Why did the police insist on preventing a Palestinian victim from identifying his attackers?

On March 29th 2013, Hassan Shaker Abdelrahim Hassan Barhush, an 80-year-old Palestinian shepherd from the village of A-Labd in the West Bank, went to his land. He noticed two men whom he described as settlers approach him from the direction of Avnei Hefetz, a settlement located to the southwest of the village. He would later describe them to the police: one was about age 40, “tall, full-bodied, of light complexion, short brown hair, without a beard, a mustache or a yarmulke,” and was wearing a white shirt. The other was young, “of average complexion, without a beard, glasses or a yarmulke,” and was wearing a red shirt.

The two men assaulted the old shepherd with sticks and beat him severely — he begged them to stop, asking aloud how he had wronged them. When Barhush collapsed to the ground, the two kept beating him, and one of them said he ought to be killed. Barhush began calling for help until he lost consciousness. He woke up in the hospital, suffering from three fractures in the left arm, two fractures in his right arm, a metal cast over both legs, severe internal bleeding in the back, and water in both lungs.

Unusually, the assault of an 80-year-old man managed to shock even the Israeli public and make it into the mainstream Israeli media. Barhush was transferred to the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, and after a short investigation by the Shin Bet, the case was transferred to the Samaria and Judea Police Division (SJPD). Around three months after the assault, the police detained two suspects, Y.N. and N.M. The arrest was based on secret intelligence; the two neither cooperated with the investigators nor provided an alibi.

And then, a month later, the case was closed abruptly under the “unknown perpetrator” clause. The police bothered to inform Yesh Din, which represented Barhush, about the case closing only three months later. They then fought a stubborn bureaucratic battle with us to deny — or at least delay — turning over the investigation material, without which an effective appeal on the decision is near-impossible. On March 25th 2014, almost a year since the assault itself, the police finally agreed to turn over to us the investigation material, except for the intelligence (which we never asked for).

So after reading the file, what did we find out? That even though Barhush provided a detailed description of the suspects who assaulted him, and even though the police had suspects in custody – one of whom said in his interrogation explicitly that he “did not like Arabs” – Barhush never got the chance to identify them.

And despite Barhush’s insistence, even a year after the incident, that he could identify his two assailants, the police curiously and stubbornly refrained from holding a lineup. Instead, they gave Barhush a photo lineup: the police showed him photos from which he could not identify the suspects. The most troubling aspect here is that this photo lineup took place on June 19th 2013, while the two suspects were in custody. Even so, Barhush says the police provided him blurry photos.

Barhush failed to identify his attackers.

This is neither unusual nor new; in many cases people do not resemble their photos, particularly not their static ones. The Israeli courts ruled time and again that whenever it is possible, a live lineup should be held; the High Court of Justice ruled that “generally, when the identity of a suspect is to be examined in a lineup, and the suspect is available, a live lineup ought to be held. Such a lineup is the most reliable identification process, and therefore is to be preferred over other identification methods, as long as the circumstances permit it.”

In this case, the SJPD refrained from holding a live lineup. Its first excuse was that it lacked sufficient people who resembled the suspects – i.e., people of light to average complexion, a short hair and without either a beard, mustache, glasses or a yarmulke. What kind of an excuse is that? If you lack the people, hire extras; dress up policemen from another unit in clothes similar to that of the suspects; put some makeup on them; make every possible effort to prevent the chance that the person who beat an 80-year-old man will avoid justice.

When Yesh Din found out about the police’s refusal, our attorney Noa Amrami sent an urgent letter to the police demanding such a lineup. The problem isn’t new; we noted the serial avoidance by the SJPD to provide live lineups in our Mock Enforcement report (page 54 onwards). But the letter did not help.

In the appeal she served in April 2014, in which she blamed the police in disrupting the investigation, Adv. Amrami did not spare words to describe this investigative failure: “This is to be said in a clear and a limpid way – the fact that a live lineup was not held, for over a year, by the police investigators has, under the circumstances, effectively disrupted the chance to find the guilty persons and bringing them to justice, thereby effectively sabotaging the investigation of my client’s complaint.” (emphasis mine.)

While recommending to the prosecution that our appeal be denied, a police officer wrote to the prosecution that the appeal should be denied, stating: “I don’t think that today, over a year after the incident, a live lineup is appropriate, therefore the appeal should be denied.”

So while the victim continues to insist that he can identify his attackers, the police keep on insisting he should not be given the chance to do so. Our appeal was accepted by the prosecution, the case was re-opened, but the police’s endless delays repeated themselves during the second investigation as well. On June 14th 2015 we were informed that the case was closed a second time, again under the unknown perpetrator clause – with the police refusing to allow the victim to identify the felon. We asked once more for the investigative materials only to receive them in November 2015. We considered a second appeal, but decided there was no point.

Judging by the behavior of the police in this case so far, another appeal would be pointless. It would appear that the public shock of a violent and brutal assault of an 80-year-old man, carried out solely because of his ethnicity, does not translate into an effective investigation and punishment. He’s only a Palestinian, after all.