Israel Police arrested 19 Arab Israeli activists during a May 18 demonstration in Haifa protesting the killing of Palestinians near the Gaza-Israel border fence in recent weeks. When the detainees were remanded two days later, the court ordered the police to release them. The bold decision by Justice Amir Salameh of the Haifa Magistrate Court to reject a police request to extend their detention saved the dignity of the Israeli law enforcement system.
All too often, the police succeed in convincing judges to extend the arrest of suspects, using such important but sometimes nebulous claims of their potentially endangering public safety or interfering with legal proceedings. This time the police were publicly humiliated with the media in the courtroom. Salameh emphasized in his ruling that none of the 19 protesters posed a threat to public safety. He also said that some of those suspected of having committed assault required medical treatment themselves.
Most of the attention centered on Jafar Farah, a longtime social activist who arrived at the hearing with his leg in a cast. Farah said he had been beaten at the police station by an officer who viciously kicked him in the knee. The police deny this. They released a statement May 20 saying that the initial investigation showed no connection between Farah's arrest and his injury. That said, a video distributed by the press shows Farah’s actual arrest. He was in good health at the time, walking to the police van under his own power, on his own two feet. The video went viral, as expected, raising questions about the reliability of the police account while bolstering Farah’s version of events.
In this case, it looks as if the police picked a fight with the wrong person. Farah, secretary-general of the Mossawa Center: The Advocacy Center for Palestinian Arab Citizens in Israel, is well-known as a veteran social activist, particularly among the left. Knesset members from Meretz and the Labor Party, and certainly from the predominantly Arab Joint List, know him personally. Some of them responded to his arrest and injury on social networks, contributing to more intense media coverage of the incident and forcing the police to defend themselves.
As if the problematic version of events presented by the police wasn’t enough, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh appeared before journalists May 21 and made a stunningly naive statement — “Farah may have walked with a broken bone” — suggesting Farah had broken his leg before or during the demonstration. This immediately brought to mind remarks Alsheikh made in January 2017 when he claimed that Yakub Musa Abu al-Kiyan, who was shot to death by the police, had been an Islamic State sympathizer who deliberately ran over a policeman in Umm al-Hiran during Bedouin protests. The allegation was never proved.
Alsheikh's assertion shows he has not learned from his mistakes. It is clear that he has had a hard time breaking free of the organizational culture of Shin Bet and the decades he spent working in the shadows, far from the media. At least this time, Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan did not reflexively adopt the police version of events, as he did during the Umm al-Hiran incident, saying instead that what happened to Farah was an exceptional incident.
On the afternoon of May 21, the Internal Investigations Unit of the Israel Police began collecting testimony about the incident. The unit even paid a visit to Farah at home, where he was still in a cast. Farah also gave interviews to the press, repeating his version of what happened on the night of the demonstration, including his harsh experience at the police station. He found his son in handcuffs there, as the son had also been arrested at the same demonstration.
Over the next few days, the Internal Investigations Unit is expected to collect testimony from police officers who came into contact with Farah as well as witnesses. They will also review footage from security cameras in the area, hopefully so that they can uncover the truth as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless, it will not be enough to focus on the investigation of the particular event to turn down the volume on criticism of the police. Instead, it is worth taking advantage of the incident to launch a more comprehensive investigation into the use of force by the police against civilians, particularly at events where there is a high possibility of friction, such as demonstrations.
That the judge ordered that all those arrested at the Haifa demonstration be released should set off warning signals at police headquarters. What was the basis of the determination that the demonstrators posed a threat to the public in the first place and therefore needed to be detained?
Erdan and Alsheikh are well-aware that the Haifa detainees are not the only protesters who were arrested over the last few years only to be released without charges being pressed against them. It is a long list that includes Israelis of Ethiopian descent arrested at protests in 2015 against discrimination and police brutality, dozens of ultra-Orthodox arrested in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak while protesting military conscription in October 2017 and even social protest demonstrators arrested on Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv in 2012, including the prominent activist Daphni Leef. Just two weeks ago, the police arrested a 65-year-old grandfather, Yishai Hadas, claiming he had interfered with the Giro d’Italia bicycle race as it passed through Tel Aviv on May 5 by holding a sign protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The record of the police is a problem when it comes to dealing with people protesting, which can easily be described as the ultimate right that comes with living in a democracy. The police fail the test time and again by taking the route of the use of force in far too many instances. The police's own figures confirm that officers resort all too easily to arrest.
Police data reveal a dramatic rise in arrests in Israel over the past two decades. In 1998, police made 38,000 arrests, and in 2015, the number stood at 62,000. One of the reasons is that arrest is being used as a deterrent, which is itself problematic. A no-less-disturbing figure shows that charges are brought in just one-third of arrests. What this means is that more and more innocent people are spending time under arrest, their freedom taken away from them with disturbing ease. Those arrested in Haifa, Farah among them, can now be added to that statistic.
With the Farah incident still in the headlines, it is time for the Knesset to demand a commission of inquiry to investigate police violence and the excessive use of arrest during demonstrations. It is becoming glaringly apparent that something in the current system has spun out of control.