Israel agonises over 'racism' as police chief explains Arab killings

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As Israel tried to head off charges of racism in Durban, one of its senior police commanders tried to explain to a judicial inquiry in Jerusalem yesterday why his officers shot dead 13 Arabs who were Israeli citizens last October.

Major-General Alik Ron, former head of the police force's northern district, testified before the Or Commission as relatives of the victims stood outside, holding pictures of the dead to remind the world that their grievances are not just about the chronic discrimination of a minority.

"There was no reason for these people to be killed," said Abed Abu Salleh, 51, a businessman from the Galilee, clutching a photograph of his 23-year-old student son, Walid, shot dead with an M16 round. Yes, said Mr Abu Salleh, he supported the racism allegations being made in South Africa. But he particularly blamed police, and Alik Ron, the man in charge, for the "Black October" killings, when police opened fire during demonstrations in Arab communities in the Galilee in the early days of the intifada.

One million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship form almost a sixth of Israel's population. The killings struck at the core of the troubled relationship between the ruling Jewish majority and Palestinians who remained after the 1948 war, only to be subjected to sweeping civil rights abuses, including apartheid-like housing practices.

Outside the hearing, at Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem, liberal Israeli activists were condemning what they saw as a brazen example of their country's unfair treatment of a minority. They readily agreed their 53-year-old nation has racist characteristics. Yet they objected to attempts to equate Zionism with racism.

"I wouldn't say Israel is racist, and I certainly wouldn't say Zionism is racist, because it is a big movement with many components," said Uri Avnary, a former parliamentarian who, in 1975, was the first Israeli to open contact with the PLO. But Israel contained "a lot of people who are racist", he said.

Another veteran Israeli human rights campaigner, Veronika Cohen, 56, said: "What happened was illegal and immoral and the police were acting out of hatred and racism. But it is absurd to have Israel as the only country accused of racism."

Some of the nastier "racist elements" had been on the streets minutes earlier. "Kahane was right" said one of their posters, a reference to the movement's former leader, the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who had advocated driving all Palestinians from the occupied territories.

General Ron told the three-man commission his men opened fire because they feared for their lives. He said they were unprepared for the ferocity of the protests, because of poor intelligence.

For Israel's Arabs, the findings of the commission will be a test of Israel's denials about being racist, and its much-advertised commitment to pluralism and democracy.

* Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinians in a clash in the West Bank town of Hebron yesterday. Hospital officials said Imad al-Batsh, 17, was killed as he sat on the roof of a building. Amjad al-Jamal Abu Sneineh, 25, died of his wounds after witnessess said Israeli soldiers shot him as he took his friend to hospital.

The Israeli army said it had returned fire with light weapons and a tank shell after Palestinians shot at a military post in the divided town.