Israeli officer charged in killing of autistic Palestinian

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli prosecutors on Thursday charged a border police officer with reckless manslaughter in the deadly shooting of an autistic Palestinian man in Jerusalem’s Old City last year.

The indictment came just over a year after the shooting of Eyad Hallaq, whose family has criticized Israel’s investigation into the killing and called for much tougher charges. The shooting has drawn comparisons to the police killing of George Floyd in the United States.

Rights groups say Israel rarely holds members of its security forces accountable for the deadly shootings of Palestinians. Investigations often end with no charges or lenient sentences, and in many cases witnesses are not even summoned for questioning.

The officer, who remains unidentified in the indictment submitted to the Jerusalem District Court on Thursday, was charged with reckless manslaughter, and if convicted could face up to 12 years in prison.

“We want justice for our son,” Hallaq’s father, Khairi, said in response to the indictment. “Why is it that when an Arab kills they say he is a murderer and when an Israeli kills they say reckless manslaughter?”

Hallaq, 32, was fatally shot just inside the Old City’s Lion’s Gate on May 30, 2020, as he was on his way to the special-needs institution that he attended. The officer’s commander, who was also present during the incident, was not charged.

The area is a frequent site of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, and the Old City’s narrow streets are lined with hundreds of security cameras that are monitored by police. But as the investigation proceeded last summer, prosecutors claimed that none of the cameras in the area had worked, and there was no footage of the incident.

The Old City is part of east Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed to its capital in a move not recognized by most of the international community. Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, and the city’s fate is one of the most divisive issues in the conflict.

Prosecutors from the police internal investigations department said in a statement that the decision to charge the officer “was made after deep examination of the evidence, examination of all the circumstances of the incident and the claims heard during the officer’s hearing.” They said Hallaq’s death was a “serious and unfortunate incident” and that the officer shot him “while he took an unreasonable risk that he would cause his death.”

According to accounts at the time, Hallaq was shot after running away and failing to heed calls to stop. Two members of Israel’s paramilitary Border Police then chased Hallaq into a garbage room and shot him as he cowered next to a bin.

The Justice Ministry said in a statement in October, when prosecutors recommended charges against the officer, that the wounded Hallaq pointed to a woman he knew and muttered something. The officer then turned to the woman and asked her in Arabic, “Where is the gun?”

She replied, “What gun?” At that point, the officer under investigation fired again at Hallaq.

The woman mentioned in the statement appears to be Hallaq’s teacher, who was with him that morning. At the time of the shooting, she told an Israeli TV station that she had repeatedly called out to police that he was “disabled.”

In the charges filed Thursday, prosecutors described how the accused shot Hallaq in the stomach when he had his back against a wall in a corner, then shot him a second time in the chest while Hallaq was sprawled on the ground injured.

Hallaq’s family has expressed concerns the killing would be whitewashed, especially after the alleged camera malfunction. In cases of attacks against Israeli security forces, police often quickly release security-camera footage to the public.

Palestinians and human rights groups say Israel has a poor record of prosecuting cases in which soldiers and police kill Palestinians under questionable circumstances.

An Associated Press investigation in 2019 found that the Israeli military opened investigations into 24 potentially criminal shootings of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip over the past year. None had yielded convictions or even indictments, and in most instances, the army had not interviewed key witnesses or retrieved evidence from the field.

The Israeli military says it investigates all cases in which Palestinians are killed and that its soldiers often have to make split-second decisions in hostile situations. Palestinians have carried out dozens of stabbing, shooting and car-ramming attacks against Israeli security forces in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank in recent years.

Hallaq’s death prompted a series of small demonstrations in which Jews and Palestinians protested against police violence. Some evoked the killing of Floyd, which sparked a wave of protests across the U.S. demanding racial justice and police accountability. Israeli leaders expressed regret over the shooting death of Hallaq.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List of Arab parties in Israel’s parliament, criticized the indictment, tweeting that reckless manslaughter was “an infuriating and denigrating charge,” given the gravity of what happened.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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