A gunshot in Kafr Kana and a new, dangerous scandal for the Israel Police

“This looks bad, this looks really bad.”

Those were the words that ran through my mind when I first watched the surveillance video of cops shooting 22-year-old Kheir al-Din Hamdan dead in Kafr Kana Friday.

Kheir al-Din Hamdan, with his back to the police van moments before he is shot.

Kheir al-Din Hamdan, with his back to the police van moments before he is shot. (surveillance video/Paneth)

Needless to say, I wasn’t alone.

It all began with a routine arrest on a weapons charge, linked to an ongoing family feud in the city. Special Patrol Unit officers who police the area, partly in order to fight firearms crimes, had arrested a friend of Hamdan’s on suspicion of throwing a stun grenade. Shortly thereafter, Hamdan began to attack the police car, banging on the windows while holding something in his hand, before he was cut down by a single bullet from an officer – which now threatens to have widespread repercussions.

The bullet that killed Hamdan has also brought the Israel Police to the latest and possibly most dangerous scandal of Yohanan Danino’s term as commissioner.

At the moment, we know how this mess started, but no idea how it will end.

If you watch the video, you don’t have to be an internal affairs investigator to know that something went terribly wrong. Hamdan – who yes, appears to have been armed and was banging on the windows of the police van – was shot after he had turned his back to the cops and was walking away.

When the shot rang out he wasn’t charging the police, and it’s unclear why the four well-built and well-armed Special Patrol of – ficers sitting inside their van thought their lives were in danger.

You also don’t have to be a journalist with decades of experience to know that police again dropped the ball when it came to getting ahead of the story. On Saturday morning, the Northern District spokesman sent out a message saying that police had come under attack by a knife-wielding man, and fired a warning shot into the air. Realizing their lives were in danger they shot the man, badly wounding him. Hours later when the video emerged, it was clear to all that no warning shot had been fired, and that police had lied about this – and arguably, there was no clear and present danger to the officers’ lives.

At the very least, they could see the man was not trying to attack the police at the moment he was shot.

It’s a bit ironic that police were exposed by surveillance camera footage, when there has been such a push by the Public Security Ministry in recent years to deploy more and more CCTV cameras in the public sphere to fight crime. Police must be aware of this, especially considering how at any outdoor murder scene, especially at car bombings and mob shootings, their detectives make sure to pass by all surrounding businesses and traffic junctions to collect surveillance footage to piece together what happened.

Somehow, it must just not have registered that there was, in all likelihood, a camera nearby – just like there almost always is these days in Israel.

In the first 24 hours since the shooting, there were two main arguments I heard over and over again. First: Wouldn’t the same thing happen if Hamdan attacked a police vehicle like that in America? And: Don’t you think he was asking for it, running up to a police car with a knife and banging on the windows?

BOTH ARGUMENTS are correct – and also very flawed. First off, yes, it’s safe to assume that American police would have used deadly force in such a case, and may have fired far more rounds into Hamdan.

But does that make it just? Does all of the controversy this past year over the Ferguson shooting and all of the other cases of deadly police violence, especially towards minorities, arguably make the point that American police might not be the ones to emulate? Secondly, even if Hamdan was asking for it, since when does “he was asking for it” make it justifiable homicide? Since when is terrible judgment a capital offense? For that matter, since when does being an idiot pose a deadly threat to police? There’s a feeling that some of these arguments are being made defensively, to stave off criticism of police and of Israel, especially as the Jewish state contends with grassroots terror attacks and daily assaults on police and motorists. Those defenders would do well to keep in mind that police brutality can affect anyone. Even if you are not a member of a minority and even if you are a law-abiding citizen, when police brutality and abuses of power are tolerated or common, everyone can be a victim at some point.

Timing couldn’t be worse for the shooting, which comes after weeks of some of the worst tension in Jerusalem in a decade – repeated, fatal “ramming attacks” by Palestinians, and constant predictions that a third intifada is just around the corner, if it isn’t here already. The shooting is the type of incident with the potential to send the situation in Israel over the edge, causing the protests and rioting in east Jerusalem to wash over the Arab sector in the North and beyond, sparking a real popular uprising with untold consequences.

At the moment, the protests seem to be localized mainly in Kafr Kana and the surrounding areas, and have not led to clashes between rioters and police across the Arab sector, certainly nothing on the scale of the October 2000 riots. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean the situation could not decline further if police continue to fumble their handling of the issue, like they have so far.

Also, further down the road, how the Justice Ministry handles their investigation could play a very significant role. If it clears the police of all charges, if it closes the case or recommends merely firing the offending cop, the situation could again spin out of the control.

One thing’s for sure: The people who are certainly not helping right now are Israeli politicians, especially those on the Right.

With the Arab sector enraged and a general strike set to begin the next day, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett wasted no time Saturday evening throwing gasoline on the fire, saying of the incident that “a crazed Arab terrorist attacked a police car with a knife, in an attempt to murder the officers inside.”

