A press release by the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) revealed on Sunday that Israel’s Supreme Court has overturned a lower court’s decision ordering police to publish regulations on open-fire policy.
The ruling, made in June, will be a major obstacle in bringing Israeli officers involved in shooting incidents to justice.
The Adalah Attorney who filed the petition seeking the publication of the open-fire regulations, Mohammad Bassam, told Mondoweiss that Adalah found the case of particular importance because he believes making Israeli police open fire-regulations available to the public would “limit the use of deadly gunfire on the part of officers.”
In late 2015, Adalah had petitioned the courts seeking to require the police to make public sensitive sections of its open-fire regulations after new regulations were rumored to have been put in place, following a renewed wave of violence in Israel and Palestine.
While a lower court had initially ruled partially in favor of Adalah’s petition, compelling police to publish the official regulations governing the use of fatal gunfire, an appeal filed by the Israeli police asked the court to impose a publication ban on the sensitive parts of the regulations Adalah was fighting to uncover.
In June 2016, about six months after new regulations were distributed to forces, police did inform Adalah of several instances in which police are allowed to open fire using live ammunition. According to the release, those included instances in which an individual who “clearly appears to be throwing or is about to throw a firebomb, or who is shooting or is about to shoot fireworks,” as well as someone taking part in “stone throwing using a slingshot” — which would mean an officer could use deadly force on the majority of Palestinians taking part in clashes, where youth use rocks against fully armed Israeli forces.
Meanwhile, many other regulations remain secret.
Using Israel’s justice system, Adalah hoped to shed light on specific regulations, including: officers’ directives for confronting demonstrations in East Jerusalem and the Negev regions (different than those used in the occupied West Bank); directives for opening fire on minors; and directives regarding use of the Ruger sniper rifle for crowd dispersal purposes.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the regulations concerning use of fire in these instances, among many others, will be kept under wraps.
In an Adalah statement, Bassam said the Supreme Court’s decision is “intended to shield police directives from public criticism, thus hindering efforts to bring officers to justice for violations of the regulations.”
Bassam emphasised that the lower court’s initial ruling was made in favor of making open-fire regulations public under the assumption that “revealing the regulations would increase officers’ caution and adherence [to the regulations] prior to opening fire.”
“In a reality in which Israeli police policy promotes a light trigger finger – and in which officers shoot to kill in contravention of regulations – these regulations must be visible and clear,” Bassam said.
Impunity when Israeli forces break known regulations
Israeli police and army have very similar open-fire regulations, though there are differences — some of which are public, others of which are unknown due to the veil of secrecy surrounding the official regulations.
What we do know, is that even when Israeli forces, whether police or army, go against regulations made public, there is little to no oversight and those who are held accountable are granted extreme leniency.
“The Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department whitewashes investigations of police killings of Arab citizens even when – as was the case in a series of recent killings – there are strong suspicions that officers violated open-fire regulations and employed unjustified deadly force,” Bassem told Mondoweiss.
Adalah was unable to speak on Israeli army protocol, as most of its work deals with police forces, but a well-known incident from last year involving an Israeli soldier blatantly acting outside of official regulations outlines what various human rights groups have coined a culture of impunity surrounding both the Israeli police and army.
According to Israel’s open-fire regulations for both army and police, it is against protocol to shoot someone who is injured, incapacitated and unable to be a threat to life, however in March 2016 Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier on-duty at the time, was was caught on video shooting in the head 21-year-old Abdel al-Fattah al-Sharif at close range as the young man lay motionless on the ground, 11 minutes after he had already been shot and injured.
Azaria claimed he was concerned al-Sharif was strapped with a bomb, which, under both police and army regulations would give the soldier the greenlight to use deadly force. However, the judge ruling over the case rejected the claim as false. Azaria was found guilty of manslaughter.
Politicians, community leaders and civilians across Israeli society called for a full pardon. Prosecution demanded a three to five year sentence.
While the maximum sentence for such a crime is 20 years, Azaria was given a sentence of 18 months in prison, which was then reduced to 14.
Sahar Francis, the director of Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners’ rights NGO, told Mondoweiss at the time that the sentence brought to light “the policy of impunity and lack of accountability in a system of protracted Israeli military occupation.”
“The message this sends to other soldiers and police officers who extrajudicially execute Palestinians is that their actions will not be seriously accounted for and that impunity will persist,” Francis said.
According to Mati Milstein, a spokesperson for Adalah, for now the fight is over, as the Supreme Court ruling is final, leaving the organization with “no additional legal options available to pursue regarding the police open-fire regulations.”