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Parliamentary Inquiry into Amona: Police Minister Questioned

Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra appeared before the Knesset committee investigating the violence at Amona, amidst tension regarding Ezra's refusal to allow police officers to testify.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 3/1/2006, 2:00 PM / Last Update: 3/1/2006, 1:04 PM

The committee is chaired by MK Yuval Shteinitz (Likud), the chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. It is charged with investigating the events leading up to the violence, and the violence itself, that occurred during the police destruction of nine illegal Jewish structures in Amona, near Ofrah. Over 300 protestors, almost of them teenagers, were injured by police and required medical treatment - many of them in hospitals - and close to 50 policemen were reported injured as well. Protestors, backed up by pictures and videos (see below), told of dozens of cases in which police mercilessly beat defenseless protestors.

The first witness was Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra, in whose purview falls the police department. Though the four main members of the committee - Shteinitz, Uri Ariel (National Union), Matan Vilnai (Labor), and Ilan Shalgi (Hetz, formerly Shinui) - emphasized the objectivity of the committee, Ezra accused the committee of not trying to find the truth, but of rather wanting to besmirch the government, the police and the army.

"Instead of calling the rioters and instigators, you call the police to testify," Ezra said. MK Vilnai protested these remarks, saying that the rioters would also appear.

The main issue of contention is whether police and army officers who were in Amona will testify. Minister Ezra said he forbids the officers from appearing, except for Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi.

Shteinitz said that one of the questions he intends to ask the police officers in the field is, "What instructions did you receive from Minister Ezra, and how did you understand those instructions?" Shteinitz said he would have trouble asking this question of Ezra himself.

Later on in the meeting, Ezra said he would allow the police officers to appear in a closed-door session of the inquiry committee.

MK Ariel had earlier made his own concession, saying he would be willing to refrain from asking questions of the officers if they would agree to appear. He welcomed Ezra's concession, saying, "I hope there will be more in the future." It was not clear if Ariel's promise not to ask questions of the officers applies to a closed-door session as well.

Ezra claimed that the police have been threatened by "extremists" and that it was therefore unsafe for them to appear at the Knesset session. This claim was mocked by several of the MKs present, who said that it is the police's job to deal with threats, not give in to them or be afraid of them.

The issue of the police brutality, as filmed in at least one of the nine houses, was brought up directly only by one of the minor players in the committee - MK Uzi Landau.

Click here to watch Arutz Sheva’s newly released 9-minute Amona documentary, with exclusive footage capturing the extent of the police actions.

Landau said to Minister Ezra,
"We have full trust in the army and the police, but we also have questions. For one thing: Though you are not directly responsible for [every mission], you are responsible for the spirit. "I'm sure you saw the films of the police violence. Have you investigated these incidents, and have you issued orders that these should not repeat themselves? ... In Kfar Maimon, we saw [police officer] Niso Shacham ordering the police to brutally beat the protestors; this might be a one-time phenomenon, or possibly a general practice. I'm sure you asked for an investigation and then issued orders to make sure it would not happen again. Can you tell us what happened specifically in the case of Niso Shacham?"

Minister Ezra said he does not remember exactly what happened with Shacham, "but he was certainly did not receive a prize. I believe he was suspended, etc." Landau expressed disappointment with this answer, and when Ezra protested and said that it is not connected with Amona, Chairman Shteinitz intervened and sided with Landau.

Regarding the specific cases of police brutality, Ezra said that the Department for Investigation into Police Officers has received 12 complaints that are under investigation. Only after these investigations are completed, he said, would the Public Security Ministry conduct its own investigation, if necessary.

Ezra said several times that he would return with answers for several questions to which he did not know the precise answers. This was cause for tension, as the MKs want some of the men with the answers to appear themselves.

Shalgi asked, "Why didn't you prevent the thousands of people from getting in to Amona in the days preceding the event?" Ezra said, "It's a very open area, open from four corners; I suggest you go and see it... I'm sure that the army made efforts to block it off."

Shteinitz said, "We will certainly plan to visit the area," and then added pointedly, "I'm sure that police officers will be on hand to explain." Ezra interrupted, just as pointedly, "Yes, the minister and the police commissioner."

Ezra also said, in explaining why the area was not closed off, that Route 60 - from Jerusalem to Ofrah - was blocked "very heavily" by Jewish residents. Orit Strook, head of the Yesha Civil Rights Organization, was present at the session, and said afterwards, "This is a laughable claim, as anyone who was there knows. Wherever it was blocked, it was the police doing it."

MK Vilnai asked why the police had such trouble foreseeing the extent of the resistance and protests. Minister Ezra said, "One of the bodies from which it is hard to get intelligence from are some of these extremist groups in Yesha and elsewhere, and our ability to penetrate them is problematic and difficult. Believe me, we would like to jail those who cut down olive trees and those who incited in Amona, and we will do it... To arrest road-blockers is not so simple; they don't just stand there. Who will we arrest, the rocks?"

MK Ariel presented a CD produced by the police with instructions as to how to deal with Amona-like disturbances. "Are you familiar with this?" he asked Minister Ezra, who responded, "It could be; do you know how many documents pass through my desk?"

Ariel said, "Guideline #9 of the instructions issued by the police itself says that when horses or water cannons are to be used, there must be an advance warning. This was not done at Amona. Why not? Have you investigated this?"

Ezra: "I told Chairman Shteinitz beforehand that our internal investigation was not yet finished, and I asked him to wait... Under such circumstances as Amona, what, we have to announce that a horse is coming? With all those rocks and the like?"

Shteintiz said, "We began our hearings on this matter in accordance with the Knesset's decision to do so. If you say that your internal investigation will be completed in a week, then please submit it to us when it is finished."

Shteinitz then asked Ezra if he was a party to the pre-evacuation discussions with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the government on a possible compromise. The Chairman asked the minister whether he thought a peaceful compromise could have been reached, and why in his opinion it was not. Looming in the background of this question was the oft-repeated accusation that Olmert purposely did not agree to a compromise in order to be able to display pre-election toughness in forcefully evacuating the Amona homes.

Ezra did not give a concrete response, and said that this question should be asked to others who were more involved in the talks.

MK Ariel: "You said that the government was working according to a timetable set by the Supreme Court for the destruction of the illegal structures. Yesterday, the State told a court that it could not destroy illegal Arab buildings because of its lack of manpower. I ask: Is this not discrimination, especially in view of the fact that in Amona, the buildings were practically legal and had received almost all the permits, etc."

Ezra: "We have established a 100-man force to deal with illegal structures, and we hope to make it 400. We have guidelines where and when to destroy, based on priorities. Our hands are full of work..."