A Border Police officer who shot and killed an autistic Palestinian man in Jerusalem’s Old City in late May after mistaking him for a terrorist could be tried for reckless manslaughter, pending a hearing, the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department announced on Wednesday.
The family of Iyad Halak, 31, criticized the decision, saying that it did not go far enough. Over a summer in which police conduct has become a subject of constant debate, Halak has emerged for some as a symbol of police brutality, with protesters calling his shooting “murder.”
Others, including Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, have defended police as simply doing their best in the tense atmosphere of Jerusalem’s Old City, which has seen numerous terror attacks.
On the day he was shot, Halak was walking from his home in Wadi Joz to a school where he worked with his caretaker, Warda Abu Hadid. Two police officers in the area claimed they spotted a “suspicious object” in his hand. According to Wednesday’s PIID statement, the two officers had also received information that a terrorist was in the area.
The two officers, one of whom was a Border Police commander, began to chase after Halak, demanding that he identify himself, but Halak, apparently terrified, ran away. The two pursued him through the streets.
According to prosecutors, during the chase, the officer who shot Halak calling out “stop or I’ll shoot” before firing two shots towards Halak’s feet. Both shots missed. Halak fled into a garbage room; the two officers followed him into the area.
The suspect in PIID’s investigation spotted Halak in the corner of the garbage room and began firing. As soon as he began shooting, PIID said, his commander began ordering him to cease.
“The officer suspected [of shooting Halak] yelled to Iyad in Hebrew ‘don’t move.’ At the same time, the officers asked Iyad in Arabic ‘where’s the gun?’ Iyad had already been shot by the first bullet and pointed to [Abu Hadid] and muttered something. In response the officer turned to the woman and asked her ‘where’s the gun?’ and she responded ‘what gun?’ At this point, more gunshots were fired at Iyad,” prosecutors said.
Abu Hadid, however, described a different scene to Israeli media in the aftermath of the shooting.
“I’m with her, I’m with her!” Abu Hadid related Halak as crying out on the ground after being shot for the first time.
In an account she gave to the online magazine Local Call, she described pleading for several minutes in the garbage room with police, telling them to check Halak’s identification for proof of his disabled status.
“Suddenly, they fired three bullets at him, in front of my eyes,” Abu Hadid said in a similar interview with Channel 13. “I shouted, ‘Don’t shoot him.’ They didn’t listen, they didn’t want to hear.”
A pre-trial hearing will be held before charges are filed against the shooter, the PIID said. If convicted on charges of reckless manslaughter, the officer could serve up to twelve years in prison.
The shooting officer’s commander, who both participated in the chase and was present at the shooting, will not be charged.
“After examining all the circumstances of the incident, it was decided to close his case, since no criminal offense was apparent in his conduct,” a spokesperson for PIID said.
“He acted exactly as expected of him in this explosive device called the Middle East: He chased after someone he believed was a terrorist, who in the end was shot,” Oron Schwartz, who represented the police commander, said in a phone call with The Times of Israel. “It’s a tragedy, of course, and our hearts are with the family.”
Halak’s family criticized the charges as not going far enough.
“They’ve destroyed our family,” sobbed Rana Halak, as she spoke to reporters after her meeting with prosecutors in Jerusalem. “Tell me, how did an autistic boy ever harm anyone?”
“A man is roaming around in society who is a criminal, who did a criminal act. He killed a man with special needs,” lawyer Rami Kteilat told reporters, referring to the commander.
Despite numerous cameras visible at the scene, there was no video evidence either of the chase or of the shooting itself, PIID said.
“The shooting incident took place inside a compound belonging to the Jerusalem municipality and administered by a private cleaning firm. The cameras within were not connected to electricity… which is why there is no documentation of the shooting incident itself,” PIID said.
“The deceased did not pose any danger to police and civilians at the scene, the police officer did not fire in accordance with well-known police procedures, and nor did he utilize a more proportionate alternative,” PIID said.
On the other hand, investigators also accounted for the complex and tense atmosphere of the Old City, as well as the fact that the officers had received immediate reports of a terrorist in the area.
Schwartz said that he expected the family to appeal the decision and that “at the end of the day, we’ll wind up in the Israeli High Court.”
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn praised what he called “the professional handling of the issue” by the internal affairs department.
“The killing of Iyad Halak is an awful tragedy. There is nothing that can alleviate the family’s pain,” Nissenkorn said. “While we must tend to and back up the security forces that protect us with their bodies, we must also take care that we do not deviate from the basic standards of moral decency.”
The decision also sparked criticism from Arab Israeli lawmakers, who deemed it far too little.
Hadash MK Ayman Odeh, who chairs the Arab Joint List, condemned both what he deemed excessively light charges against the shooter and the closing of his commander’s case.
“The PIID’s decision to charge the officer who murdered Iyad Halak with reckless manslaughter proves yet again that the PIID’s goal is to ensure that Palestinians continued to be recklessly murdered, without anyone paying the price,” Odeh wrote on Twitter.