Home / World News / An Autistic Man Is Killed, Exposing Israel’s Festering Police Brutality Problem

An Autistic Man Is Killed, Exposing Israel’s Festering Police Brutality Problem

JERUSALEM — The school for the mentally disabled in Jerusalem’s Old City made a point of preparing its Palestinian students for interactions with the Israeli police.

There were frequent role-playing exercises, sometimes with real officers from a nearby police post playing themselves: How to say hello. How to present an ID. How to not be afraid.

Iyad al-Hallaq, a 31-year-old with autism, was a star pupil. But early on a Saturday, those lessons failed him. When police officers called out to him along the ancient Via Dolorosa, he took flight. He was quickly cornered, and a rookie officer, apparently sensing a threat, shot and killed him.

The May 30 shooting was so disturbing — Mr. al-Hallaq was unarmed, those who knew him called him harmless, and witnesses said his teacher had shouted at the officers that he was disabled — that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a tragedy and Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued an apology.

Hoping to ignite a “Palestinian Lives Matter” movement, activists tried to link Mr. al-Hallaq’s killing to that of George Floyd in Minneapolis five days earlier, turning his name into a rallying cry. Since then, outrage over police brutality has grown after police officers and commanders were videotaped pummeling and choking anti-government protesters.

Prosecutors have recommended that the officer who shot Mr. al-Hallaq be charged with manslaughter but a conviction would be as exceptional as the killing was shocking. More likely, experts say, the outrage will dissipate, the prosecution will fizzle and little will change. The officer has not yet been formally charged.

But Israel’s problem with police brutality is not going away. Since at least the 1970s, efforts to rein in violent officers and impose accountability for their actions have repeatedly failed. The result is a system that often lets officers off the hook for all but the most damning and public excesses, and sometimes even for those.

The vast majority of complaints of police violence — 86 percent in the most recent year for which statistics are available — are never investigated, according to Justice Ministry records. Those that are almost never lead to criminal charges or even disciplinary action.

Critics say a culture of impunity pervades the police force, particularly in cases with minority victims. Ethiopian-Israelis, ultra-Orthodox Jews and left-wing activists are disproportionately victimized, critics say, while Palestinians receive the roughest treatment.

Lethal force, while rare, is wielded almost exclusively against Arabs and other minorities: Of 13 people known to have been killed by the police last year, 11 were Palestinians and two were of Ethiopian descent.

“Police officers know that there’s no accountability, so they’re more careless when it comes to certain populations,” said Fady Khoury, a Palestinian human rights lawyer.

Deadly errors, like the one that killed Mr. al-Hallaq, are often ascribed to inexperience. The least experienced officers, teenage draftees fulfilling their military obligations in the border police, are routinely assigned to the most volatile hot spots, like Jerusalem’s Old City.

Police officials insist that they do not tolerate brutality in the ranks.

“I don’t know any commander who wants a violent officer in his unit,” said Chief Superintendent Arad Braverman, who commands a 150-officer detachment of border police in the Old City. “I don’t know of any commander who knows he has a violent officer in his group or in his unit and he doesn’t oust them.”

The increasing use of body cameras, he said, will make it harder to get away with brutality. And he said that officers were well trained in the proper use of force, with reminders before every shift and monthly case studies.

Superintendent Braverman said that although it was impossible to avoid assigning raw recruits to friction points like the Old City, they were paired with experienced officers precisely to avoid deadly misjudgments.

But critics say that Israel’s police chiefs have too often failed to take a strong stand against excessive force.

“When the police are brutal and the leadership keeps silent, it’s screaming consent,” said Eran Shender, who established the Justice Ministry’s Department of Investigations of Police Misconduct in 1992 and led it until 2003. “The fish stinks from the head.”

Experts attribute the seeming intractability of Israel’s police brutality problem to the mixed mission of the force: the police role of maintaining law and order melded with the military one of securing the front lines of a national conflict.

The Department of Investigations of Police Misconduct, which handles brutality complaints, often hesitates to investigate brutality allegations for fear that officers will shrink from using force when necessary, a 2017 comptroller’s audit found. Similarly, reform efforts invariably run up against dire warnings from police commanders of a “chilling effect” on officers’ aggressiveness.

“They say, we’re an organization where force is one of our main tools, and if we start restricting our policemen in using it too much, they’ll be too soft,” Mr. Shender said. “And there we have a problem.”

If anything, the Justice Ministry may be easing its scrutiny.

The police force draws around 1,200 brutality complaints a year. While the majority are dropped before an investigation is opened, the number of indictments has fallen sharply. After rising for several years, they plummeted to just eight in 2018 from 44 the previous year, according to the most recent data available.

Short of prosecution, the misconduct unit can refer cases to the police force for disciplinary action. But the number of officers facing police disciplinary tribunals for excessive force fell from 86 in 2005 to just seven in 2015, according to the comptroller’s audit.

With few exceptions, the misconduct unit pursues only cases it considers slam-dunks.

Hila Edelman, the unit’s top prosecutor, said her outfit was as aggressive as it could be, and pointed proudly to its 87 percent conviction rate. But she said it was legally limited to pursuing cases with a “reasonable chance of conviction.”

“It’s not mathematics,” she said. “I wish I could put the evidence into a machine and it would tell me whether we’d get a conviction.”

She said the misconduct unit faces enormous obstacles: Often the sole witnesses in brutality cases, beyond the victim and the accused, are other police officers who refuse to incriminate one another. Judges are reflexively sympathetic to officers. The accusers often have criminal records, undercutting their credibility. And many Palestinians don’t bother filing complaints, doubting the system will do anything to help them.