Never mind that the investigation of the incident had yet to begin, and that it took place during a criminal incident and not a violent protest against the state. Never mind that Hamdan had still not been buried; Bennett would bury him as a terrorist, come what may.

The politician whose words stuck out the most, though, was Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. A few days earlier, after police last Wednesday shot dead a Palestinian man who had just run over and killed a Border Police officer and wounded a dozen more Israelis, Aharonovitch went beyond saying the officers reacted correctly, adding that “a terrorist who harms civilians is sentenced to death.”

On Saturday, the quote came back to haunt him, as politicians on the Left and countless protesters in the Arab sector accused him of inspiring the shooting of Hamdan, who they said in chants and on posters “was guilty of being Arab and sentenced to death.”

The statement also came to mind on Monday, when Aharonovitch toured the scene of a terror attack in south Tel Aviv, where an 18-year-old man from a village near Nablus stabbed and killed an IDF soldier before fleeing on foot. The suspect was arrested a couple of blocks from the scene by officers from the Special Patrol Unit and Border Police, who apparently showed that you don’t always have to kill these guys.

Whether Hamdan was killed because police have an itchy trigger finger when it comes to Arabs or if say, an Ashkenazi man in Ramat Hasharon banging on a cop car window would have been shot too, depends on who you ask. But whether or not it’s the case, for the 20 percent of the population that lives in Arab towns, villages and neighborhoods, the perception is already there that deadly force was used because Hamdan was Arab – and sometimes, it’s all that matters.

What do you call it?

It’s startling sometimes the difference an hour or two can make.

A CCTV video in which the car can be seen veering onto the light rail line sidewalk, and plowing into pedestrians.

A CCTV video in which the car can be seen veering onto the light rail line sidewalk, and plowing into pedestrians. (Courtesy)

Wednesday went from a quiet morning with my infant daughter and not much happening in Israel, to a gunfight on the Egypt border between smugglers and IDF troops, and then, later in the day, a deadly attack in Jerusalem in which a Palestinian man rammed his car into passengers at a light rail stop, killing a 3-month-old girl and wounding 8 others.

From that point on a familiar scene played out in the press and on social media.

An AP headline read that “Israeli police shoot man in East Jerusalem” and later changed it to the still problematic “Car slams into east Jerusalem train station”. The AP later said that the headline was written shortly after the incident happened, when details were scarce, but was met with a righteous fury online, and were held up by many as confirming long held beliefs about the wire service’s bias.

It brought to mind an incident in March 2011, the morning after five members of the Fogel family of Itamar in the West Bank were stabbed to death in their home. CNN ran with a headline that had “terror attack” in quotes, leading to widespread criticism in Israel. Never mind that this was only the morning after, when no suspects had been arrested, and the possibility that it was a criminal act and not terrorism had not been ruled out, however unlikely. In that case, the headline was accurate, as was the AP, though both were problematic in their own ways.

Another familiar “what do you call it?” game played out in social media, including in a number of tweets sent directly to me (some with the asinine #JSIL hashtag, which means you know it’s gonna be great).

These were from people asking: “How do you know it was terrorism” followed by “why are you calling it terrorism,” and then “if that’s terrorism, then what do you call the settler who ran over a 5-year-old Palestinian girl on Sunday?”
In that final case, the settler drove directly to an Israeli police station after the accident, something that it seems highly unlikely he would’ve done just after committing a terror attack. Nonetheless, one can argue that away too. After all, you only know he went to the police because the police say he did. It could all be lies.

Either way, the argument then moved from whether or not it was a terror attack (the driver lost control of his car – an argument made after every “ramming attack” in Israel, of which there have been at least 3 in recent years) to saying that even if it was, it’s understandable in the context of occupation, humiliation, persecution of Palestinians, and so on.

Those wishing to make this point also made sure to highlight how the driver of the car was from Silwan, the Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, to where dozens of Israeli settlers have recently moved.

The implication – I’m guessing – is that the recent influx of settlers is part of a toxic mix of repression that drove this man to his act, during which he veered onto the sidewalk and then – according to witnesses – sped up and hit a baby stroller head on. One could wonder if the Jewish Israeli baby had recently bought a house in Silwan, but that would be poor form and silly, much like pointing out that the man was from Silwan.

These rhetorical gymnastics remind me of what happens every time an Israeli commits an atrocity against Palestinians. In July, there was the murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped in East Jerusalem by three Israeli extremists, taken to a forest in West Jerusalem, beaten and then burned alive.

In Israel, especially on the Right, there was very widespread belief that it must not have been done by Jews, and the rumor spread that Mohammed was murdered by relatives in an “honor killing” because he was gay (allegedly). Those who made this claim did so with no evidence, nor any consideration about the morality of accusing a bereaved family of having murdered their own son.

Finally, after it turned out that Jews had indeed killed Mohammed, two arguments became common – 1) the suspects are obviously not well, they’re insane; 2) even if Jews were behind the murder, and if it was a terror attack, you have to understand it in the context of Palestinian terrorism; why, just the night before, the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teens were found murdered in a field near Hebron.

