JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - In a case closely watched as a barometer of strained relations between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens, an investigative panel concluded yesterday that Israeli police used excessive force in quelling deadly riots three years ago, and it issued a sweeping indictment against top police officials and political leaders.
In two volumes totaling 831 pages, the panel - known as the Orr Commission - concluded that a security establishment rife with "prejudice and neglect" led police to fire on crowds of unarmed demonstrators, killing 13 Arab-Israelis in the country's north.
"The clashes widened the gap, reduced the contacts between the two societies and increased suspicion and hostility," the report says in its opening summary, which recommends that the national police force "instill among its policemen that the Arab population in the state is not an enemy."
But instead of narrowing the divide between the two groups - widened further by the Palestinian uprising with which Israel's minority Arabs sympathize - the report has created new schisms and reinforced old hatreds.
Israeli police complain that they have been criticized for doing their jobs and vow to support officers who "acted under the cover of law." Victims' relatives argue that the report fails to assign individual culpability for the deaths.
The report singled out only a handful of police officers in the killings, recommending that one, Maj. Guy Reif, be dismissed from the force but not face criminal charges. Reif had fired an M-16 rifle into a crowd of stone-throwers, killing two people. Emad Farraj Ghananym, 25, was hit in the head.
Yesterday, Ghada Ghananym, 33, fought tears as she stood outside a room where reporters had gathered for a news conference, holding a poster of her brother's bloodied body.
"There is no justice in this country," she said, adding that the officer had gotten off easy. "He should be in prison."
The hearings, presided over by a three-member panel headed by Israeli Supreme Court Justice Theodore Orr, lasted 18 months, from February 2001 through August last year. They included testimony from 377 witnesses, among them former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and more than 4,200 exhibits.
The commission's recommendations are not binding but will have to be taken seriously. Such a panel has been set up only a few times in Israel's history - to investigate the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and Israel's culpability in massacres in refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982.
Barak, who led the government at the time of the rioting, emerged relatively unscathed, facing no recommendations for formal sanctions. However, the report did criticize him for "not fulfilling his obligations" as prime minister.
The panel recommended that then-Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami be barred from holding that post again, calling his actions a "significant failure." Most of the officials criticized no longer hold government jobs.
The report suggested that some police officers involved in shootings should resign or be barred from promotion, but it also criticized Arab members of Israel's parliament for inciting the crowds, which "contributed significantly to inflaming the atmosphere and making the violence more severe."
The deadly 2000 riots
The release of the report yesterday came exactly three years after the outbreak of demonstrations, as tens of thousands of Arab-Israelis - who number about 1.3 million, about 20 percent of Israel's population - took to the streets to protest Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The incidents coincided with the start of the Palestinian uprising.
The riots lasted two days in Nazareth and longer in other towns. Mobs burned buses and cars, threw Molotov cocktails, and forced police into quick retreats. The violence spread to the coastal cities of Acre and Haifa; to Arab neighborhoods around Tel Aviv, where Jews retaliated and burned Arab houses and businesses; and to Jerusalem, where ultra-Orthodox youths stoned Arab cars.
While the report went into excruciating detail about the riots, its authors, who include an Arab-Israeli judge, sought to address the most vexing issues of a society whose identity revolves around the idea of a Jewish state but at the same time strives to uphold democratic, inclusive ideals.
The rift between Arabs and Jews has grown over the past three years as police have accused Arab-Israeli groups of using their freedoms to help Palestinians from the West Bank carry out suicide bombings and other attacks.
Even though the rioting and deaths occurred three years ago, the panel's findings are meaningful today because of the continuing rift and because of the broader issues of coexistence, which are being tested by violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
"The events, their unusual nature, and the severe results are an outcome of very deep issues that created a combustible situation among the Arab population," the report says. "The state failed to cope seriously and comprehensively with the difficult problems that are created by a big minority of Arabs in a Jewish state. The government's handling of the Arab sector was characterized mostly by neglect and discrimination."
The report criticizes Israeli leaders for failing to provide impoverished Arab-Israelis with adequate education, housing, jobs and services, and for neglecting basic law enforcement, which allowed radical ideas to ferment, including the support of Palestinian doctrine calling for the elimination of Israel.
Dealing with the Arab community, the report said, "is the most important, sensitive issue that is on the state's agenda and it requires involvement, handling and leadership personally from the prime minister. This has been neglected for years."
The report reminds the Jewish majority "that the events that turned Arabs into a minority in the state [the 1948 Arab-Israeli war] was for them a national catastrophe. We must honor their identity, culture and heritage."
'Writing on the wall'
Mohammed Barakeh, an Arab-Israeli member of parliament, called the report's contents "explosive material."
"The writing is on the wall," he said. "Whoever doesn't read the writing of October 2000 doesn't know where he is heading. If there won't be full civil attitude toward Arab citizens, we shall continue to feel discriminated against and pushed to the sidelines, and this entails many dangers."
The police response
The report left many issues unresolved, including who ordered an elite sniper team to the demonstrations. Many officers testified that they took aim from more than 100 yards away and shot agitators with rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition, hoping that would disperse the crowd.
Police Maj. Gen. David Tsur said at a news conference yesterday that police were ill-prepared for the riots, and that officers were not properly trained and lacked protective gear, which made them turn unnecessarily to their weapons.
That has changed, he said, and so has the makeup of the force. In the north, 17 percent of the officers are non-Jewish - a significant increase from three years ago, though he was unable to provide exact numbers.
"Of course we are sorry that those incidents happened, although we feel we are not the only people responsible," Tsur said. "The officers did something under the cover of law."