Identity, Israel, Justice

The Summer is Over; It’s Time to Address the Winter of Police Violence inside Israel

Sarah Stern is originally from Washington D.C. and currently works at the Mossawa Center in Haifa. 

This summer, as I considered from far-away in Haifa what it would be like to live in Gaza or Southern Israel, many of my American Jewish friends on the East Coast were considering what it would be like to live in Ferguson. My friends in America and I were both watching each other’s dramas, with many Jews very emotionally invested from overseas in what was happening in Israel. For young Jews like me who began forming opinions on Israel/Palestine during Operation Cast Lead in 2008, we were frustrated that in our short adult memory, we could vividly recall three all-too similar wars in the past six years.
Organizing in support of Gazans was crucial – and wow, there were American Jews who did it well. Likewise, standing in solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank or East Jerusalem is something more and more Jews are doing. And then there’s Israel. I think we sometimes forget about discrimination on Israel’s side of the green line. Recently, working at the Mossawa Center in Haifa, an advocacy center for Arab citizens of Israel, during the turmoil of this summer and now, has given me a new perspective on this community. I spend my days considering what it would be like to live here as an Arab citizen.
One of the biggest communal grievances by Arab citizens of Israel is their treatment by the largely Jewish Israeli police forces. Distrust of the police as well as Arabs citizens who become officers runs deep, with 35 Arab citizens killed by police since 2000, 13 others by soldiers or Jewish civilians. Only in three cases were border police convicted of a crime and in those cases only served 6-14 months. The Mossawa Center, with support of the New Israel Fund, is now launching a campaign about the latest casualty of police brutality, Khayr al-Din Hamdan.
On the morning of Saturday, November 8th, after his cousin was arrested by the police, Hamdan approached a police car and began making stabbing motions at the window with an object in his hands. When he backed down and turned away from the vehicle, the police exited the car, at which point a member of the police squad shot him through the elbow into his side as he turned to look back at them. The appropriate police protocol is to fire a warning shot in the air and aim below the waste if necessary for self-defence. Neither of these precautions was taken, and instead, the policemen dragged Hamdan into the car where he bled to death as he was transferred to a hospital that was significantly farther than two other options located closer the shooting.
The whole incident is uncomfortable – it is not Ferguson, it is not Michael Brown with his hands up, but disturbing security camera video footage shows violation of protocol and has gone viral. Hamdan was shot while he was backing away and his body was then thrown around like a sack of flour. The demonstrations that have erupted in the North and Triangle areas have included thousands of protestors, over a hundred arrests, and the police entered high schools and threatened students from organizing in reaction to this event.
Whether it’s Ferguson or not Ferguson (it’s not. It’s Kufr Kanna), I urge anyone in the Jewish community who mourned Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin to follow this. Because unfortunately, there will be more incidents like this, unless we do something.
I sense that the whole issue of Arab citizens is uncomfortable for American Jews, especially those who are desirous of a Jewish state in some form. It’s sometimes easier to protest about Gaza or oppose occupation in the West Bank, because the human rights violations are more egregious and the disparity of military law more outrageous “over there.” But we can’t forget about “over here,” for every Jew who visits or lives here, because Israel turned out long ago to not be the nice Jewish Democracy that we would like to imagine.
I’m heartened that my American Jewish community has an adept way of making something that’s “over there,” part of “over here,” part of their experience, part of their Jewish values. I think that’s what engagement with Ferguson meant for many of my Jewish friends. It’s why 30 Rabbis went to Ferguson in October, to demand that police repent for their murder of Michael Brown. By then the international media had mostly stopped paying attention to him. There are huge disturbing news stories coming out about Israel/Palestine these days – terrorist attacks, tensions over Al-Aqsa. Khayr al-Din Hamdan will be out of the news cycle soon, but I’m hoping there will be Jews who continue to demand repentance by the police officers responsible for the killing who wear the badge of a Jewish state.
The work that I do here in Israel is to build a state that I would proud be to take citizenship in. That means one where everyone feels like they are treated as fully equal citizens. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet – on either side of the green line. In order to earn that, it’s important that we pay attention to the ways that Arab citizens feel that they have been wronged and make that a part of how we understand Israel.

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