These cases are just another way in which the anti-Israel far left and far right Zionists can so often be a mirror image of one another. Both will do cartwheels to avoid simply condemning the murder of innocents, including children, trying to find a way to explain it away or wash their hands of it no matter the cost. Yes, there is a difference between causation and justification, but these explanations too often seem a way to blame the atrocities your own side commits on the other, so that one must always remain a righteous victim.

It’s entirely predictable, and will happen the next time – probably before long – when another murder like this happens.

The funerals beat

The first story I covered for the Jerusalem Post was a funeral, and one of the worst. Six members of the Ushrenko family, crossing three generations and including a three month old infant, all buried in a row at a cemetery at Kibbutz Givat Brenner.

An honor guard from the Nahal Brigade carries Sgt.  Eitan Barak to his grave. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

An honor guard from the Nahal Brigade carries First Sergeant Eitan Barak to his grave in Herzliyah on Sunday. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

They were all murdered one by one the night before, by a disgruntled employee who worked at one of the family restaurants. It was a surprisingly quiet funeral. Maybe because Russian Israelis are more reserved, maybe it was the general feeling of shock at the brutality of the crime, or maybe simply because there was hardly anyone to mourn them – almost the entire family in Israel had been wiped out.

Since then there’s been probably another two dozen funerals I’ve covered, give or take. Most have been “national” events, soldiers who fell in duty or Israeli civilians killed in terror attacks. Other than that there’s been big criminal stories like the Ushrenkos, or the passing of a major Israeli public figure, like Arik Einstein or Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

It’s usually the same drill when it’s a funeral for a tragic event – fade into the scenery, pull nice quotes from the eulogies and friends or loved ones you meet, and get pictures of some mourners or of the coffin wrapped in the Israeli flag (if a soldier) or the body wrapped in a talit (if a civilian). Describe the scene, try to get an idea of who the victim was, and make yourself scarce.

Sometimes there’s moments that stick out. There was the house visit I paid in Oranit to the family of pilot Lt.-Col. (res.) Noam Ron, who died along with Maj. (res.) Erez Flekser when their Cobra crashed during a training flight. The family was crushed but especially kind and a few of them wore t-shirts Noam had printed up for family trips around the globe. My mother-in-law lives not far away from them and one night recently I tried to find the house again. I wanted to remember what it looked like, maybe see if a light was on inside, but all the streets and houses in the yishuv look the same.

There was the funeral for the five members of the Fogel family, knifed to death in their house in the West Bank settlement of Itamar by two Palestinian men on the night of March 11th, 2011. Speaking before thousands of mourners at another “national event” funeral, Moti, the brother of Udi Fogel, the father of the family, said something that stuck out to me to this day.

Calling to his brother he said “it’s very hard for me to see all the people who came here. If I could, I would have them all leave and hug you and whisper in your ear, let’s go play soccer one last time. All the symbols about settlement, the land of Israel, and the people of Israel, are attempts to forget the simple fact that is riddled with pain: you are dead. You are dead and no symbol will bring you back. More than anything, this funeral must be a private event.”

There was also the funeral on Sunday night for First Sergeant Eitan Barak, the first fatality for the IDF in Operation Protective Edge. It stuck out partly because of the speaker who opened the event with instructions on what to do if there’s a rocket siren – if you’re towards the back of the crowd try to find cover, if you’re closer in just lie down and wait it out.

The funerals and shiva visits are all pretty routine, but the past two have been harder. When the body of Gil-ad Shaer, 17, was brought out at the ceremony in Talmon on July 1st, I thought there’d been a mistake. It looked like merely a talit on a gurney, like they’d forgotten the body. A second later it dawned on me that no, this is just the body of a slight teenage boy, who’d been killed over two weeks earlier. That funeral was worse, maybe because the tragedy had been dragged out for the entire 18 days that it was widely known that the boys were almost certainly killed just after the kidnapping.

Something about his father Ofir’s eulogy got to me, the way he found comfort in what he said was the heroism his son showed by calling the 100 dispatch and whispering from the back seat that he’d been kidnapped. Driving off, a bit drained from the funeral, the heat in the West Bank, and the past 18 days covering the story, I got a text that the tape had been leaked. I listened to it right away, over and over, hearing the gunshots we’d been told about from day one, as well as a new revelation – the voices of the killers saying in Hebrew “head down, hands up”.

Sunday’s funeral for First Sergeant Eitan Barak was also a hard one, but not for the usual reasons. There wasn’t any shouting, there wasn’t a young son praying kaddish for his father, and one relative, his sister Noa, gave a rather positive eulogy full of funny anecdotes about her little brother who “when you were born I thought you were here only to drive your older sister crazy”.

To be honest it had nothing to do with the funeral itself or the thought that a rocket siren could go off at any moment, sending bereaved loved ones scrambling for cover. It was the knowledge that at the same time, news had yet to be published that there were another 13 funerals of soldiers to be held in the coming days, and now we know, another 18 as well.

None of them will be the last either.

For journalists in Israel, a sense of Déjà vu

(Note: This post originally appeared on Tabletmag.com)

It’s easy to picture the screenplay: Bill Murray is a foreign correspondent who finds himself once again covering the rocket strikes on the southern Israel town of Sderot and the residents in the line of fire, only to awake the next morning, time after time, to live the same story again.


A female soldier walks next to two Iron Dome batteries in the Tel Aviv area during a break between the rockets on July 11th, 2014. (Ben Hartman)

That’s the scenario Al Jazeera English’s Gregg Carlstrom faced in real life last Thursday, prompting him to tweet: “writing a story about Sderot and southern Israel, realized I started with exact same lede I used in 2012. This place is like Groundhog Day.”

As ‘Operation Protective Edge‘ entered its third day, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tragically—and a somewhat farcically—reached a degree of predictability that is confusing reporters, dismaying its many reluctant participants, and providing perversely rich fodder for satire.

On Tuesday, Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson predicted a slew of articles that would run in the Israeli press in the coming days, including some that later appeared in rival newspaper Yediot Aharonoth.

“Israelis watching the World Cup in a bomb shelter” was the one of the 10 expected articles he listed on Facebook. His list, like some of the coverage that followed, included a sentimental story about a commando whose courageous wife overcomes her fears and sends him to battle despite the risks, saying “the IDF gets the job done”; an interview with a real-life Eitan Tzuk, (which in fact appeared in Yediot and Yisrael Hayom the next day—he says he supports the operation) whose name is the inverse of the Hebrew translation of Operation Protective Edge, the name the IDF gave this military operation; a letter from a little girl in the south to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, complete with heart-warming spelling mistakes; and a profile of a soldier from the south who works on an Iron Dome anti-missile battery, “protecting his home town.”

Everyone in Israel knows these reporting clichés from the major escalations in the south or in the north in recent years. Each time the IDF gives the operation a bizarre name and the public sees the Defense Minister and the military correspondents trade out their dress attire for leather jackets that stay welded to their torsos till the cannons go silent (this time, being summer, we missed out on this), along with images of Israelis picnicking on the hilltop near Sderot watching the Israeli Air Force bomb Gaza, couples worried that no one will come to their weddings in the south, and in the last two rounds, since Tel Aviv became a target of long-range rockets, story after story asking “has the Tel Aviv bubble burst?”

It’s hard not to get cynical, for journalists and citizens alike.

In a moment of what may end up to be prophecy, Ofer Friedman, whose profile lists him as the owner and manager of a music school in Netanya, wrote a lengthy Facebook status this week that made the rounds in Israel, offering what could very likely turn out to be an accurate prediction of the timeline of this latest operation.

Addressing those who “don’t have the patience to watch the media over the coming month,” Friedman wrote that over the first nine days, the IDF will hit sites from its “bank of targets,” and on the 10th day threats of a land invasion will intensify. On day 11, “reservists who were called up already on day 6 complain that they were called up for no reason and ask why they haven’t been sent in,” and on the same day, “Roger Waters attacks Israel and Jews in general in a Facebook post.”

According to Friedman’s timeline, on the 28th day, following two weeks of familiar scenes, a ceasefire will be reached, shortly after a massive barrage of rockets from Gaza and IDF strikes in Gaza. Casualties will befall both sides. And like always, both sides will claim victory.

“We’ll meet again in two years, the next round, in the North or the South. You are welcome to keep this summary; it will be relevant then too,” Friedman concluded.

What would surprise a public that has become so inured to conflict, strife, and violence? One scenario might be if somehow the conflict merged with those currently underway in Syria and Iraq. Another would be a devastating strike by Hamas—though this seems unlikely at the moment. Yet another would be if Egypt became more involved, on either side. The doomsday scenarios are endless. So far, for better or worse, it’s been much the same.

Before the shitstorm

Already neck-deep in tragedies, it feels like Israel is sailing into uncharted waters these days, ever since the abduction of teenagers Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah almost two weeks ago.

A prayer session held by classmates and friends of the three abducted teens on June 15th at Makor Hayim yeshiva in Gush Etzion. (Credit: Ben Harmtan)

A prayer session held by classmates and friends of the three abducted teens on June 15th at Makor Hayim yeshiva in Gush Etzion. (Credit: Ben Hartman)

At the moment no one can say for certain what will be the fallout, what will be the reckoning after they pull back the curtain and show us what’s not being said. Or months down the road, after the committee of inquiry submits its findings.

For now the only ones getting hit are the police – and they deserve it for not reporting the distress call placed by the teens some 5 hours before they went into action – but the Shin Bet and the Army should not be far off and neither should Bibi.

People will ask what Netanyahu knew and how early during “Operation Brother’s Keeper” he knew it. People will question the strategy of the operation even if it winds down, as is expected, just before Ramadan having turned up no trace of the missing teenagers.

People will ask about the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, which saw 1,027 security prisoners released in exchange for the soldier. They’ll talk about how after the deal was signed it was a matter of time until the next abduction, and the country will suddenly be full of wise men who supported the deal at the time and have since seen the light. Actually, this is already happening now.

