The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Monday ruled that the beating of a Palestinian bus driver in the West Bank last week was a road rage incident and not a hate crime, as police initially suspected.
Nidal Fakih told authorities he was dropping off passengers in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit last Thursday night, when two men boarded the bus and began speaking to him. Fakih said that when the suspects identified him as an Arab, they began beating him.
Footage from shortly after the assault shows Fakih bruised, bleeding profusely from his left eye and unable to move from his seat. Fakih, a resident of East Jerusalem, was hospitalized with lacerations to his face, a fractured eye socket and several cracked ribs.
Police opened an investigation into the assault, and on Friday said they believed it was nationalistically motivated. On Monday, officers arrested a man in his 20s from Modiin Illit believed to be behind the assault.
At a remand hearing later in the day, however, a judge said the attack was a road rage incident, and slammed police for their handling of the investigation so far.
“There is no evidence that this was a racist incident, rather an altercation between drivers,” Judge Chavi Toker said at the hearing.
Toker rejected the police’s request to remand the suspect in custody for the rest of the week, instead ordering the man released to house arrest until Friday.
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She criticized police for arresting the suspect without a warrant, and said his detention thus far was illegal.
Police hit back at Toker’s criticism, saying they had arrested the suspect based on their “suspicion that he was involved in the attack on the driver.” The attorney representing police said he would appeal the decision at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday.
David Halevy, the attorney representing the alleged attacker, said his client “categorically denies” the allegations against him, and accused the bus driver of acting in a “provocative manner” on the night of the incident.
“While I don’t intend to justify violence of any kind, the record needs to be set straight, because the picture that is emerging shows that the driver acted in a provocative manner and then tried to make it into a nationalistic crime,” he told reporters after the hearing.
The Kavim bus company, which operates in Modiin Illit, said last week that a group of its drivers in the ultra-Orthodox settlement would be striking to protest the violence they have endured at the hands of “a small minority of extremists” in the town.
“The company’s management will not tolerate violence of any kind against its employees, and will act to bring to justice any person who commits such acts of violence,” a statement from Kavim said.
On Monday, hundreds of buses exited together from the neighboring city of Modiin in a convoy to Jerusalem with banners hung below their dashboard windows that read, “Enough with the violence against drivers.” The drivers were not protesting violence against Palestinians specifically.
The Organization of Israeli Bus Drivers said its members endure more than 50 incidents of violence at the hands of passengers each month.
Thursday’s incident came after a number of Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to which groups of settler youths have responded by hurling stones and assaulting Palestinians.
On that same evening, dozens of settler youths rioted at the scene of a deadly terror shooting in the central West Bank, human rights activists and Palestinian reports said.
Over 25 instances of settler stone throwing throughout the West Bank on Thursday and Friday were also reported by the Yesh Din rights group.