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The price of restraint

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz Sunday, July 22, 2001

On Thursday evening, three members of the Tmeizi family were ambushed and murdered, including a 10-week-old infant, Diya, and the recently married young man, Mohammed. One may assume that the murderers - almost certainly Israelis, apparently settlers - will be apprehended shortly since the Shin Bet security services and the police will make a special effort to capture them this time: The murder was a particularly shocking one, which was quickly denounced by the country's leaders.

But even if this is the case, the three deaths are the direct result of the restraint of the law and order authorities. After all, even if the murderers are apprehended, tried and convicted - a rare occurrence in the case of violent acts committed by settlers - they will serve minimal sentences, to judge by past experience.

The restraint has its roots in the first Intifada. Even then, Israel chose to close its eyes to civilian violence in the occupied territories. Out of 48 cases in which Palestinians were killed by Israeli citizens, 27 cases were closed before any charges were filed. These statistics have only gotten worse over time: A report published about four months ago by B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, documents 199 cases of manslaughter and murder of Palestinians by Israeli citizens; only six yielded murder convictions. In six cases of death, the police did not initiate an investigation, and in another 39 the cases were closed.

The punishments were also minimal: The sentences of four of the Jews who were convicted of murder were reduced, five of those convicted of manslaughter were sentenced to less than four years in prison, and five of the seven Israelis convicted of negligent manslaughter did community service instead of prison time.

On the other hand, in all 114 cases of murder and manslaughter of Israelis by Palestinians in the territories (up to March of this year), the cases were investigated. Thirty Palestinians were convicted of murder, 17 were killed by the security forces, 12 homes of murderers were demolished. No sentences were shortened, and of course there is no point in even mentioning a pardon.

This picture is a difficult and infuriating one when it comes to less serious crimes than murder and manslaughter, too. In most cases of violence or damage to property, no investigation is ever initiated. The message is clear: It isn't terrible to kill Arabs, hurting them or their property is almost normal. Revenge is understood and sometimes also permitted, as long as it's Jewish.

This situation has reached a new low in recent weeks. In a time of increasing Palestinian terror, no day passes without pogroms by settlers, and the police, the Israel Defense Forces and the other security forces stand there, sometimes closing their eyes and sometimes winking. Amir Ahmed, 13, was badly wounded when he was shot by settlers. Abdallah Ka'ik, an Israeli Arab who was mistakenly thought to be from the territories, was badly beaten. Settlers rampaged in Kifal Harith, near the West Bank city of Ariel, and injured 15 people. In Sinjil, north of Ramallah, settlers fired shots, burned and destroyed property. Near the Gaza Strip settlement of Kfar Yam, settlers destroyed property and rioted. In Hebron, settlers smashed shops and injured police officers and soldiers. In Silat Al Dahar, settlers shot at passengers in a car. Mustafa Alian of the Askar refugee camp was stoned to death. Two olive harvesters were badly injured near the settlement of Yitzhar. Tahrir Rizq was shot in the head and killed near Hizmeh.

In most of these cases and in many others, no one was arrested. Yaron Degani and Gad Tena of Itamar, who were arrested on suspicion of killing olive harvester Farid Nasasrah, were released after five days on the grounds of "insufficient evidence" and "the Palestinian Authority is not cooperating in the murder investigation."

After four shooting incidents similar to the one at Idna last Thursday, no one was arrested although the head of the Shin Bet is already speaking about a "Jewish terror cell" and it should be relatively easy to apprehend because of the small population from which it is reckoned to have come.

The restraint over actions by the extreme right includes all governmental authorities: the police, the IDF, the Shin Bet, the courts and the authorities that grant pardons. It is a dangerous restraint, whose putrid fruits led to the most recent murder at Idna: The persons who carried it out believed that their chances of getting caught were infinitesimal.

Responsibility for this murder, like its predecessors, must then also lie at the feet of the Israeli legal authorities. The writing has been on the wall for a long time: suffice it to look at the 1982 Karp Report and the 1994 Shamgar Report on settler violence against Palestinians. Even Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, whom no one could accuse of hating settlers, spoke in 1998 about a "continuing and serious situation of under-enforcement of the law against Israelis living in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip."

Beyond the legal and moral aspect of a state that discriminates between peoples, permits acts of violence and murder by closing its eyes and treats the crimes of its citizens with understanding - the restraint has a heavy price. It has already led to much bloodshed, on both sides, and in the end it will lead to acts that even the extreme right could be sorry for. Settlers from Yitzhar have already threatened an IDF officer with drawn guns; in Hebron soldiers have been hit more than once.

Anyone who shows forgiveness to those who burn fields, pardons those who beat up Arabs and does not punish their murderers, will one day also be faced with the killers of Israeli soldiers.

In the meantime, the restraint also undermines Israeli arguments regarding the PA's inability to fight terror: it is a little hard to complain about the "revolving door," the lack of arrests and failure to prevent terror at a time that Israel, a sovereign state rich in security apparatuses, does the same thing when it comes to its own, homegrown terror.

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