People will ask the Shin Bet how after 47 years of the occupation, with the security service deep inside the territories like a fist in a sock puppet, operating a constellation of agents and informants and a wealth of state of the art technology, three (3!) Israelis could be abducted and disappear in the West Bank, swallowed up by the earth without a trace. They’ll ask why after a week and a half the Israeli public was treated to scenes of IDF troops searching in wells and caves, while police volunteers walked step by step through the fields and wadis of the West Bank, the very picture of desperation.

On Tuesday the operation reached its 11th day. Five Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, have been killed in clashes with Israeli forces and well over 300 Palestinians have been arrested, most of them identified with Hamas. The IDF and police have also confiscated untold numbers of Hamas flags, posters, and some small arms. Even an optimist can’t fight the feeling they could be strengthening Hamas, at least for now.

No Israeli soldiers, police officers or Shin Bet field agents have been hurt but in the months to come, regardless of the fate of the three teenagers, the country will be awash in venom and infighting, the settling of accounts and the assigning of blame.

At the center of the storm will be three traumatized families surrounded by an entire country reeling with the punches.

The Popo conference call has problems

Somebody’s dog won’t shut the fuck up, and some fool – let’s call him Amichai – keeps dropping in and out of the conference call, bringing things to a halt each time.

Police patrolling in south Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood last year. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Police patrolling in south Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood last year. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Once a week or so the Israel Police hold a conference call with crime reporters from all the national outlets. It’s usually when a big story breaks, or before a gag order is lifted, and they want to make sure everybody has the police narrative and the chance to ask any questions they’d like.

Typically these briefings are given by the LAHAV 433 unit’s spokeswoman, and with stories like the Beit Yair/Yitzhak Abergil money laundering story they’ll also get the lead detective in the investigation on the line, to give a timeline of the case, list the allegations, and answer a limited scope of questions.

That’s how it’s supposed to play out.

Problem is when you get a dozen Israeli crime reporters on the line, all of them on deadlines and at the same time friendly acquaintances and bitter competitors, the effect is like herding cats, or trying to have a conversation with someone who every 5 to 10 seconds punches you in the face, forcing you to start over.

Every time the spokeswoman for LAHAV 433 will plead with everyone to put their phones on mute while she gives a run down of the case, a request that is lets say, not universally heeded. Without fail there is typically a handful of people who leaves the phone off mute, often while driving through traffic at that very instant. Also, there’s always a few people who call in late, and whenever a new caller arrives a computer voice cuts in saying “now arriving —”, drowning out all other sound for a couple seconds. The spokeswoman will ask people to make sure they come in on time, and then, almost on cue, another late arrival will check in, derail the conference call, and get chewed out.

What’s the point of all this?

In theory the conference calls allow police to get ahead of a story, to make sure their bases are covered and to deny en masse reports that are often already circulating in the press.

On the other hand, they’re limited. For instance, if a case is breaking but no one has yet been brought to court, technically the press can’t report the person’s arrest, something that is flouted repeatedly. As the Ashdod port corruption case was breaking last week, reporters continually asked the spokesperson if a certain well-known Israeli businessman was one of the people arrested. She ducked and dodged the question repeatedly, finally saying “everyone, you can’t expect me to violate a suspect’s rights in a conversation that you might be recording.”

One way I heard the LAHAV 433 spokeswoman get around this in the past was when asked to confirm a specific report about a famous suspect undergoing questioning at LAHAV headquarters in Lod she said simply “we can’t confirm that, but we also can’t deny the reality of what is happening.”

Another type of conference call is done on a bi-weekly basis by the National Police Spokesman, who gives a round-up of crime statistics and issues facing police. There’s always a mention of threats from Sinai and the northern borders and the possibilities of “popular resistance” and violence protests, and often an indication that terror groups are trying to kidnap a soldier. The conference call is typically the same as the one a week earlier, a repeat run down of the “threats currently facing us” and “what police are doing for you this week”. It’s not a heated back and forth about a particular case, rather, the spokesperson just talks more or less uninterrupted for about 10 minutes and then people sign off, typically without asking any more than a question or two.

These briefings and the bi-monthly meetings with the head of the Intelligence and Investigations branch Meni Yitzhaki are part of a wider police effort that began not long ago to reach out better to the press. Their image is far from being on par with the army, and it seems that as of late they’ve made efforts to try to right the course even though they’ll always fall short of the public approval that the army receives.

Now, if only they can get everyone to set their phones on mute for a solid five minutes.

