Like many Palestinian citizens before him, Israeli police insist on holding Maysam Abu Alqian responsible for the beating he took in broad daylight.
The beating of 19-year-old Maysam Abu Alqian by plainclothes Border Police officers in central Tel Aviv on Sunday was depressingly familiar, both in the incident itself and its aftermath. Alqian, a Bedouin resident of Hura in the Negev Desert who works at a Tel Aviv supermarket, had stepped out of the store to take out the trash, when he was asked by the two plainclothes officers to present his ID. According to eyewitnesses, when he didn’t, they assaulted him, while other police officers came and joined in before hauling him off in a police car.
The police version of events is that Alqian attacked the officers first and that they “had to use force while the suspect continued attacking them,” according to spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld. For the time being, the police seem to be sticking to this version of events: in the middle of the night, Alqian was released to house arrest after a brief hearing. Although he eventually received delayed medical treatment, the police prevented his father from visiting him at the hospital.
Here, as is usually the case in such incidents, the onus is on the Palestinian victim to prove that they didn’t deserve to get a beating at the hands of the police. Indeed, when a Palestinian submits a formal complaint about police violence, Israeli police are in the habit of submitting a counter-claim alleging that the officers involved were the ones who had been attacked first, as Tom Mehager, who works with Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, wrote on Facebook after the incident.
(Police chief Roni Alsheikh, sticking to the victimhood theme, on Monday complained — apparently without irony — that the media had turned his force into its “punching bag.”)
The working assumption of the police when dealing with Palestinians is that whoever they have beaten up — or shot — is guilty until proven innocent. And that premise is rooted squarely in racism: as Mehager noted in his post, the believability of a version of events wherein someone suddenly jumps police officers in the middle of their work day only stands up “in a country where the police assume that Arabs are violent by their very nature.”
The “self-defense” claim is not the only falsehood that snakes into police accounts of events in which they are suspected of abuse or malpractice. Arguments that the victim was in the process of committing some other crime, or that the police fired in the air, rather than at an individual, abound.
That’s how it was when Sami al-Ja’ar, a 22-year-old Bedouin resident of Rahat, was shot dead by police during a drug raid near his home in January 2015. At the time, the police claimed not only that al-Ja’ar had been sitting in a car with drug dealers when he was shot, but that the officer in question had fired in the air. Both claims were later shown to be false, yet the case was closed for lack of evidence.
And what about Mohammed Sunuqrut, a 16-year-old East Jerusalem resident who in August 2014 was shot in the head and killed by a black sponge-tipped bullet, fired by an Israeli police officer? The police claimed that Sunuqrut had been throwing stones — a charge his family denied — and that he had been shot in the leg and hit his head when he fell to the ground. An investigation was launched, which finally concluded on Tuesday. The state admitted that the police officer had shot Sunuqrut in the head — or, in their formulation, “[a]s a consequence of the firing, the sponge-tipped bullet hit the head of the deceased.” The Justice Ministry closed the case for lack of evidence.
There’s also the July 2014 incident in East Jerusalem, during which 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir was savagely beaten by an Israeli police officer as he stood watching protests about the burning to death of his cousin, Mohammed, two days earlier. The police claimed that Abu Khdeir had been throwing stones, resisted arrest and was carrying a slingshot. He was held by the authorities for three days before being released and eventually cleared of wrongdoing. The officer involved was sentenced to 45 days’ community service, an outcome remarkable not for its leniency but for the fact that any punishment was handed down at all.
Then there’s A’alan Abu Najma, Nafez Damiri, Kheir Hamdan, Zakariya Julani, Ala Hamdan, Salah Suleiman, the Salman family, the 13 Palestinians shot dead by Israeli police in October 2000 and any number of Palestinians who do not want their names published for fear of retribution by the authorities.
The list is endless, and there is apparently an excuse — or even a justification — for every type of police violence in Israel-Palestine. Even on the rare occasions when a case goes to court, and the even rarer occasions when there is a conviction, the entire justice process is typified by delays, contempt for the law and a complete unwillingness to be held accountable. And all the while, the police violence continues: not just with beatings and shootings but also collective punishment, arrests of children, suppression of peaceful demonstrations and routine humiliation.
It’s not just Palestinians, either: Ethiopian Israelis are, judging by police statistics, twice as likely to be arrested as anyone else, and when demonstrations protesting police violence against the community finally erupted in May 2015, they were simply met with more police violence. It is, of course, impossible to know what goes on behind closed doors, but from the outside the police in Israel give the appearance of being completely out of control.
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On Monday, as Alqian was sitting under house arrest, bruised from the police beating, the news broke in the U.S. that one of the police officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, a black resident of Baltimore who later died from his injuries while in police custody, had been acquitted of all charges. These are not the shared values that U.S. and Israeli leaders speak of so protectively, but they’re the values that will dictate the course of events in each country far more than the freedom and equality both claim to promote.