Israeli court acquits officer of killing autistic Palestinian man

The officer was charged with reckless manslaughter for killing 32-year-old Eyad al-Hallaq three years ago.

Eyad Hallaq
A mural depicting Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man who was killed by Israeli police in occupied East Jerusalem's Old City in 2020, is seen on Israel's illegal separation wall [File: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo]

An Israeli court has acquitted a border police officer who was charged with reckless manslaughter in the deadly shooting of an autistic Palestinian man in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City three years ago.

The Jerusalem district court on Thursday ruled that the officer was acting in self-defence when he shot and killed 32-year-old Eyad al-Hallaq. The case has drawn comparisons to the police killing of George Floyd in the United States.

The court described the incident as a tragic mistake, noting that the officer made a split-second decision in a dangerous situation.

Taking risks, the court said, “is an integral part of military activity”.

The court said the officer, whose name has not been made public, was acting in “good faith” when he fatally shot al-Hallaq, believing him to be an attacker.

Al-Hallaq’s family has long criticised Israel’s investigation into the killing. After the decision was handed down, al-Hallaq’s mother, Rana, exited the courtroom crying.

Rana kisses a photo of her son, Eyad Hallaq
Rana kisses a photo of her son, Eyad al-Hallaq, in their home in Wadi Joz, a Palestinian neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem [File: Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

“I was screaming hysterically in court after the decision. My husband and I, and his two sisters had a huge breakdown.’ Rana told Al Jazeera. “Today I felt that he was killed again.”

She described her son as “obedient”, and said he was able to understand and interact with those around him, but was “terrified” when four Israeli police officers ran behind him.

“Our lives have been turned upside down since Eyad’s death,” Rana said. “I sleep in his room every day and don’t go out and stare at his photo all day. He was the soul of the house for me and his two sisters.”

Al-Hallaq, 32, was fatally shot just inside the Old City’s Lion’s Gate on May 30, 2020, as he was on his way to a special-needs institution he attended.

Police, saying they thought he was a Palestinian attacker, pursued him and called for him to stop.

According to accounts at the time, two members of Israel’s paramilitary border police chased him into a rubbish room and shot at him as he cowered next to a bin. In total, police fired four bullets, hitting him twice, according to a court document.

A police investigation found the officer had defied instructions to stop shooting and had acted in a “reckless” manner, according to a statement released after the verdict by the department’s internal investigations unit.

‘No justice for Eyad’

Al-Hallaq’s father, Khairy, said he was shocked by the acquittal and would pursue other legal action.

“We spent years in the courts waiting for the decision, but we did not expect this shocking decision,” he said.

“We will not allow the murderer to be acquitted.”

Following the court’s announcement, al-Hallaq’s parents looked towards the acquitted police officer and said: “You’re a killer! My son is in the ground! There is no justice for Eyad,” local media reported.

Khairy said: “Shame on this court. For the Jews, there is one legal system, and for the Arabs, there is another. You’re all terrorists.”

Lawyer Omar Khamaysa agreed, saying the court is a tool of oppression against the Palestinian people.

“This is not a fair trial. The court absolved the murderer of his crime and accepted his claim that he killed Eyad in ‘self-defence’, while there was no motive or justification for the shooting based on suspicion only,” Khamaysa told Al Jazeera.

In the Israeli judiciary system, he added: “There is no justice when the victim is Palestinian and the perpetrator is Jewish.”

“This decision is a shameful one and gives legitimacy to more crimes and field executions committed by the Israeli police against the Palestinians on a daily basis.”

Al-Hallaq had severe autism and the mental age of an eight-year-old, his parents told Al Jazeera in 2021.

Palestinians and human rights groups have long accused Israeli forces of killing Palestinians under questionable circumstances.

They say Israel does a poor job prosecuting and punishing its forces in cases of wrongdoing.

Investigations often end with no charges or lenient sentences, and in many cases, witnesses are not even summoned for questioning.

“This is just one of many cases in which Israel whitewashes the killing of Palestinians,” said Dror Sadot, spokeswoman for the Israeli rights group B’tselem. “When it comes to the unjustified killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces, the policy is impunity.”

The officer was charged in June 2021 after the justice ministry said the previous October that he had not followed police rules for opening fire and al-Hallaq had “posed no danger to police or civilians at the scene”.

At the time, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called al-Hallaq’s death a “war crime” and an “execution”.

The Old City is a frequent site of confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. Its narrow streets are lined with hundreds of security cameras that are monitored by police. As the investigation proceeded last year, prosecutors said none of the cameras in the area had worked and there was no footage of the incident.

The Old City is part of East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed to its capital in a move not recognised by most of the international community. Palestinian leaders want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.

Additional reporting by Maram Humaid.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies