A questionable apology

The sincerity of Ehud Barak's public apology to Israel's Arab community for 13 deaths at the hands of the police in 2000 has come under attack given its openly political nature.

al-monitor Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appears after delivering a statement in Tel Aviv, June 26, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Corinna Kern.

Aug 6, 2019

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's public apology for the deaths of 12 Arab citizens of Israel and one West Bank Palestinian during protests in 2000 at the start of the second intifada may have served its political objective—allowing his party entering an alliance—but some of the families of those killed and others are not so forgiving. They believe prosecutions are in order.

Barak had apologized on July 23 for the deaths, which occurred under his watch as prime minister. “I express my regret and apologize to the families and to the [Arab] community,” Barak said on Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster. He further stated, “There should be no situation in which demonstrators are killed by the fire of the security forces of their own country. I have apologized in the past.”

The demonstrations had been held in solidarity with the Palestinians on the West Bank following a provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound by a delegation led by the then-opposition leader, Ariel Sharon of Likud. Angry Palestinian Jerusalemites outside Al-Aqsa responded by rioting, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians escalating and spreading into the West Bank and Gaza.

Barak's public mea culpa preceded the formation on July 25 of the Democratic Camp, an alliance between his new party, Democratic Israel, and the left-wing Meretz ahead of Knesset elections scheduled for Sept. 17. Meretz Knesset member Issawi Freij had initially opposed a merger because of Barak's role in the events of October 2000, making his apology a prerequisite for forging an alliance.

The 35,000 to 40,000 votes cast by Arabs in the April 9 legislative elections had been crucial to Meretz entering the Knesset. The Arab vote could also be crucial in determining whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu survives the September balloting. Freij told Al-Monitor that he had intially wanted to form a large Jewish and Arab bloc to contest the upcoming election, but the leaders of the Arab party's had declined, so he turned to Barak after being made aware that Barak had wanted to speak with him.

That Barak's apology came with obvious political intentions is acknowledged, but that, along with the desire for someone to be held accountable for the 13 deaths in 2000, has led some family members of those killed to reject his apology.

“This is a political apology. It is part of Barak's quest to return to the political arena,” said Ibrahim Siyam, from Maawiya, west of Umm al-Fahm. His son Ahmed was killed during the 2000 protests at the age of 18.

“His apology changes nothing,” Siyam told Al-Monitor. “We do not want an apology. We want the truth. Those responsible for these killings must be prosecuted. We want Barak brought before the court, because he gave the orders to kill, in his capacity as prime minister at the time, to the internal security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami.”

Abdel Monem Abu Saleh from Sakhnin, in the Lower Galilee, lost his son Walid, who was 21.

“We do not accept this apology because our children were shot by Israeli police,” Abu Saleh said. “Barak's apology is mere electoral propaganda, and the victims’ families will not accept it. Our demand is one and will not change: Those who committed the killings should go to trial and receive their punishment.” He further told Al-Monitor, “We will counter Barak's electoral candidacy by influencing Arab citizens not to vote for his list.”

Walid Ghanayem, also from Sakhnin, lost his brother Imad and seconded Abu Saleh's sentiment. “This apology is for an electoral purpose and means nothing to us,” he told Al-Monitor. “Barak and all those responsible must be held accountable. Snipers should not have been ordered to fire at a peaceful popular protest and kill our children.”

Given the timing of the apology, Aida Touma, an Arab Knesset member for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, accused Barak of exploiting the bloodshed to attract Arab votes.

“Barak is not [simply] apologizing for unintended remarks,” she said to Al-Monitor. “Those responsible for the killing and imprisonment of our children, especially Barak, must be held accountable because he issued orders to the Israeli forces to use fire.”

As for the alliance with Meretz, Touma remarked, “Meretz is trying to pass the electoral threshold in the upcoming elections. This is why it decided to join forces with Barak’s party, in light of indicators that the formation of a joint list of Arab parties was underway which means that the Arab citizens of Israel will not be voting for either of them.” Touma claimed that Meretz had needed a lifeline and had been ready to ally with the Labor Party but was rejected, so it ended up allying with Barak. 

For Antoine Shalhat, director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies, an independent research center in Ramallah, Barak's apology could have been a positive step had it not been taken within the context of forming an electoral alliance.

“This is a pro-forma apology,” Shalhat said, explaining that Meretz would not have allied with Barak if he hadn’t apologized since thousands of Arab votes had helped it pass the electoral threshold in April. “Barak’s apology is mostly an electoral matter to gain Meretz as an ally.”

Under pressure from Arab parties, in November 2000, Barak had formed a commission of inquiry, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Theodore Orr. The commission’s report, released in September 2003, stated that the police killings were not justified and that snipers had been used to disperse the protests in violation of the law. The report also accused Ben-Ami, police commanders and some officers of failing to control the protests, but spared political leaders, including Barak and Sharon, of culpability.

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