The bombs at those other schools

No one knows how long the bombs were stashed at the school, but it could have been weeks, maybe longer, that hundreds of kids passed through the school none the wiser.
Mortars, rifles, ammo seized at a school in Abu Snan last year. (Israel Police)

Mortar shells, rifles, ammo seized at a school in Abu Snan last year. (Israel Police)

The weapons were stashed in a closet inside a classroom that hadn’t been used for some time. It was a serious haul: 13 mortar shells, three rifles, incendiary flares, and sacks filled with hundreds of rounds of .9mm ammunition. The arsenal was found in Abu Snan only a few weeks after anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and explosives were found hidden in a school and a kindergarten for special needs children, in the same Arab village in the Galilee near Acre.
Those seizures – just two of several that happened over a couple months last year in the Arab sector, came to mind late Tuesday night as police announced that they’d seized a bomb stashed in a middle school in Petah Tikva. By the morning it was the lead story for a few hours on Ynet, and police from the YAHBAL serious crimes unit and the Central District had spent hours scrambling to answer reporters questions, send out press releases, and organize a sync with the Central District commander outside the junior high.
Last February, after the seizures at the Arab schools in the north, and other busts at Arab schools in the Triangle, it was a different story. Police sent out photos and press releases, but the stories didn’t lead the websites, and they went in the papers as briefs at best. Also the investigations weren’t put in the hands of the YAHBAL unit, which handles organized crime, but stayed with district detectives.
The contrast is another indication of the divergent way stories are covered in Israel. Not only when the story involves Arabs and not Jews, but also when it happens in the periphery, and not the center (for instance, car bombs and mob hits in the Krayot/Haifa area garner much less coverage than their counterparts in the center, including Petah Tikva where the bomb story Tuesday follows a series of mob violence including deadly car bombs in the city).
Other instances that come to mind are legion, in particular two that took place on the night of the nationwide municipality elections – the shooting of an Arab city council candidate in Lod and the murder of a man in woman in Taibe, whose bodies were found inside a torched car in a remote corner of the city. Both were big stories, but garnered coverage that was only a fraction of what they would have if they’d happened in Tel Aviv.
The difference is also seen in the language. While contract killings in Jewish Israeli society are called “organized crime assassinations”, even when the people involved are at best members of small local gangs, in the Arab sector, contract killings, even when they involve bombs and the like, are often just called “clan violence” or “murder within the family”. There’s been efforts to remedy this, and police make a point of not using the term “honor killings”, but differences abound nonetheless.
Another difference was apparent on Tuesday night, when (another) bomb was found in an Israeli school, this time in Petah Tikva.

On Price Tag attacks, tough talk and weak suggestions


Carmi Gillon is not impressed. Following a series of “Price Tag” attacks (acts of vandalism or violence directed at Arabs, often in response to Israeli government policy in the Palestinian Territories) within the Green Line, the former Shin Bet Chief said Israel could stop the attacks if the authorities really wanted to and that like the agency dealt with the Jewish underground when he was in charge, they could do the same if they just had the willpower.

Graffiti spray-painted on a mosque in Fureidis last week. (Israel Police)

Graffiti spray-painted on a mosque in Fureidis last week. (Israel Police)

“We don’t see results because we don’t have the intention to,” Gillon said, adding that in the Shin Bet “there’s no such thing as can’t, there’s don’t want to.”

Gillon added that the whole problem could be solved quickly and that “if the head of the Shin Bet [ISA] decides to deal with a certain issue there would be results just like there was with the Jewish underground. Back then we dealt with them like terror groups.”

Forget the irony here, that Gillon is remembered largely for heading the agency responsible for personal protection of senior government officials at the time a Jewish terrorist managed to murder a prime minister. That was twenty years ago, and anyway, as a former Shin Bet head, his words are guaranteed to strike a chord.

His comments bear a strong resemblance to ones senior law enforcement officials make regarding the mob shootings and car bombs carried out by Israeli gangsters. That is, if we believe these are terror attacks then they must be dealt with like we deal with terrorists. Or, more often, the question asked is if the Shin Bet could defeat (insert terrorist adversary here), then why can’t they [police and/or the Shin Bet] handle this small group of criminals?

Did anybody ask Gillon what Shin Bet anti-terror tactics he suggests for dealing with Price Tags? A drone strike on the settlement of Yitzhar? Demolishing the homes of the Hilltop youth? Maybe a personal security fence surrounding each right-wing activist?

The anti-terror tool that law enforcement officers tend to advocate for use against organized crime is administrative detention. That is, just like the Army and Shin Bet hold Palestinian terror suspects – including minors – indefinitely without charge and without the ability to see the charges against them, so should we deal with our own domestic terrorists.

How does that play out though in the field? Take last week for instance. A husband and wife from Yitzhar were arrested on suspicion of being somehow involved in the vandalism and attempted torching of a mosque in Umm al-Fahm last month. In court at their remand hearing the only evidence mentioned was that there is suspicion a car that matches the description of the family car (a Suzuki Baleno, very popular in Israel) was seen near the scene of the crime.

It sounds flimsy, but in the war against terror, that would probably be more than enough. If the couple were to be dealt with like terror suspects, they probably would not even have appeared in court, nor would there be an arrest warrant or charges filed. The couple may have simply vanished from Yitzhar for six months, maybe more, until they cracked and confessed, some other evidence turned up, or the authorities decided to release them.

Is this what Gillon suggests for dealing with Price Tags, especially when so many of the suspects are minors?

