Attorney General Endorses Police Review of Violence at Umm El Fahm; Forced to Re-Open Investigation after Public Outcry


On 24 January 2000, Adalah received a letter from Israel's Attorney General, Elyakim Rubinstein, endorsing the results of an internal police review concerning the violent clashes between police and protestors in Umm El Fahem, a Palestinian Arab town of 35,000 in the Triangle region of Israel, in September 1998. The internal review cleared the police of all responsibility for the clashes, and recommended that all complaints filed against individual officers be dropped due to the excessive difficulty of identifying particular individuals. 

In May 1998, approximately 18,000 dunams (4500 acres) of Palestinian Arab-owned farmland near the town of Umm El Fahem in the al-Roha region were incorporated by Military Order into an army firing range and declared a closed, military area. New restrictions on entry effectively prevented Palestinian Arab farmers with land in the new firing range from cultivating their crops. Farmers were only permitted to enter their farms on weekends, and even then only after acquiring special permits and costly insurance policies that absolved the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from all responsibility for potential injury. 

On 27 September, Israeli security forces dismantled a protest tent erected on the disputed land and beat residents who were present, then surrounded the public high school of Umm El Fahem and attacked the students and teachers inside with tear gas and rubber bullets. Altogether 400 residents were injured, approximately 70 of whom were hospitalized, including Umm El Fahem Mayor Sheik Raed Salah. Although dozens of residents of Umm El Fahem were detained during the protests, and many were beaten while in police custody and/or prevented from speaking with lawyers, the Knesset voted in December 1998 not to establish an independent committee to investigate the events. 

The internal police review committee claimed that the entry of civilians into an area defined as a firing zone was illegal, and necessitated removal. Moreover, the police claimed that its violent response to protesting residents was imperative given the "threat to public safety" created by the demonstrators who "gathered at Umm El Fahem junction, blocking the road and burning tires." On the same day as the violent clashes at al-Roha, however, Jewish residents of northern border communities staged a strike to protest the government's plan to reduce the economic benefits received by residents. Ha'aretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, reported that, "In the early morning hours, hundreds of residents gathered at main intersections in the north to burn tires and block the roads." Although these Jewish Israeli demonstrators were quite numerous and their protests significantly disrupted the area, interactions between police forces and citizens did not become violent or result in injuries to demonstrators, as they did at Umm El Fahem. 

Adalah's activities following the events in Umm El Fahem have been extensive. In the wake of the violence, police investigated numerous Umm El Fahm residents and protestors, two of whom Adalah represented. In addition, Adalah repeatedly called on the Attorney General's office and/or the Knesset to begin a formal investigation of the violence at Umm El Fahem. Adalah has also provided legal counsel for the al-Roha Committee, a coalition of local lawyers who have been gathering affidavits from individuals who witnessed and/or were injured in September's clashes. 

The Attorney General's decision to endorse the internal police review, released to the media by Adalah, was met with widespread condemnation and outrage throughout the country. Deputy Knesset Speaker Abd al-Malik Dahamshe immediately called on Rubinstein to resign, stating, "His decision is a sign of utter failure by the state of Israel and the Attorney General, who is entrusted with many responsibilities for which he is clearly unworthy." The chair of the Israeli Bar Association, Shlomo Cohen, wrote to the Attorney General, explaining that he was, "shocked to read the results of the police investigation, and even more shocked by your (Rubinstein's) acceptance of the events and investigation. It is difficult to accept that you, as chief law enforcement officer of the state, have gone along with such and investigation. The results of this 'investigation,' and even more your acceptance of them, are a harsh blow to the rule of law, equality in the eyes of law, and law enforcement in Israel." MK Hashem Mahameed characterized Rubenstein's decision as a "whitewash" which, "adds insult to injury, legitimizing violence and retroactively permitting the police to use violence against Arab citizens." (See English Edition of Ha'aretz, 27 January 2000) 

As a result of this overwhelming outcry, the Attorney General decided to refer the accusations of police brutality back to the Internal Investigation Department, whose head announced on 15 February 2000 that the investigation would be re-opened in light of "new evidence." Adalah will continue to monitor this new investigation, and will work closely wth the Al-Roha Committee to gather testimonial evidence and documents to present to the investigation committee. 

See also Julia Kernochan's "Land Confiscation and Police Brutality in Umm El Fahem" Adalah's Review,Vol 1., Politics, Identity and Law, Fall 1999