Fearing US-like unrest, police minister says fix needed after autistic man slain

Public security minister says family of killed East Jerusalem man Iyad Halak ‘deserves a hug,’ but urges public not to bring ‘riots and pogroms’ from Floyd protests to Israel

A protest in Jerusalem against the police killings of Iyad Halak and George Floyd, on June 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A protest in Jerusalem against the police killings of Iyad Halak and George Floyd, on June 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana on Wednesday called for police officers to be trained to identify people with disabilities, days after an autistic East Jerusalem man was shot to death by cops who mistakenly thought he was armed.

Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old East Jerusalem man with special needs, was shot dead in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday, with police saying he had appeared to be holding a gun. But Halak was unarmed and had apparently not understood officers’ orders to halt as he passed near the Lion’s Gate. He reportedly fled on foot and hid in a garbage room, where he was gunned down.

Ohana said Israelis shouldn’t learn from the United States, where there have been widespread and sometimes violent protests against police brutality after a black man, George Floyd, was killed May 25 by a white cop who kneeled on his neck during an arrest.

“I hope this doesn’t fall on deaf ears and that people won’t try to bring Minneapolis and the riots and the pogroms here,” he said. “I think we’re in a better situation. We need to keep it that way.”

The policemen involved in the incident gave conflicting accounts of the events, with a commander telling investigators he had urged his subordinate to cease fire, an order that was not followed, he said, according to reports in Hebrew media. The officer denied the commander’s account.

The two were questioned under caution on Saturday. One officer was placed under house arrest and his commander was released from custody under restrictive conditions. Investigators were looking into whether Halak was shot only after taking refuge in the garbage room, and not during the foot chase. Witnesses said there were at least seven shots fired in his direction.

Iyad Halak (Courtesy)

Speaking at the Knesset plenum in response to a query, Ohana said: “This is an incident under investigation, so my answer is short and I can’t say anything beyond the following.

“This is a poor guy, a poor family. I am not passing judgment [on the officers], but this family deserves a hug,” Ohana said.

Newly appointed Public Security Minister Amir Ohana attends a passing the baton ceremony at the Public Security Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We need to check how to quickly identify people with disabilities. Perhaps there are nuances that can be learned to prevent this sort of incident from repeating itself,” he added. “There is groundwork being done and I intend to advance it.”

Ohana called for the Knesset to unite in condemning police violence against civilians, tying the matter to violence against police officers.

“From my experience, usually police officers act in self-defense,” he said.

Ohana previously expressed sorrow for Halak’s death and vowed to investigate. But he said it was too early to “pass judgment” on the police officers involved, noting that they “are required to make fateful decisions in seconds in an area that has been inundated with terror attacks, and in which there is a constant danger to their lives.”

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration in Jaffa against the Israeli police after border police officers shot and killed Iyad Halak, an unarmed autistic Palestinian man whom they said they suspected was carrying a weapon, May 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

According to Channel 12, Ohana canceled a Tuesday evening scheduled visit to the family after Halak’s father posted a video to Facebook in which he said he did not want to be visited by any Israeli government official.

Halak’s family said Monday that they didn’t believe Israel would do “anything” to the officers responsible because their victim was Palestinian.

“The policeman who did it should get what he deserves, he needs to be imprisoned,” Iyad’s sister, Diana, told the Walla news site. “But I know they won’t do anything to him, they won’t because [the victim is a] Palestinian.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz also expressed sorrow over the incident, and said it would be quickly investigated.

Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern, center, speaking to members of Iyad Halak’s family during a condolence call on June 2, 2020. (Courtesy: Jerusalem Municipality)

Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern paid a condolence visit Tuesday to Halak’s family, accompanied by officials from the Jerusalem Municipality. He met there with Muslim religious leaders, expressing his sorrow to the family over the tragedy, his office said.

A protest in Jerusalem against the police killings of Iyad Halak and George Floyd, on June 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A caregiver who accompanied Halak told Israeli media Sunday that she told the police officers he was disabled and did not understand their commands, but they appeared to ignore her cries.

Following similar demonstrations earlier in the week, over 100 people protested against against police brutality in Jerusalem on Tuesday night. After blocking entry to a light rail station, three protesters were arrested.

Some at the protest held signs drawing connections between the case of Halak and Floyd’s killing.

Halak had been on his way to a special needs educational institution in the Old City where he studied. His father, Kheiri Hayak, told the Kan public broadcaster he believed his son was holding his cellphone when he was first spotted by the police.

“We tell him every morning to keep his phone in his hand so we can be in contact with him and make sure he has safely arrived at the educational institution,” Kheiri said.

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