NAZARETH // A decision by Israel's Supreme Court to double a 15-month jail term for a policeman who shot dead an unarmed suspected Palestinian car thief has provoked denunciations from police commanders and government officials. Yitzhak Aharonovitch, the internal security minister, condemned the judges for "sending a terrible message to police officers". On the advice of police lawyers, the accused policeman had appealed his conviction last year in the expectation that the ruling would be overturned by the Supreme Court.
Mr Aharonovitch and Dudi Cohen, the police commissioner, said they would immediately seek a presidential pardon for the officer, Shahar Mizrahi. "I won't merely support a pardon bid, I'll lead it," Mr Aharonovitch said last Thursday, a day after the sentence was announced. But groups representing Israel's large Palestinian minority said the outrage at the doubling of the 15-month sentence for Mizrahi reflected the reality that the police force expected impunity when it used violence against Israel's Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.
At Mizrahi's original trial last year, the district court judge Menachem Finkelstein ruled that the policeman had acted "recklessly" during an operation to stop car thefts in the Jewish town of Pardes Hanna in 2006. Despite his life never being in danger, Mizrahi had used the butt of his gun to smash the window of a car in which Mahmoud Ghanaim, 24, was seated and shot him in the head from close range. The court also noted that Mizrahi had changed his testimony several times during the investigations.
According to Mossawa, an advocacy group, 40 Palestinian citizens have been killed in suspicious circumstances by the security forces over the past decade. Mizrahi is the first policeman to be convicted in such a case. As of yesterday, an online petition calling on the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, to pardon Mizrahi had attracted more than 5,000 signatures in a few days, and a Facebook page supporting the policeman had 1,300 fans.
Gideon Levy, a columnist with the liberal Haaretz newspaper, warned yesterday that those "siding with Mizrahi are eager to have a police force that kills - but just Arabs, of course". Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, said: "The atmosphere of racism in Israel is being used to destroy the legal system from the inside, using the justification that Arabs are being killed. "The reality today is that the police can kill a Palestinian citizen in any circumstances and know that there is almost no chance they will pay a price. The safeguards are being stripped away."
Relations between Israel's Palestinian minority and the police have been marked by profound distrust since late 2000, when police shot dead 13 protesters and wounded hundreds more during largely non-violent demonstrations in Galilee at the start of the second intifada. A subsequent state commission of inquiry found that the police had a long-standing policy of treating the country's 1.3 million Palestinian citizens "as an enemy" and recommended that several officers be prosecuted for their role in the 13 deaths.
After a long delay, state prosecutors announced in 2008 that no one would be charged. In several speeches since he took over as security minister last year, Mr Aharonovitch has promised measures to restore the minority's faith in the police, including recruiting more police officers from the Palestinian population and fighting high rates of crime in Arab communities. According to a police report submitted to the parliament earlier this year, only 382 of more than 21,000 police officers are Muslim - or less than two per cent.
At the appeal hearing last week, the Supreme Court increased Mizrahi's jail sentence after ruling that Judge Finkelstein had not given enough weight to the victim's life and the value of deterring similar police behaviour in the future. Under police regulations, Mizrahi was entitled only to shoot out the car's tyres or fire at Ghanaim's legs. Immediately after the ruling, Mr Aharonovitch reported that he had called Mizrahi to tell him: "Your fight has become all of our fight."
He was backed by several retired police commanders and a Likud MP, Danny Danon, who said he would submit a bill that would bar the indictment of police officers who open fire when they believe they are in danger. In a sign of the mounting pressure from police groups on the Supreme Court, it issued a rare "clarification" statement of its judgment, pointing out that Ghanaim's car was travelling too slowly to have ever put Mizrahi in any danger.
Mr Farah added that Mossawa's investigations had revealed that, despite police claims, Ghanaim was the documented owner of the car he was driving. email@example.com