Tel Aviv police beating sparks calls for ‘soul-searching’

‘I asked them to stop,’ Maysam Abu Alqian, an Israeli Arab from Hura, says of cops; probe launched into suspected brutality

Footage of alleged undercover police beating an Arab man in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2016 (screen capture: Channel 2)
Footage of alleged undercover police beating an Arab man in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2016 (screen capture: Channel 2)

Witness accounts and footage of plainclothes police officers beating an Arab employee of a supermarket in central Tel Aviv Sunday drew a stream of criticism of the police and calls for investigation.

The Israel Police said Maysam Abu Alqian, 19, from the Bedouin Negev town of Hura, resisted arrest and attacked officers when they asked him for identification. Another employee who came to Alqian’s aid was also accused of attacking officers.

The alleged incident of police brutality took place outside the Yuda supermarket on Ibn Gabirol street in Tel Aviv.

In his first interview since the incident, Alqian challenged police’s version of events.

“I returned from a delivery — I help with deliveries for the supermarket — and a man asked me for my ID,” Alqian told Army Radio Monday morning.

“I said I won’t give him my ID unless he shows me his police ID. He said, ‘I’m a cop and I have an ID.’ He didn’t tell me why he stopped me, why he wants to see [the ID]. I said, ‘You have to bring me someone in uniform.'”

The officer — police later said he was an off-duty border guard — “brought someone else from his team. It wasn’t long before they started hitting me,” Alqian said.

More police came to the scene. “There were a lot of them, I didn’t count. No one showed their ID. They just started beating me. I asked them to stop, tried to defend myself, to block their blows so they wouldn’t land on my face,” he said.

Under Israeli law, plainclothes officers are required to present their full name and rank, and present a physical ID, when they carry out police activities.

Bystanders tried in vain to intervene, Alqian recalled: “There were some people who worked with me in the supermarket who tried to stop it, but they couldn’t. There’s police, and nobody can intervene between police and a civilian. Lots of people watched from the supermarket. It’s one of the biggest streets in Tel Aviv.”

He was finally taken away in a police cruiser, but had to be taken to Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv to be treated for wounds to his face, neck and back. He was released to house arrest by the Tel Aviv District Court late Sunday.

Video and photos of the incident taken by bystanders went viral Sunday.

Witnesses posted angry critiques of the police officers.

“Just now in front of City Hall,” one witness, Erez Krispin, wrote in a Facebook post, “an Arab supermarket worker goes outside to throw out the trash. He’s approached by a man in shorts who says, ‘Show me some ID.’

“‘The ID is inside. Who are you?’” Krispin quoted the supermarket worker as saying in response.

“Before he even finishes speaking, he’s being beaten senseless,” he continued, “a beating like you’ve never seen, teeth flying through the air. The Arab is crushed.

“When an elderly woman asks them why they’re doing it, they yell at her, ‘Fuck off before we finish you too,’” Krispin wrote.

Kobi Cohen, who runs the supermarket, said he attempted to intervene with the officers. He said Monday morning he had visited Alqian in hospital and “saw how badly they beat him.”

“This shouldn’t have happened,” he told Army Radio. “What should happen now is a new process where people in the police and security services go through a process that teaches cops how to deal with people, how to speak to them, how to handle problems, and not to keep sending thugs in plainclothes to Tel Aviv. All the commanders have to do some soul-searching for sending these kids to Tel Aviv to look for illegal Palestinians.

“I don’t have to remind Israelis of the wave of police beatings of Ethiopians last year,” Cohen continued, recalling incidents of police brutality against Ethiopian Israelis. “There’s a problem in Israel of security personnel who take liberties and act this way. Someone needs to do some soul-searching.”

On Sunday, shortly after the incident, Cohen told the Ynet news site that officers had hit Alqian “mercilessly until he was incapacitated. Everyone is shocked by what happened. And there’s only one reason for it — the guy was an Arab.”

A police spokeswoman told The Times of Israel that Alqian had resisted arrest and attacked officers, and that the investigation was ongoing.

“There is nothing at all to add,” she said, without saying whether Alqian was stopped because he was suspected of anything. “The circumstances are still under investigation. Refusal to be detained and to submit to a search is illegal.”

A police statement said an inquiry would be opened, which is standard in cases of alleged police brutality.

“In accordance with police procedure in cases where officers resort to the use of force to carry out their duties, the material was sent to the [Justice Ministry’s] Police Internal Investigations Department for examination,” the statement said.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the Israel Police, had yet to comment on the incident by Monday morning, center-left politicians did not hold back.

The Zionist Union’s MK Tzipi Livni said the violence was an example of “fear that turns to hatred, to racism.”

“The beating of the Arab employee yesterday on Ibn Gabirol Street took me back many years to my childhood,” she said in a statement Monday. “I grew up on a small street near Ibn Gabirol, and my mother, an Etzel fighter and an ideological member of the Herut movement, would send me with cold water pitchers and snacks to give to the Arab laborers who were building new homes on our street. That’s how we were raised, to respect everyone.”

Livni called on the Israel Police and the internal investigations department to “investigate the incident quickly and thoroughly in order to determine how a request for ID turned into a disproportionate brawl. And we as a society have to stop the fear that turns to hatred, to racism and to violence against minorities.”

Meretz party leader Zehava Galon participates in a Knesset committee meeting alongside Israel Police Chief Roni Alsheikh on March 29, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Meretz party leader Zehava Galon participates in a Knesset committee meeting alongside Israel Police Chief Roni Alsheikh on March 29, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meretz party leader Zehava Galon also blasted the Israel Police for its conduct, saying it conducts itself like a “violent street gang” and accusing it of a systemic unwillingness to address burgeoning brutality.

“Because not only does the police have a violence problem, it has a whitewashing problem,” she said in a statement. “About one-third of the complaints filed to the Police Internal Investigations Department in 2015 were closed without an investigation, many due to to ‘lack of public interest.’ This is unacceptable, and the time has come for this despicable practice to end.”

Earlier, Alqian’s father told Ynet that he was “shocked” by the incident, saying he wouldn’t wish it on anyone to have “nine officers beat your son and you have to watch it on video.”

MK Dov Khenin of the Arab Joint List condemned the police resort to violence, which he termed a “lynching,” and called on the government to investigate the incident.

“I have conveyed an urgent message to the public security minister demanding answers for what appears, on the face of it, to have been a lynching in broad daylight, an assault on an innocent citizen by police solely because he is an Arab,” Khenin said in a statement.

On Sunday evening, activists staged a demonstration near the scene of the incident to protest police brutality.

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