At the end of June 2021 the Israeli Justice Ministry announced that the policeman who shot Eyad Hallaq was to stand trial for reckless homicide. For those unfamiliar with the story, Eyad was an Arab resident of Jerusalem aged thirty two who was killed on 30th May 2020. He had autism and, it was estimated, a mental age of eight. Here, I must declare an interest as I too have a son with special needs. He is more impaired than Eyad and his diagnosis is uncertain. He has also been described as having autism -extreme atypical autism. I feel a certain empathy therefore with Eyad’s parents. Eyad was frightened by the Israeli police without properly understanding who they were -with good reason it transpired. He was challenged by them on his way to the college where he was cared for and subsequently killed by them.
Five days earlier George Floyd a black American was also killed by police this time on the streets of Minneapolis. The stories have a superficial similarity; in both cases a member of a minority group, posing no threat, falls victim to police brutality. The difference I was told at the time was that in Israel these cases are dealt with firmly; justice is done and seen to be done. As the common perception goes, no people are as self-critical as the Jews.
In fact the reverse has proved to be the case. Floyd’s murder was recognised immediately for the crime that it was. His family were visited by numerous celebrities, offering comfort, including the democratic candidate and soon to be President, Joe Biden. Eyad’s family by contrast had a visit from the police who, having killed their son, then searched their home and allegedly assaulted some of them. It took some time for, the then Prime Minister, Netanyahu to make a statement. When he did, he regretted what he called a tragedy, as though this episode was really the result of some unfortunate accident.
Since then the treatment of the perpetrators has also been very different. Floyd’s killer Derek Chauvin was arrested and his bail was set at $1.25 million. He has now been tried and found guilty of second and third degree murder. Eyad’s killer’s identity has not been publicised and for over a year no charges were brought against him. Now finally he has been charged, not with murder, but with reckless homicide. His case will come up for trial before the Israeli criminal courts who, one hopes, will deal with it with integrity. Part of the delay, I understand, has been caused by people, who actually felt that Israeli police should not be charged for killing Palestinians.
An important question is how was Eyad perceived. Was he to be seen as a mentally challenged civilian in need of protection in an environment which he found perplexing and quite frightening? He had little understanding of politics but knew enough to be scared. Or was he, by contrast a possible terrorist intent on causing damage to Israel even at the cost of his own life?.
I can identify with his parents uncertain how much freedom to give their handicapped son. Should they allow him to go unaccompanied to his school in the old city of Jerusalem? To protect him his mother bought him a mobile phone, a step taken by many parents of vulnerable children, thinking it would give him protection. It would enable him to call for help in case of danger. It proved to be his undoing. The police spotted it, thought it might be a gun and killed him.
In fairness it cannot have been that easy for the police. They had information that there was a terrorist around and Eyad’s behaviour was suspicious. But was it suspicious enough to take his life when he was lying prostrate on the ground and begging for mercy? His carer too was begging for mercy for him. Could they not have tried to neutralise him instead of filling him with more than half a dozen bullets.
I have heard in response that this was just one unfortunate killing and we should not make a fuss about it. But this was not just one incident. In the last week alone before this article was written, four Palestinian civilians were killed by the Israeli police. One was twelve years old and another seventeen. Another was twenty and was attending the funeral of the twelve year old when he was shot. The Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi, himself expressed concern that since May this year forty Palestinians have been killed. He has instructed senior Central Command officers to try to curb the bloodshed. This is not coming from some left wing bleeding heart, but from the man with ultimate responsibility for Israel’s defence. If he has concerns how can they be dismissed? Eyad is one of many. What stands out about him is not so much his innocence but his helplessness.
Some will say this is just a temporary occupation and the aim is to resolve it. Apart from the fact that fifty four years is hardly temporary, this killing took place not in the West Bank but in East Jerusalem which Israel has claimed since 1967 to be part of its own territory in perpetuity. There is not even the fig leaf of the pretence that this is temporary.
Part of the problem lies with openly racist religious Zionist leaders who say that an Arab life, is not worth a Jewish life. Just recently a racist Rabbi has been convicted of hate speech fined and given a suspended sentence. The prosecution have argued that he should have been given a custodial. But part of the problem lies with the rest of us who, while not going along with this racism, do not call it out. As has been said for evil to triumph all it needs is for good people to remain silent.