A general strike was held Sunday in Arab localities in protest of an incident in which police officers shot dead a man in Jerusalem’s Old City a day earlier. Israeli authorities say the man was attempting a terror attack, a claim denied by eyewitnesses and the man’s family.
Police said 26-year-old Mohammed Elasibi — a resident of the Bedouin town of Hura in southern Israel — grabbed the gun of a police officer near the Chain Gate, one of the gates of the Temple Mount holy site, and fired it twice before he was shot dead.
Eyewitnesses and Arab officials have mostly rejected that version of events, and former police officials have said it is “hard to believe” the force’s insistence that the shooting wasn’t captured by any of the many CCTV cameras in the area.
The High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, an umbrella group of leaders of the Arab community, declared the one-day strike in protest of the shooting, arguing that in the absence of evidence proving otherwise, they view the incident as an innocent man being shot by cops.
The strike included public services, businesses and all schools except special education institutions. Additionally, rallies were being planned, including a mass protest during Elasibi’s funeral.
The committee chairman, former MK Mohammad Barakeh, told Army Radio Sunday morning: “This isn’t a case of conflicting versions — there is a regime body that murdered a citizen in cold blood. The burden of proof is on the police.”
Barakeh said the strike was being held in almost all Arab localities, adding that it would feature no violence unless “police make provocations.”
After Sunday’s strike was declared on Saturday, Ta’al MK Ahmad Tibi visited the Elasibi family’s mourning tent in Hura.
“Mohammed Elasibi is a medical school graduate who came [to the Al Aqsa Mosque] to pray,” Tibi said. “He had dreams, they were shattered by the bullets of trigger-happy policemen who think the life of an Arab Palestinian is cheap.”
Tibi likened the incident to the police killings of Yaqoub Abu Al-Qia’an and Iyad Halak, two separate cases in recent years in which police initially claimed the victim had carried out or planned to carry out an attack, before conceding they were innocent people shot in error.
“The method is the same, deja vu,” he said. “They kill twice — once by bullets, and a second time by smearing them as terrorists. The terrorists are those who terrorize the worshipers who come to pray — and hopefully return home — for Ramadan.
Police said Saturday afternoon that the shooting was in an area not covered by security cameras. Police also said that “unfortunately the terror attack itself was not recorded on the body cameras of the officers involved.”
The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department was looking into the incident, and would decide whether it warranted an investigation.
According to the Ynet news site, the Elasibi family contacted Arab rights group Mossawa Center, which said its probe showed that the cops had received legal advice before giving their initial versions of the incident to PIID interrogators.
Elasibi’s body was reportedly transferred to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, where an autopsy was set to be held at the family’s request.
Former Jerusalem police chief Yair Itzhaki told a cultural event in Rishon Lezion on Saturday that it seemed unlikely there was no footage of the incident.
“I don’t see the possibility that there is no police documentation. I personally placed the array of security cameras there,” Itzhaki said.
An unnamed former senior police commander expressed a similar sentiment about the lack of publicly released footage in comments to the Ynet news site.
“The place is flooded with cameras, so unless there was a system malfunction, I find it hard to believe that they did not record the shooting,” the ex-commander said. “The road leading to the gate is also filmed so it doesn’t make sense that the incident wasn’t filmed.”
Witnesses told the Ynet news site that Elasibi was unarmed and did not pose a danger to the officers.
“Police officers were treating a woman inappropriately and he intervened and tried to help her — then they shot him. The shooting was completely unnecessary,” an unnamed witness said.
However, police have doubled down on their version of events, and issued multiple statements in which they decried the “false publications” about the incident, including on the claims that the area would have been covered by CCTV.
The force also issued statements taken from several of the cops involved.
“I was checking the suspect, I asked him where he was from and asked him to leave as the area was closed at that time,” an officer identified only as ‘Mem,’ the first initial of his name, said. “He argued with me and I took him toward the exit. At a certain point the attacker turned to me, grabbed my gun and managed to fire a few bullets toward [Border Police] officers. I managed to take control of him within seconds, to get the weapon out of his hands and I neutralized him along with the second policeman with me.”
His partner ‘Yud’ said: “I felt our lives were in real danger. If I hadn’t tackled him, shot him and neutralized him, he would have shot me, my partner and the Border Police cops.”
A Border Police officer, ‘Lamed,’ backed up their testimony, saying the suspect “aimed the gun at my head” and that she hid behind a cement pillar as he fired. Another, ‘Mem,’ said “If the policeman hadn’t shot and neutralized him, we wouldn’t be here.”
For Palestinian Muslims, worship at the site’s Al-Aqsa mosque — the third-holiest site in Islam — is a central part of the holy month of Ramadan. Jews revere the same site as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism as the location of the ancient Temples.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week and will end April 21, often sees elevated Israeli-Palestinian tensions, with frictions already high this year in Jerusalem and across the West Bank following months of deadly violence.