, today its residents are forced to confront a police force that, more and more, looks and acts like the Israeli army in the West Bank.

“What we are seeing today is a militarization of the police in Jaffa,” Monterescu says. “There is a reason Border [Police] and riot police are such a common sight in the city. The trend toward the militarization of the police means that the tactics we see being used against Palestinians in the West Bank are making their way into Jaffa. This creates a dynamic in which the very presence of a militarized police force on the streets leads to violence.”

‘This isn’t something that began with Mahdi’s death’

Israeli riot police are seen patrolling in Jaffa a day after an officer shot Mahdi Sa’adi to death in the city, July 29, 2017. (Flash90)
Israeli riot police are seen patrolling in Jaffa a day after an officer shot Mahdi Sa’adi to death in the city, July 29, 2017. “The trend toward the militarization of the police means that the tactics we see being used against Palestinians in the West Bank are making their way into Jaffa.” (Flash90)

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice published a scathing report on the conduct of the Baltimore Police Department, following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, from spinal injuries suffered while in police custody. Gray’s death triggered rioting in the city, and was one of several high-profile killings of unarmed black men by police across the country.

The DOJ report evinced a deeply engrained racism among Baltimore police, who repeatedly violated the civil rights of the people it was sworn to protect. It stands to reason that a similar report written about the conduct of Israel’s police force would not look all-too different, argues Professor Guy Ben Porat, who teaches at Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Public Policy and Administration, where he focuses on relations between the police and minorities. “The claims of minorities against police are grounded in reality, and the violence Arab citizens face by police is disproportionate when compared to Jewish ones.”

As opposed to more homogeneous communities living in remote villages, says Ben Porat, residents in mixed cities can see the stark difference in policing methods with their own eyes. “The police lack the trust of nearly all groups in our society,” he says. “But each group mistrusts the police for its own reasons. The interesting question is why.”

Minorities, he says, can suffer from over-policing, under-policing, or a combination of the two. But as opposed to Ethiopian Israelis, a “visible minority” subject to over-policing and surveillance, studies show that Arab citizens, both in Arab-only communities as well as mixed cities, suffer from under-policing — one of the main factors that lead to higher rates of violence. “The Arab residents of Jaffa want an effective police force that serves the population — not one driven by racism and discrimination,” Ben Porat argues.

The story in Jaffa, then, is slightly more complex. Elderly women and men, for instance, are at less risk of facing police violence, and local police have long tried to enlist Arabs as volunteers, albeit mostly unsuccessfully. But among the residents of Jaffa is a high-risk substratum subject to a brutal, years-long form of over-policing: young Arab men.

Noa Levy, an attorney with the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel who is handling Mahdi’s case, describes the relations between Jaffa’s Arab youth and the police as in dire straits. “This is not something that began with Mahdi’s death,” she says. “The police are especially violent toward young people. Just yesterday a mother got in touch with me because her son was assaulted after he talked back to a police officer. Mahdi’s brother, Ahmad, had his arm broken by the police a few years ago. This is daily violence that young people face.”

Making things complicated, Arab society is demanding that authorities deal more effectively with the crime plaguing their communities. With mixed reception, police have increased their presence in Arab communities, opening new police stations in Arab and mixed cities, including Jaffa. “These are citizens who are entitled to protection,” Levy adds. “But what kind of protection are we talking about? If the police are a tool of oppression that sows fear among the population, then we have missed the point entirely.”

Despite the government’s stated good will, police violence does not seem to have abated in Arab cities. This, Levy believes, is a result of a botched implementation of these new initiatives, since the police, especially since the bloody days of October 2000, never truly changed their attitudes toward the population they are meant to serve.

De facto impunity for killing Arabs

Demonstrations by Palestinian citizens of Israel in early October 2000. Photo courtesy of Adalah.
Demonstrations by Palestinian citizens of Israel in early October 2000. Photo courtesy of Adalah.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens look back on the events of October 2000 as a watershed moment in relations between the police and the Arab community. Over the course of several days, tens of thousands of Arabs took to the streets across the country, partly in response to police violence within Israel, partly in solidarity with the intifada swelling in the occupied territories. Israeli police killed 13 people during those largely nonviolent demonstrations — 12 of them were Palestinian citizens of Israel. Following intense public pressure, the government established an official commission of inquiry, led by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or.

Released in 2003, the Or Commission’s report became a landmark document for both its criticism of the police’s conduct, as well as for acknowledging the historical discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel. The commission found that there was no justification for firing live or rubber bullets at the demonstrations.

The Israeli authorities, however, refused to heed the findings. In September 2005, the Israeli police’s internal affairs department announced it would not indict any of the officers or their commanders, and two years later, the attorney general closed the investigations into the killings. Since October 2000, Israeli police have killed over 60 Arab citizens.

Israelis — both Arab and Jewish — seeking redress for abuse suffered at the hands of police should probably temper their optimism. According to Justice Ministry statistics obtained by Adalah, 11,282 internal affairs complaints were filed between 2011 and 2013. Ninety-three percent of the complaints were closed with or without investigation; 72 percent were closed citing lack of public interest, lack of guilt, or lack of evidence.

Only 3.3 percent of the cases (373 complaints) led to disciplinary actions against police officers, while a mere 2.7 percent (303 files) led to prosecutions. Police impunity, then, is a central factor that shapes the state’s use of violence against Israeli citizens — particularly against its Palestinian citizens.

“Shooting to kill has become a matter of policy for Israeli officers when it comes to Palestinian citizens,” says Fady Khoury, an attorney for Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “[Internal Affairs] hardly ventures beyond the incident reports submitted by officers involved. This results in closing most investigations, and in granting de facto impunity to police officers who have no regard for Palestinian lives.”

No respite

On Thursday, August 3rd, just six days after Mahdi’s death, when calm had seemingly returned to the streets of Ajami, the long arm of the Israeli police struck the Sa’adi family once again. Na’ame, Mahdi’s 24-year-old sister was walking on Yefet Street toward Abu Hilweh’s butchery while wearing a T-shirt with a photo print of her deceased brother’s face when she ran into a group of four police officers. One of them allegedly taunted her, she told +972 Magazine, calling her the “the one we got rid of’s sister” and offered to teach her “what it’s like to be with a real man” while grabbing his crotch. Na’ame began yelling at the officer.

Ahmed, who was in a nearby hair salon owned by one of his friends, heard what was going on and ran outside toward the crowd that had began gathering. Ahmed, Na’ame says, went straight up to the offending officer, and another cop pulled out his taser gun. Na’ame says she pushed her brother out of the way, yelling at the officer to shoot her instead. The conflagration died down, and the crowd began dispersing. Na’ame drove off with her mother, who was waiting nearby, while Ahmed returned to the hair salon.

Minutes later, the officers, this time with reinforcements, pulled Ahmed out of the salon and began beating him mercilessly with fists and nightsticks. A passerby caught the incident, as well as images of Ahmed’s bloodied face, on camera. Both immediately went viral, lighting up an already anxious community already on edge on police activity in the neighborhood. In addition to their demands for an investigation into Mahdi’s killing, the family filed a second complaint with Internal Affairs over Ahmad’s beating.

This was far from the first time Ahmed had encountered the violence of Jaffa’s police. Two years earlier, he had been accosted, beaten and had his arm broken by a police officer on a beach, he says. A year later he was roughed up by police officers convinced that he had been carrying a knife in his backpack.

After only a few brief days of respite, Ahmed’s beating, which left him hospitalized, reignited a simmering anger in Jaffa that clearly had not been fully exhausted. As the images spread on social media and local Palestinian news outlets, pressure for another protest grew. The Sa’adi family called for a demonstration to be held that night at 8 p.m., with Jamal insisting that both Arabs and Jews be welcome — and most importantly that it remain calm and nonviolent. After all, he said, some of those arrested throughout the week were still in detention, and he didn’t want any more young men behind bars.

At 8 p.m. sharp, around 200 demonstrators began marching from the family home in Jaffa’s Shikunei Hisachon neighborhood toward the Tel Aviv police headquarters, just over a mile away, to demand the arrested youth be released. Keeping the peace, especially as the rage of an entire neighborhood continued to simmer beneath the surface, was of top priority. Dozens of Border Police and riot police were at the ready, standing off to the side as the demonstrators marched on, yet refrained from using force. Despite Jamal’s request, hardly any Jewish Israelis showed up.

At one point the march stopped at a park where local activists delivered speeches against police violence. A small group of young demonstrators broke away from the crowd to meet the police head on. They threw stones, smashed car windows and bus stops, set fire to trashcans, and blocked roads; police responded with stun grenades and water cannons, and arrested two demonstrators. Since then, quiet returned to the streets of Jaffa, a sign that perhaps that the leaders of the protest are anxious to keep the peace. The rage of the city’s Arab youth, however, is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.

‘Arabs face the brunt of the violence’

Jewish Israelis sit at a popular bar in Jaffa’s rapidly gentrifying flea market area. ‘People simply do not know what is happening to their neighbors. They live in completely different worlds.’ (Flash90)
Jewish Israelis sit at a popular bar in Jaffa’s rapidly gentrifying flea market area. ‘People simply do not know what is happening to their neighbors. They live in completely different worlds.’ (Flash90)

Hagar Shezaf, a Haaretz journalist who has spent most of her life in Jaffa and reports on racial and ethnic profiling in Israel-Palestine, says that despite the conflagration, life for many in Jaffa has continued unperturbed. “The sense is that as more and more Jews move to Jaffa the police feel the need to increase their presence there to ensure their safety. And yet people simply do not know what is happening to their neighbors. They live in completely different worlds.”

“There is an undeniable reality for Arabs here,” she continues, “and yet there is an entire group of people living in this city that truly has no idea this is happening. The feeling of polarization — that something could blow up at any second — that’s not any easy feeling to walk around with.”

While it might be tempting to view the demonstrations as a harbinger of a larger protest movement, Shezaf warns against romanticizing the demonstrations as part of the wider Palestinian struggle. Instead, she suggests, Mahdi’s death should be seen as the result of a long series of abuses against the city’s residents. “The problem goes beyond issues like the occupation. Arabs living anywhere in this country are subject to profiling, and the result of these policies is that young people here experience police violence first-hand. That is what’s bringing them out the street — they know exactly what it feels like.”

“Our struggle is similar to that of Black Lives Matter,” says Abu Shehada. “Yes, police brutality certainly affects other groups in our society such as Ethiopians and Mizrahim. But Arabs face the brunt of the violence due to our national and political affiliation. In that sense, it is different than what blacks face in America. Here we are viewed as an enemy by the state primarily because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long as the conflict remains unresolved, police violence against us will only worsen.”

As opposed to voices that call for the police to completely disappear from the streets of Jaffa, Abu Shehada takes a more nuanced approach. “Our community needs better education, better health and social services — not more policing. You want to eradicate crime? Good. First understand that the police are only a part of the larger puzzle.”

Jaffa has gone back to normal in the weeks since, with a small, lone protest against police violence held this past week. The Sa’adi family, meanwhile, is still struggling to put the incomplete pieces of their life back together. “What is left to say?” Na’ame says, barely able to keep eye contact. “Everything has already been said. We are devastated. We are broken.”

[Top photo by Yaakov Lederman/Flash90]