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Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Palestinians know not to expect justice from Israeli police
A mural depicting Eyad Hallaq in Bethlehem.

On May 30, Eyad Hallaq, a thirty-two-year-old Palestinian man with autism, was on his way to his special needs school in East Jerusalem when he was shot and killed by Israeli police. In the moments before his death, his caregiver, Warda Abu Hadid, repeatedly told the officers that Hallaq was disabled; he also told them “I’m with her,” but to no avail. They opened fire.

Hallaq’s killing sparked protests across the West Bank and inside Israel, and many Palestinians and their supporters have drawn parallels between his death and that of George Floyd in Minneapolis—as well as between Israeli and American policing.

According to his caregiver and family, Hallaq was confused when a group of Israeli border police started shouting at him, ordering him to stop. He did not make eye contact or engage with the officers. He was on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum and had trouble communicating with others, said his mother, Rana. The shouts sent Hallaq running, and he eventually hid behind a garbage dumpster in an alley, where he was shot. Israeli border police— a kind of gendarmerie known to Palestinians for its brutality—said that officers mistakenly thought Hallaq had a gun.

Abu Hadid told officers that Hallaq did not comprehend their calls. She asked them to check his ID, given to him by his school, which explained his disability. Still, they shot several rounds, two of which hit Hallaq in the chest. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, at least eleven unarmed Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in 2018 and 2019 as they fled.

Policing practices in the United States and Israel are connected by more than just images.

Hallaq’s killing prompted a rare apology from the Israeli government. Benny Gantz, the country’s defense minister and alternate prime minister under a power-sharing deal, said there would be a swift investigation into his death. Amir Ohana, Israel’s public security minister, said the Hallaq family “deserves a hug” and that the process by which officers recognize and deal with disabled people would be reviewed, but he stressed that he did not want to see the protests in Minneapolis “imported” to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was sitting near Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting where he announced the investigation into Hallaq’s death, made no mention of it at all in his opening remarks. He later called the incident a tragedy but stopped short of apologizing.

Palestinians and their supporters have compared Hallaq’s killing to recent police violence exercised against Black communities in the United States while also drawing larger similarities between the structural disregard for Palestinian lives by Israel and the lives of Black Americans. Saeb Erakat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), called Hallaq’s killing a “crime that will be met with impunity unless the world stops treating Israel as a state above the law.” He also made reference to “I can’t breathe,” the last words uttered by Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man killed by New York City police in 2014. The phrase, now synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement, was also spoken by Floyd as he gasped for air under Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee.

Black organizers like Angela Davis, in her book Freedom is a Constant Struggle and other writings, have long called for solidarity with Palestinians. In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives formally declared its support for Palestinians; while acknowledging their differences, both the Palestinian rights movement and Black organizers in the United States have pointed out that they continue to struggle against similar oppressive power structures. Palestinian flags are often raised at protests in solidarity with Black communities and against police violence. Similarly, during protests across the West Bank and Israel condemning Hallaq’s killing, demonstrators held signs that read “I can’t breathe,” “Justice For Eyad, Justice for George,” and “Palestinian lives matter,” paralleling the slogans used in U.S. protests against police brutality. They also carried pictures of Israeli soldiers pressing down on the necks of Palestinians with their knees: a direct reference to the technique used to kill Floyd.

Policing practices in the United States and Israel are connected by more than just images. In 2018, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and Researching the American Israeli Alliance (RAIA), a research group focused on Israeli-American affairs, pointed to problematic joint training sessions held between police officers in the United States and their Israeli counterparts. They reported that over the past two decades, hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officials have traveled to Israel on police exchange trips. (Amnesty International puts the figure in the thousands.) There, they’ve learned and brought home tactics like racial profiling, crowd control, and surveillance that Israel employs against the millions of Palestinians it controls under its military occupation. The chokeholds used to kill Garner and Floyd, for example, are frequently used by Israeli forces on Palestinians.

Security forces have also been criticized for using excessive force, often leaving individuals they’ve shot to bleed out while denying them medical access.

Of course, U.S. police have been brutalizing communities of color and repressing their freedoms long before the existence of Israel, using documented practices rooted in preserving slavery and protecting private property. But now it seems they are reaching beyond their own history and learning from a state that exercises brutal military control over Palestinians. “American police already have a terrible track record on civil rights and racism—and then they go to Israel and train with Israeli police and security agencies that are documented human rights violators!” said Jewish Voice for Peace director Stefanie Fox. “We should be investing in our communities, not militarizing our police.”

Much like Black communities in the United States, Palestinians have little faith that investigations into the deaths of their loved ones will result in any accountability. B’Tselem cites probes into the killing of some two hundred Palestinians by the Israeli army and police between April 2011 and May 2020, which resulted in the conviction of only five soldiers, as evidence that justice is an unlikely outcome.

Rights groups—both Palestinian and Israeli—have long accused Israeli police of being quick to shoot suspects first and ask questions later. Security forces have also been criticized for using excessive force, often leaving individuals they’ve shot to bleed out while denying them medical access. Both occurred in the case of Hallaq, whose father called his slain son “child-like” and said that he had no conception of the danger around him. “He was thirty-two, but he had the mind of an eight- or nine-year-old child. He never recognized people as Arab or Jew or Christian or Muslim,” said Khairy Hallaq, who added that Eyad was not, and could never be, a security threat to officers.

“Eyad was a victim of Israel’s long-standing shoot-to-kill policy in which any Palestinian can be killed on the spot without reason,” said Diana Buttu, a political analyst who visited and spoke to the Hallaq family. “This shoot-to-kill policy has been condemned universally whether by the United Nations through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and by numerous Palestinian human rights organizations.”

Buttu continued: “His killing highlighted, perhaps for some for the first time, what it means to be caught in the cross-fire of the Israeli system, where soldiers are given shoot-to-kill orders, where Palestinians are automatically presumed guilty, and where Israelis presume that all Palestinians, and in particular Palestinian men, are able-bodied targets.”

In May alone, three other Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli forces. Israeli authorities said two of them were perpetrators of car-ramming attacks. In at least one case, family members refuted the claims. None of their deaths have so far been investigated.


Read more about police violence around the world.