In August 2005, an Israeli soldier named Natan Eden Zada embarked on a bus driving in the direction of the Arab village of Shfara’am. He then proceeded to open fire on the passengers with an automatic weapon. Four innocent Arab citizens were murdered in cold blood, and another twenty people were injured. After Zada was neutralized by other passengers on the bus, an angry mob stormed the bus and killed Zada. Policemen, who were called to the scene, were injured by the rioters as they attempted to calm the situation.

Yesterday, District Court Judges in Haifa acquitted seven Arab citizens, who were involved in the mob that attacked Zada, from indictments of attempted murder, and convicted most of the defendants with charges of assaulting law enforcement officers, preventing law enforcement officers from carrying out their duties, and hazardous rioting. Two of the defendants were convicted of assault and battery and four of them were convicted of attempted manslaughter.

Hundreds of people, including several Members of Knesset, demonstrated outside of the Courthouse during the sentencing session, calling for all of those indicted in the case to be acquitted from all criminal liability.

MK Hanin Zoabi stated before the sentences were read: “this is political persecution of the Palestinian people. Instead of the state protecting the Palestinians from murderers, the state is sending a clear message to everybody that it is forbidden to harm anyone who plans to murder Arabs”. MK Machmud Barake exceeded even Zoabi’s claims by stating: “They cannot be guilty. The guilt belongs with the settlements and the radical right, and the government is an incubator for them, cultivating their legitimacy. We will not be satisfied with anything less than acquitting the victims, who are standing in a political, admonitory trial. We will not accept the formula of being killed, being buried, and being tried. This is a political trial. Those who trained Zada gave him support and guidance to come to Shfara’am and murder. They are the guilty parties. Any result other than acquittals, will be appalling”.

The essence of true leadership 

According to any moral standard, Zada’s acts were loathsome and despicable. No rational person can think otherwise. However, political leaders like Zoabi and Barake, who exploit such a tragic event to de-legitimize the Israeli legal system, are not doing the people they represent any favors.

From a legal perspective, there is no question that this is a complicated case, and we can expect the court’s ruling to be studied by law faculties for many years to come. I will not endeavor to analyze the judges’ decision, and will be happy to leave that task to criminal law experts. That being said, it appears that the judges carried out their responsibilities in a professional manner.

It is difficult to ignore the fact that the court’s ruling regarding the riot and murder in the North, and the ensuing public protest, came down within two weeks after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the USA, the young white/Hispanic man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American youth. George Zimmerman claimed, during his trial, that he shot him because he “felt threatened” and that his life was in jeopardy. Though it was never proven in court, many felt that Zimmerman profiled Martin as being dangerous due to the color of his skin. Zimmerman’s trial awakened deep racial tensions in the USA, and thousands took to the streets to protest his acquittal.

A few days after Zimmerman’s verdict was published, I had a conversation with Dr. Fitzgerald Hill, an African American friend, who serves as the President of an African American college in the southern state of Arkansas. I asked Dr. Hill about his opinion on the Trayvon Martin case, and he answered: “the only reason that Trayvon’s story reached the headlines is the fact that Zimmerman happened to be non-Black. Hundreds of Black youths kill each other every day in our urban centers, and none of us says a word. We all go on with our daily agendas, as if nothing happened. Before we go to the streets to demonstrate against the courts in Florida, we should do some personal soul searching regarding the standard of behavior we expect within our own communities”.

That is the response of a man who deserves to be a leader. He has demonstrated the ability to transcend the trauma of a tragic and painful incident, in order to pacify current unrest, and to call for societal reforms that address the root of the problem. He has refused to cynically exploit the situation to advance the de-legitimization of the entire system.

If Zoabi, Barake and their associates were interested in justifying their leadership positions, their message under such circumstances should have been: “Notwithstanding the deep fury that we feel over this heinous murder, any act of violence against policemen is unacceptable. The Israeli police are charged with protecting the lives of Arab and Jewish citizens. We have an interest, as Israeli Arabs, in allowing the police to properly carry out their duties. We will not be able to complain that they are not duly enforcing the law against those who carry out honor killings, for instance, if they must fear for their lives when entering Arab villages in order to restore the public peace”.

 It is a shame, Ms. Zoabi and Mr. Barake that you did not miss another opportunity, to miss another opportunity to lead.