Family of slain autistic Palestinian not optimistic over inquiry

In the last 10 years Israeli security forces have killed more than 3,400 Palestinians but only five have been convicted.

Iyad Hallak
Iyad Hallaq, well-built and with broad shoulders, cut an imposing figure but had the mental age of an eight-year-old [Ahmad Gharbali/AFP]

The killing of an autistic Palestinian man by two Israeli police officers last week has prompted rare statements of condolence from both Israeli and international officials, but Palestinians have little faith an inquiry will result in any accountability.

Iyad Hallaq, 32, was walking to his special needs school in the Old City of Jerusalem, when he was called on by the Israeli officers to stop.

In their official statement, the officers said they suspected Hallaq was carrying a weapon and began chasing him when he panicked and began to run. As Hallaq hid behind a dumpster, just a few metres away from his school, he was shot dead.

The Israeli police’s internal investigations department is probing the incident. According to Israeli daily Haaretz, a source within the investigation said one of the officers – a new recruit armed with an M16 assault rifle – is suspected of continuing to shoot at Hallaq despite being told by his commander to stop.

The same officer said he suspected Hallaq was a “terrorist” because he was wearing gloves, Haaretz added.

Hallaq was diagnosed with low-functioning autism as a child and had trouble communicating with people. According to his father, Khairy Hallaq, his son had the mental capacity of an eight-year-old – and no concept of the dangerous reality of life under occupation around him.

Hallaq was given special documentation by his school, which he had attended for the past six years, that explained his disability so he could prove his condition to Israeli forces, as he was unable to do so himself.

His family members told Israeli media he “wasn’t capable of harming anyone”.

On Sunday, Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz issued a rare apology.

“We are very sorry for this incident,” Gantz said in a government meeting. “I am sure the issue will be investigated quickly, and conclusions will be drawn.”

The same day, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, also condemned the killing, calling it a “tragedy that should and could have been avoided”.

“The authorities should swiftly investigate and make sure such incidents are not allowed to happen,” Mladenov said.

But Mansour Abu Wardieh, Hallaq’s cousin, said the family is not optimistic about the police inquiry into the shooting.

“The news of Israeli authorities ordering an investigation into Iyad’s murder means nothing to us,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking from the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Wadi al-Joz. “We know they’ll twist the facts and we won’t be surprised if they concluded that the officers fired at him out of ‘self-defence’.”

Israeli investigations into the killing of Palestinian civilians are rarely credible, he added.

According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, over the last decade – April 2011 until May 2020 – Israeli security forces have killed 3,408 Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and within Israel.

Of these cases, only five Israeli security personnel – which includes both military and police – were convicted.

“We don’t have the number of investigations opened into police killings,” B’Tselem media spokesperson Amit Gilutz told Al Jazeera. “But as far as military goes, over this same period investigations into the killings of about 200 Palestinians were opened.”

‘Cold-blooded murder’

Hallaq’s funeral on Sunday was attended by thousands of Palestinians, and protests were held in several Palestinian towns within Israel.

His killing came at a time when demonstrations worldwide are held after the killing of George Floyd, an African American man who died last week after a police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes in the US state of Minnesota.

Palestinians have been quick to draw comparisons between the deaths of Hallaq and Floyd, and posters with “Black Lives Matter” have been spotted at the protests. The irony of Israelis holding a solidarity protest with Floyd in Tel Aviv on Tuesday was not lost on some.

“[The demonstation] blatantly reflects the dissonance that exists within the Zionist community,” Amany Khalifa, a local mobilisation coordinator at Grassroots Jerusalem said.

“It’s amazing how a racial colonial society does not have the capacity to hold itself accountable for policies carried out [against Palestinians and Ethiopian Jews], and at the same time can come out in solidarity with Black Africans against racism and white supremacy.”

The tone-deaf approach was emphasised in a tweet by the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

We are all saddened by the death of Iyad Al Halak this weekend and extend our deepest condolences to his family and to those who mourn this tragic loss,” he posted on Twitter on Tuesday. “We welcome Israeli officials’ expression of sorrow and commitment to a swift investigation into the incident.”

William Youmans, an assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, called Friedman’s statement “cynical PR on Israel’s behalf”.

“His language avoids assigning blame or even referring to the murder in direct terms,” he told Al Jazeera. “He refers to cold-blooded murder as ‘death’ and a ‘tragic loss’, as if Iyad was killed in a natural disaster.”

Friedman, Youmans added, attempted to legitimise Israel’s self-investigations, which he described as “notoriously toothless when it comes to prosecuting soldiers who murder Palestinians”.

“These sort of mealy-mouthed apologetics have sadly become the standard line for US policymakers giving total impunity to Israel and its military occupation forces.”

Khalifa agreed.

These statements do not change the fait accompli of facilitating Palestinian killing in Jerusalem and Palestine in general,” she said. 

Israelis killing Palestinians is a general policy that has existed since the beginning of the occupation, Khalifa explained, where every Palestinian is treated as “suspicious”.

“Iyad was killed for being Palestinian only,” said Khalifa. “It is possible that these statements [by Gantz and Friedman] indicate a calming of public opinion in the case of Iyad, precisely because of his mental health condition, and the clarity of the policy of targeting the Palestinian body.”

Source: Al Jazeera