A World Apart?

Arabs Are the Michael Browns of Israel

A shooting in Israel and the Ferguson grand jury decision raise some uncomfortable questions for Americans and Israelis.

Scott Olson/Getty

The shooting took place in early November and was captured on video. The assailant, whose skin shade was different from the cops’, was carrying what has been described by the police as a knife, which he used to bang on the window of a parked police car. After a few moments, four officers exited the vehicle, causing the man to turn and walk away quickly. As can be seen in the video, one police officer then shot the man several times in the back. After the shooting, the police dragged the man’s limp body from the street to the police vehicle. He died a short time later.

Scene from an American city? Nope. Try Israel. The victim was 22-year-old Khayr al-Din Hamdan, an Arab-Israeli citizen, and the shooting by Israeli security forces took place in the northern Israeli city of Kafr Kanna. But it sounds disturbingly like too many incidents that happen in America, and in the past week or two, a number of observers have made the comparison.

There are limits to the parallels between Kafr Kanna and Ferguson. Most notably, in Ferguson, all agree that Michael Brown was unarmed. And it is true of course that American police departments aren’t literally an occupying army, and yes, African Americans have more rights than Palestinians have. But the point is that many people in black communities perceive nearly all-white police forces as being not so different from an occupying army.

Thus, there are similarities. Hamdan’s father sounded a lot like parents of black U.S. police shooting victims when he asked, “Why didn’t they spray him with tear gas or shoot him in the foot?” African Americans and Palestinians view their situations in similar terms, as yet one more time when a member of their community has been unjustly killed by the police. Both feel unfairly targeted, both share a sense that their lives don’t matter that much to the police, and both rarely feel that their respective legal systems deliver them justice.

And sure, we can debate whether from a legal point of view these shootings were justified. However, the perceptions of both of these communities cannot simply be dismissed despite what some on the right in both countries are arguing for us to do.

In the case of blacks in America, it’s undisputed that they are disproportionally more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person. As Pro Publica recently noted, blacks age 15 to 19 have a 21 times greater chance of being killed by the police than white teens. In fact the police have killed six African American teens since Michael Brown, and that doesn’t even include Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed last week by the Cleveland police.

And more broadly, blacks of all ages are between three and four times more likely to be killed when they encounter the police than whites. Adding to the frustration is that it's rare that the police will be charged with a crime when they kill unarmed people. For example, between 2004 and 2008, Oakland police officers shot and killed 37 people, all black. And despite the fact that 40 percent of those killed were unarmed, not one police officer was charged with a crime.

In Israel, we see an unsettling similarity. As Sarit Michaeli, a spokesperson for the Israeli human rights group B’tselem recently told a reporter for McClatchy, it’s “extremely rare” for charges to be brought against Israeli border police or soldiers for killing Palestinians. And in the Palestinian community, the close proximity to the summer's Gaza conflict has added to the sense, rightly or wrongly, that Palestinian lives simply don't matter that much to Israeli security forces.

As the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz noted in May, over the past two years, 18 investigations were conducted to determine whether Israeli military police officers had wrongfully killed Palestinians in the West Bank. Of those, only one led to a conviction. Distressingly, in that case the Israeli police officer was sentenced to just seven months in jail after being found guilty of killing an unarmed Palestinian.

And as the Israeli NGO Yesh Din has documented, that penalty is actually on the high end. Among the 18 members of the Israeli security forces convicted for the wrongful killing of Palestinians since 2000, most received a few months in jail or even just a suspended sentence (the lone exception being an eight-year prison sentence, but that was handed out in connection with the wrongful killing of a British citizen, not a Palestinian.)

This is likely why Palestinians have flooded social media expressing solidarity for the Ferguson protesters and echoing their calls for justice. Some Palestinians even offered the Ferguson protesters tips on how to deal with the tear gas being shot at them based on their own experiences with the Israeli security forces.

Even on the Israeli side some have recognized the similarities. For example, a recent Times of Israel op-ed penned by Robert Wilkes, a self described leader of the pro-Israel community in the Seattle area, set forth what he views as “nine parallels between Palestine and Ferguson.” However, he saw the overlap of interests as being horribly negative.

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For example, Wilkes wrote that American blacks and Palestinians “both wish to undermine the state’s moral authority by provoking violent reactions, then portraying themselves as victims of oppression.” He also opined that “both have perfectly wretched leaders. Black leaders in America are con artists and a disgrace,” going as far as calling them “race hustlers.”

I truly wish I could say that in the future we will see fewer black and Palestinian teenagers die at the hands of the police in their respective countries. But I can’t. Tragically these stories will continue until a fundamental change in police tactics is implemented, which will also require addressing the very complex issue of institutional and societal racism. I wonder how many innocent people have to die before that happens.