Israeli police officer need not have shot unarmed Palestinian man with disabilities, commander says

The unarmed Palestinian man with autism who was shot dead by an Israeli police officer posed no danger to anyone and there was no need to fire at him, the officer's commander said.

Protesters rally against Israel plans to annex parts of the West Bank, in Tel Aviv, Israel. On the right of the sign is a portrait of Eyad Hallaq.

Protesters rally against Israel plans to annex parts of the West Bank, in Tel Aviv, Israel. On the right of the sign is a portrait of Eyad Hallaq. Source: AP

An Israeli police officer who gunned down a Palestinian man who had autism defied an order to hold his fire and killed the man even though he posed no danger to anyone, his commander has told investigators. 

“He didn’t attack or do anything,” the commander testified, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“He was definitely not resisting.”

The 30 May shooting of Eyad al-Hallaq, 30, who was on his way to a school for those with a disability, came five days after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and quickly became a rallying cry against police brutality at political protests that have roiled Israel for much of the summer.

Mr al-Hallaq was about about 140 metres from the entrance to his school on a Saturday when police officers called to him as he entered the Old City through the Lions Gate.

Rather than stop, he ran along the Via Dolorosa. When the initial officers reported a potential “terrorist,” several others gave chase.

One of them, a 21-year-old commander who was just days away from leaving the force, told investigators he fired at Mr al-Hallaq’s lower body while racing after him, but missed.

Seeking cover, Mr al-Hallaq turned into the gate of a fenced-in area used by sanitation workers where, according to witnesses, he cowered against a wall as two Border Police officers cornered him: the 21-year-old and his 19-year-old partner who was a few weeks out of basic training. Their names have not been made public.

Both were performing their compulsory military service in the Border Police, a paramilitary arm of the Israeli police that operates on the West Bank, in parts of Jerusalem and in other volatile settings and is frequently called upon in situations with the potential to escalate into violence.

Witnesses have said that a teacher of Mr al-Hallaq’s saw the episode unfolding and tried to intervene, shouting at the officers that Mr al-Hallaq posed no threat.

But the commander’s testimony, as reported by Haaretz, suggests that, with or without disabilities, Mr al-Hallaq should not have been shot.

Protesters attend a rally in Tel Aviv holding a drawing representing Eyad Hallaq.
Source: AAP

Haaretz said it had obtained portions of both officers’ testimony to investigators at the Justice Ministry’s police-misconduct unit, which staged a reenactment at the scene late Wednesday night.

In Haaretz’s account, whose accuracy was confirmed by people briefed on the case, the older officer, having chased Mr al-Hallaq down, instantly grasped that “there was a discrepancy between the reports I got at the beginning - that this was a terrorist incident, that it was something intended to harm innocent people - and the situation in the trash room". 

“It’s a closed place with no way to escape from it,” the commander said, adding of Mr al-Hallaq: “He didn’t attack or do anything. He was definitely not resisting. He didn’t endanger me in that situation.”

The commander said that he and his partner should have “checked out the suspect from a distance, questioned him". 

But the 19-year-old did not heed his order, the commander testified: “Then my partner shot, and I yelled again, ‘Stop shooting, stop shooting.’ Apparently the suspect made some movement that caused my partner to shoot again.”

The 19-year-old, according to Haaretz, told investigators he based his decision to fire on the initial identification of Mr al-Hallaq as a “terrorist” and a movement that he saw Mr al-Hallaq make.

“I didn’t hear ‘Stop,’” the younger officer said.

“I acted the way I was taught. As far as I was concerned, this was a terrorist whom the force commander shot at before we entered the room.”

His lawyer, Efrat Nahmani Bar, emphasised her client’s inexperience, and said he believed Mr al-Hallaq - who was wearing dark surgical gloves, because of the coronavirus - was about to pull out a weapon.

“He’s a young soldier who thought he was doing the right thing,” she said.

Mr al-Hallaq was shot twice in the torso, an autopsy found.

In an interview, Mickey Levy, a lawmaker and former Jerusalem police commander, called the shooting “a severe operational error” that violated basic rules of engagement.

“They didn’t see any weapon in his hand, so they didn’t need to shoot,” he said.

The misconduct unit’s investigation is nearing an end, officials say. Surveillance video of the 30 May incident was inconclusive, because two cameras trained on the spot where Mr al-Hallaq was shot were not hooked up to recorders at the time, according to witnesses and investigators.

Still, the testimony of the police commander appeared to confirm the grim summation of the victim’s father, Khairi al-Hallaq, in a recent interview: “He hid in the corner, and they shot him".

Published 28 August 2020 at 11:23am
By Adam Rasgon, David M. Halbfinger © 2018 New York Times
Source: The New York Times