Maybe he suggests using the “moderate physical pressure” and later the “increased physical pressure” the Shin Bet used against detainees under his tenure. One can imagine the fallout if Israeli secret police began rounding up right-wing activists – especially minors – and began using these tactics on them. Furthermore, where does this slippery slope bottom out?

The potential erosion of suspects rights would be immense as ultimately all the police would have to do in order to hold you indefinitely would be to label you a terror suspect. Lawsuits against Israeli authorities would be filed in legion and the abuse of detainees would be one of the greatest recruiting tools the extreme right has ever had.

So what’s to be done? Unlike organized crime violence, Price Tags are a form of terrorism. Still, the solutions should be similar. You need witnesses, you need evidence, you need more officers in the field at all times, and you need the budget to supply those man hours. You also need judges willing to give sentences that deter future offenders.

For the most part price tags are difficult crimes to police. There is little to no forensic evidence or witnesses, suspects almost never crack under questioning, and most of the people brought in are minors. Nonetheless, with more resources there should be more results.

Such resources would require willpower and public outrage that may be lacking. In that sense, Gillon might be right, though next time a former Shin Bet Chief starts giving advice, someone should ask what they’re actually suggesting.

Not a celebrity funeral?

The morning after organized crime figure Charlie Abutbul was found dead from a (self-inflicted?) gunshot wound to the head in his Netanya home, a conspiracy began forming on a WhatsApp group for Israeli crime reporters.

A death notice for Charlie Abutbul posted on a wall in Netanya.

A death notice for Charlie Abutbul posted on a wall in Netanya.

The first salvo was sent out by a reporter from an Israeli TV channel, who said the family doesn’t want the press to cover the funeral, and maybe we could all agree not to go. He was answered by a well-known radio reporter who agreed, as well as a website reporter who said that members of the family almost attacked a reporter outside Charlie’s home on Thursday and that he’s not going.

A veteran reporter who now writes for a popular news portal upped the stakes, saying “I’m not going and its a disgrace if any of us go”, later writing “whoever goes anyway that’s their call, but the public will decide for themselves which of us are turning the underworld into celebs and people to admire.”

The claim that the Israeli media makes local criminals into celebrities is a common one, albeit one usually made by police. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of truth to it. These days even small-time or mid-level associates are often referred to as “organized crime figures” by the media, and almost every member of a two-bit crew of loan sharks and extortionists can hear himself called “part of a criminal organization in the underworld”, after he’s hauled in on a weapons charge. Their friends and enemies back in their neighborhood see it, the girls who follow them to the courthouse perk up when they hear it, and once they’re released, (they’re almost always released without indictment) their reputation grows. The situation becomes more absurd in cases like one a couple months ago when a young man was arrested for stealing a scooter in Tel Aviv and the story made headlines because he’s a member of the Abutbul family, unlike the other scores of people who’ve stolen scooters in the city in recent months.

Still, is the criticism totally fair? Are Israeli reporters responsible for making mobsters and “members of the underworld” famous when just the past six months there’s been over two dozen criminal murders and more than a dozen car bombs? Does the coverage of mob funerals and weddings bear more responsibility for the spotlight on the underworld than the cars blowing up in the center of Israeli cities? Obviously not, but an attitude persists among police and many members of the press that murders within the underworld are not stories of great importance to the Israeli public, that they’re little more than a sort of insider baseball for lowlifes gunning each other down over turf wars most everyday Israelis don’t know are even happening.

Nonetheless, the reporter who said of Charlie “let’s not go, he’s not a celebrity”, was wrong. In today’s Israel big name underworld figures are genuine celebrities, especially a man like Charlie, who was a senior member of one of the few criminal organizations everyone in the country knows, civilians included.

There’s little that’s newsworthy about the funeral itself, though it’s a good way to get color and photos or video for the TV report. The death of Charlie on the other hand, is quite newsworthy. His death (still being investigated as a suicide) and similar ones in the underworld help shape the criminal landscape in Israel, a world that even when it’s beyond the eyes of most Israelis still has a serious effect on the communities they live in. Furthermore, the story of Charlie’s life and death is part of the wider tale of an Israeli family from North Africa that helped define the criminal world of the country for decades, a family whose life story and that of family’s like it are part of the fabric of this country’s history.

On Friday, mere hours after the WhatsApp argument began, the funeral ended in Netanya. Around 200 or so people attended, a much more muted affair than when Charlie’s brother Felix, the Godfather who made the family famous, was laid to rest in the city after he was murdered in Prague in 2002. That time, the funeral resembled that of a head of state, as the city heaved with well-wishers from across the country, and store owners in the city center shut down for the day.

Among those present on Friday were a handful of crime reporters, and by the evening footage of the funeral was posted on a handful of Israeli websites, WhatsApp argument be damned.

Doth Danino protest too much?

It was a hot mic moment, even if police did invite the reporter to the event to begin with.

On Tuesday, during a visit to the Ayalon subdistict headquarters in Holon, Israel Police Chief Inspector General Yochanan Danino started firing in all directions, mainly at the press and how they’ve handled the recent wave of underworld killings in Israel.

