Panel Blasts Barak's Handling of Israeli Arab Riots

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In a landmark report on Israel's treatment of its Arab minority, a commission of inquiry found Monday that police used excessive force in quelling Arab riots three years ago and that Israel's leaders badly underestimated the community's anger after decades of systematic discrimination.

Thirteen Israeli Arabs (search) were killed in the October 2000 protests, in which thousands threw stones and blocked streets in a show of support with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A Jewish motorist was killed by a rock at the time.

After hearing 377 witnesses in nearly three years, the commission released its report of several hundred pages Monday. It was only the fifth probe of such a scope in Israel's history.

The three-member panel found that Ehud Barak (search), prime minister at the time, misread the charged atmosphere in Israel's Arab minority, which makes up about one-fifth of the nation's 6.6 million people.

The panel did not block Barak's possible return to politics — he said he might announce comeback plans in coming weeks — but said that his police minister at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami (search), could not return to the post. Barak was defeated by Ariel Sharon in 2001 elections.

"The state and its various governments failed in dealing with ... the problems of a large minority within the Jewish majority," the panel wrote. "The government treatment of the Arab sector was characterized by prejudice and neglect."

The panel also said Israeli police used excessive force.

"It is important that it be pointed out in completely non-ambiguous way that the use of live fire, including by snipers, is not a means of dispersing large crowds by police," the panel said.

The committee said improving the lives of Israel's Arabs through more equal budgetary allocations for education, housing and job creation was an issue that the required personal attention of the prime minister.

Sharon said he would convene a Cabinet meeting on the report's recommendations. The panel also urged the government to outline a plan of action and a timetable for narrowing gaps between Jews and Arabs.

The panel also said Israeli police used excessive force and urged the formation of a new riot police that would dump rubber bullets and live ammunition from its crowd control arsenal and instead would use water cannons and tear gas to disperse demonstrators.

"It is important that it be pointed out in completely non-ambiguous way that the use of live fire, including by snipers, is not a means of dispersing large crowds by police," the panel said.

In Israel's 55-year history there have only been four other major state-ordered inquiries: a 1974 investigation into the 1973 Mideast War; the 1983 commission into the massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Lebanon; an inquiry into the 1994 killing of 29 Palestinian worshippers by a Jewish extremist at holy site in Hebron; and an investigation into the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search).

The commission's recommendations are not legally binding, but carry strong weight. The 1983 findings forced Sharon to resign from his post as defense minister.

After the October 2000 riots, Barak ordered a commission of inquiry. In his testimony to the commission, Barak said the violence had taken him by surprise.

"When these events erupted, they erupted with an intensity and force and energies and motives that were not expected by us, and according to my assessment, could not have been expected," Barak told the panel in November 2001.

His testimony was interrupted by the mother of a teenager who was killed by the police fire; she stood up and screamed, "Murderer!" before being pulled from the courtroom by security guards.

Ben-Ami said in his testimony that there were no intelligence warnings ahead of the outbreak of violence. He said Israel's police failed the country's Arab citizens.

Azmi Bishara (search), one of 10 Arab lawmakers in Israel's 120-member parliament, criticized the report for not going far enough to recommend punishment for police officers and Israeli leaders.

"The commission didn't deal with all the policies of racism against Arab citizens," he said.

Cabinet Minister Tsipi Livni (search) acknowledged government discrimination in the Arab sector and said efforts to channel more funds for schools and infrastructure in their communities were under way but moving slowly because of bureaucracy. She added, however, that Israel's Arabs must work to stop growing extremism in their community.