Ms. Edelman dismissed the idea of seeking more indictments to send a message that excessive force would not be tolerated. That could mean more acquittals, she said, which could be interpreted as “a kosher certificate saying this action was fine.”

“I’m doing the most I can,” she said.

Lawyers for victims, however, say the misconduct unit too readily gives officers the benefit of the doubt, or lets complaints slide altogether, often failing to interview the accused or gather surveillance footage.

“They do the minimum of the minimum,” said Khalil Zaher, an East Jerusalem attorney with the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

When Haim Einhorn, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, complained that a police officer had punched him in the face in the tumult of a 2017 street protest in which he was only a bystander, the misconduct unit let the allegation languish for 18 months before declining to investigate.

Mr. Einhorn, 33, said he had the feeling that “I was submitting evidence and they were doing nothing.”

After Israel’s Supreme Court upbraided investigators, the case was reopened in May. By then, any surveillance images were long gone.

And when five off-duty border police officers viciously beat a Bedouin grocery worker in Tel Aviv in 2016, an attack captured on video, charges against four were dropped, and the investigation dragged on so long that the fifth had already completed his service and was no longer subject to disciplinary proceedings before they even began.

Efforts to tackle the problem systematically have been stymied by a shocking lack of data.

Neither the police nor the Justice Ministry have a system for tracking complaints against individual officers, leaving them ill-equipped to expose patterns of abuse and weed out violent officers.

And claims that minorities bear the brunt of police brutality are difficult to prove when the misconduct unit does not gather demographic information about the victims.

“They say it would be racist to collect it,” said Guy Lurie, an expert on the justice system at the Israeli Democracy Institute.

Mr. Shender, the misconduct unit’s founder, said he had established the policy but now believes it was a mistake, saying such data is vital.

Palestinian lawyers say that the bias is obvious.

“They’re violent with everyone, but even more with Palestinians and Arabs,” Mr. Zaher said. “They’re much quicker to shoot at Palestinians. You rarely see them shoot at Israelis.”

Of the 11 Palestinians killed by the police in 2019, several were shot in the act of violent attacks, the authorities said, usually armed with knives. But three were shot after stealing cars, and a teenager was shot while trying to climb over Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

Badi Hasisi, chairman of Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology, said violence was ingrained in the culture of the Israeli police force, which grew out of the paramilitary force the British maintained in Palestine.

“As colonial police, they were meant to deal with uprisings,” Professor Hasisi said. “They were more concerned with control — to be able to mobilize resources without any bureaucratic constraints.”

That imperative, he said, can still be seen in the force’s abiding resistance to accountability measures, viewing them as “sticks in the bicycle wheel.”

Missing in Israel, advocates say, is an agency empowered to tackle brutality as a systemic problem, the way the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has intervened against police departments across the United States.

Also unlike the United States, where plaintiffs can win multimillion-dollar settlements or jury awards including punitive damages, Israel’s civil courts provide only a weak backstop. The Israeli police paid less than $700,000 in 2019 to resolve an undisclosed number of use-of-force lawsuits, records show.

What little accountability exists often seems to require incontrovertible video evidence: A bystander’s video of an officer beating a truck driver in East Jerusalem quickly prompted the officer’s firing. Officers who were recorded beating a Palestinian man outside the Old City — who prosecutors say had been falsely arrested for assaulting them — were eventually charged with assault and obstruction of justice.

But while officials promised to distribute body cameras to 12,000 police officers by the end of this year, only around 5,500 have been deployed, few with the units most often sent into volatile situations.

And cameras are not a cure-all.

That was one of the lessons from the killing of Mr. al-Hallaq.

At 31, he was poised to gain new independence. At his school just off the Via Dolorosa, where he learned cooking, gardening and “life skills,” he had begun communicating his feelings — a breakthrough, his teachers said.

“These are the moments that we, as professionals, are waiting for,” said the principal, Issam Jammal.

His teachers were helping Mr. al-Hallaq search for a paying job. His parents had bought him an apartment and were working on finding him a wife.

“He would say, ‘Mama, marry me off,’” said his mother, Rana al-Hallaq.

Mr. al-Hallaq liked to be the first one at school and to retrieve the morning’s deliveries of warm pita. At around 6 a.m. on May 30, he was passing through the Lions Gate, one of the passageways through the Old City’s ancient walls, when officers called to him.

He ran, prosecutors said.

Two border police officers, alerted to a possible attacker, gave chase: a 19-year-old rookie and a 21-year-old commander nearing the end of his service.

Mr. al-Hallaq ran about 100 yards toward his school, just around the corner. The older officer fired at his legs but missed.

Mr. al-Hallaq turned into a storage area for city trash collectors. Witnesses said he cowered in a corner, his back against a wall.

His teacher, seeing the confrontation unfold, said she yelled, in Hebrew, that Mr. al-Hallaq was disabled.

The rookie officer told investigators he believed Mr. al-Hallaq was about to pull a weapon. He fired once. After his commander told him to cease firing, prosecutors say, the officer fired again. Israeli law prohibits his name from being published while the case remains under investigation.

Ten police surveillance cameras blanket the path Mr. al-Hallaq took along the Via Dolorosa. Two more cameras are trained on the spot where Mr. al-Hallaq fell.

But the day before, prosecutors said, the recorder the cameras were wired to had been unplugged.

The rookie officer’s lawyer, citing her client’s youth and inexperience, expressed confidence the case would be dropped.

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