Police and ZAKA workers at the scene of a double murder drive-by in Petah Tikva in last June, which remains unsolved (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Police and ZAKA workers at the scene of a double murder drive-by in Petah Tikva in last June, which remains unsolved (Photo: Ben Hartman)

“You turn on the radio in the morning and you hear there’s an emergency situation and you have to head for the bomb shelter. This is called the reality as the media sees it. I would like to calm everyone down and tell you that the pubic believes you and the public is not afraid,” Danino said, adding that Israel has known worse periods of crime in the past.

Speaking of the country’s crime reporters, many of who have a less than loving relationship with Danino, he said “there are police reporters who are afraid that they wont have anything to write about anymore. They say the situation is an emergency but the facts are completely different.”

Further, Israel’s top cop said the real problem is that “people in this country talk like they’re experts when they don’t understand anything” and that “Israelis don’t know how to give credit where its due”.

He then mentioned the latest underworld killing, the murder of a 27-year-old Jaffa man known to police, who was gunned down on the Tel Aviv seafront just north of Jaffa, in front of hundreds of witnesses.

“If this had been 50 meters south [in Jaffa] no one would have cared but because it was next to the tahana center everyone was screaming to the high heavens.”

Now, what do you do in a situation like this? If you’re Danino, you just turn off the news, tune it out altogether.
“I already stopped listening to the radio, I suggest you do that same,” Danino told the cops at the Holon station.
All these gems were picked up by Azri Amram, a reporter for Ch. 2 who was invited to attend the visit and film it. According to police, Amram, one of the hardest-working reporters I’ve met in Israel, was told explicitly that the visit was to be off the record, no interviews, no quotes. They then sent out an announcement to all crime reporters and media outlets in Israel criticizing the report, saying it was out of context and accusing Amram of a grave violation of journalistic ethics.

Basically, we invited you to our party and you turned over the punch bowl and pissed in the mashed potatoes.
Within minutes, other outlets were running Ch. 2′s story, Danino took another black eye from the press, and his thorny relationship with Israel’s crime reporters took another hit to the gut.

On the other hand, is there something to what Danino is saying?

In terms of the killing on the seafront, there was definitely something to what he said. If that killing had been a few blocks south in Jaffa, chances are it wouldn’t have been a huge story. On a Sunday afternoon in Jaffa in November a young man was gunned down on Yehuda Hayamit street and it made barely blip in the national news. But Saturday’s killing was on the seafront just a bit too far north, across from the Tahana where hundreds of Israelis were visiting a chocolate festival.

It’s true that Israel has seen nearly a dozen car bombs in the past four months and almost two dozen underworld killings, as explosions and shootings have been seen in cities across the country. In addition, police have made a series of high-profile arrests of mafia figures large and small in the last few months, only to see almost all of them released a few days later due to lack of evidence.

That said, some of the panic is a bit out of proportion. No, Israel is not Chicago in the 20s and 30s nor does the level of violent crime or insecurity really compare to that of almost any major American city. Also, despite all the headlines about “criminal terrorism” and citizens afraid to leave their houses, Israel’s crime rate was worse in recent years and there have been other phases like this in the past, some that were arguably worse.

There was the war between the Abergil family and Ze’ev Rosenstein and his associates a decade ago that saw a bomb blast (meant for Rosenstein) kill four innocent bystanders outside a currency exchange on Yehuda Halevi in Tel Aviv. In the late 80s and early 90s there was the war between the Pardes Katz gang and the Ramat Amidar that saw a heap of bodies dropped on the streets of central Israel. Recently, there’s also been the brutal war waged between the gangs in East and West Rishon Letzion, a gang feud that has also taken a dozen victims.

Still, as any wise police officer will tell you, there’s statistic and there’s perception. And regardless of if police are able to statistically reduce the number of mob hits and murders, as long as the public feels that the situation is not under their control, they will continue to be criticized.

A day before the Ch 2 article came out I heard a crime reporter talking about how with all due respect to the Israeli mob, some of the panic is out of proportion, and the sensationalism is being flamed by editors looking either to sell papers or smear Netanyahu or both. One reporter joked about how after the arrest of 8 members of a southern Israel crime family last week a reporter at a rival paper already had written an article ready to publish for when the gangsters are released without charge due to a lack of evidence.

Are people out to get the police and Danino? Sure, some are. But the criticism is the symptom of the inability of police to win public trust, in a country where the Army and security services are sacred and the mob doesn’t seem to hesitate to settle accounts in broad daylight. It’s also indicative of the the inability of the top police brass to understand the media.

The day after Danino’s comments were published, Israel Radio crime reporter Adi Meiri dropped a bombshell scoop – the witness in the Bar Noar double murder case has been arrested and the indictment against Hagai Felician is on the verge of collapse. Also Wednesday, the High Court lifted the gag order on a decade old case revealing that Efraim Bracha, today the head of the “YAHA” anti-fraud unit burned a police agent for his own personal gain, after which the state lost a lawsuit to the informant. Despite the wrongdoing, Bracha continued to move up the ranks of the police.
Good thing Danino doesn’t listen to the radio.