Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Sunday expressed sorrow for the deadly shooting of an unarmed autistic East Jerusalem man a day earlier by police officers who said they mistakenly believed him to be carrying a weapon.
“We are sorry about the incident in which Iyad Halak was shot to death and we share the family’s grief,” Gantz told the cabinet meeting. “I am sure this matter will be investigated quickly and conclusions will be reached.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who chaired the meeting, did not comment on the killing.
Iyad Halak, 32, was shot dead in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday, with police saying he had appeared to be holding a gun. 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.
The policemen 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 the Hebrew media. The officer denied the commander’s account.
The two were questioned under caution on Saturday. The 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.
Halak had been on his way to a special needs educational institute 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.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party denounced the shooting as a “war crime,” and said that it holds Netanyahu fully responsible for the “execution of a young disabled man.”
Activists protested the killing in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv Saturday night.
Amir Ohana, the new public security minister who oversees police, expressed sorrow for Halak’s death and vowed to investigate. But he said it was early to “pass sentence” 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.”
Kheiri Hayak told Channel 13 news that police searched the family home after the shooting, despite there being no evidence Halak was armed. “They found nothing,” he said.
Hayak said his son walked to the educational institution on the same route every morning and that police forces had likely seen him before. He told Channel 13 the incident occurred close to the entrance to the institution, about 100 meters away.
His mother, who referred to her son as autistic in an interview with Palestinian media (Arabic), told Hebrew media that he was “killed in cold blood.”
“What did he do that they murdered him?” Rena Halak told the Ynet news site. “I lost an angel. They said he had a weapon. Why would someone with special needs need a weapon?”
MK Ofer Cassif of the predominantly-Arab Joint List party said Halak’s death was “murder by police” as a result of government incitement.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, whose daughter is autistic, said Halak’s death was “heartbreaking.”
In a statement on Saturday afternoon, police rebuffed the criticism by politicians, calling them “vitriolic and irresponsible.”
“The roles and missions of the police forces in Jerusalem, and especially in the Old City, are particularly complex and often involve [making] complex decisions, sacrifices and life endangerment,” police said.
Police said the area has seen multiple attacks in recent years, including against officers and Border Patrol forces.
Calling the death a “rare incident,” the police said the case was immediately referred for an internal affairs investigation.
“It is appropriate to wait for the results of the investigation before reaching any definitive conclusions, and to avoid the ugly slander… of those who, on a daily basis, protect the security of Israeli citizens,” the statement read.