Jonathan Ofir – Mondoweiss July 21, 2020
Two Israeli security officers were acquitted in a case involving the lynching of Haftom Zarhum, an Eritrean refugee, although they were filmed beating him and repeatedly dropping a bench on his head. The judge cited “reasonable doubt”.
The bloodthirsty mob lynching in October 2015 was part of a string of “mistaken identity” incidents in Israel. A terror attack had in fact taken place earlier at the Beersheba central bus station; a man from an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev opened fire, killing a soldier and wounding 11 others.
Zarhum was a passerby, who was mistaken for the shooter by a security guard because he was dark skinned. A police spokesman in the wake of the incident said that it was “not clear if [Zarhum] is involved with the event or if he was shot due to his exterior appearance.”
Zarhum was shot 8 times. Though he had been incapacitated, the mob continued to beat him heavily, shouting “terrorist!”, “Kill him!”, “break his head, son of a bitch!”. The two officers were in that mob. The Times of Israel notes:
“The indictment said that in the aftermath of the attack, [combat soldier Yaakov] Shimba kicked Zarhum in the head and upper body with force. It said [Prison Services officer Ronen] Cohen threw a bench onto him, and after another man removed the bench he took it and again dropped it on the prone man.”
The indictment states that although Zarhum was one of the most seriously wounded in the fracas, he was evacuated to hospital only after all other wounded were evacuated (per Haaretz).
The lynchers celebrated the killing on live TV broadcast, when they still believed that Zarhum was the shooter.
It is important to note, that the autopsy concluded that Zarhum died from his gunshot wounds, not from the beatings, but the beatings were severe. The prosecution stated that “the defendants committed serious acts of violence towards the late citizen Haftom Zarhum, who was already shot, wounded and profusely bleeding, from a motive of vengeance and in order to relieve their anger, and not as the defendants claimed from self-defense”.
Originally, four people were charged in this case, and two of them were civilians. The civilians took a plea bargain in 2018 which downgraded the charge from “causing injury with grave intent” (which entails potential 20 years prison) to “abusing the helpless”. One was sentenced to four months in prison and the other got 100 days of community service and eight months of probation and was ordered to pay NIS 2,000 (approximately $550) compensation to Zarhum’s family.
But the security officers would not take a deal – they pleaded not guilty, and they got what they wanted from the judge – acquittal.
The judge Aharon Mishnayot has a long record as a military legal advisor and judge (from 1990, judge from 1998), and he spent the last part of his military career 2007-2013 as head judge of the military courts in the Occupied West Bank.
The judge stated that after having seen the evidence, he was “certain that the defendants were convinced that the deceased was one of several terrorists”, that the (mostly lone wolf) attacks of the time had “created an atmosphere of fear and panic in the public”, and that he could not “ignore the connection of the event to the frequent terror events that had occurred in the state in those days, before the event at hand and the implications that this may have on the state of awareness of the involved”.
But the defendants were not responding to a security threat as such. They were acting in revenge. The judge is thus suggesting that pure revenge for Palestinian attacks is a mitigating circumstance.
The judge added, that that while the prosecution stated that the defendants could distinguish between “neutralizing a terrorist or who seemed to be one, and attacking an innocent person”, he is “afraid that such appraisal is true for a utopian reality, where one can easily distinguish between good and bad and between friend and predator, but it defies the actual reality and to the real world, and does not correctly reflect the complex circumstances of the difficult situation, into which the people in the central station were unfortunately drawn at the evening of the attack, including the defendants”.
So the lynch mob, and in particular the security officials, were, according to the judge, simply victims themselves – victims of an “unfortunate circumstance”.
But what about Zarhum? Was he not really the victim of this “unfortunate circumstance” in a much more deadly way? And were not the lynchers creating this deadly circumstance in a singular way? After all, he was just a passerby, killed for his skin color.
And what would happen if Palestinians, for example, act like the defendants did?
Alma Bilbash noted a comparative case on her Facebook page: in 2005 an Israeli soldier, Eden Nathan Zada, opened fire on a bus at the Palestinian-Israeli village of Shefa-Amr, killing four and wounding twelve. After having been restrained and handcuffed, he was beaten to death by the crowd. So here we had an actual, certain, terror attack, with an ensuing lynching of the terrorist.
Let’s put aside the lopsided power structure of Palestinians in Israel in relation to the Jewish State. Eventually, six Palestinian Israelis were convicted – four of attempted manslaughter, two of aggravated battery. Three of them were sentenced to two years prison, the others to 20, 18 and 11 months prison.
Orly Noy notes in her Facebook post another comparison – to the case of Shlomo Haim Pinto from 2015, an Israeli Jew, who decided to stab a Palestinian in a supermarket out of a “spiritual calling”, but mistook Uri Razkan, a Mizrahi Jew, for a Palestinian, stabbed him and caused him moderate injuries. Pinto was sentenced to 11 months prison.
Noy comments that Pinto only went to prison because his victim was Jewish. If Razkan was not Jewish, it is possible to assume that judge Mishnayot from the Zarhum case would have acquitted Pinto due to “reasonable doubt”. She summarizes the “race pyramid that prevails here”:
“If you are a dark-skinned man, you are, per definition, in a risk group. Your skin color marks you as a target. If you are Jewish and your murderer was in uniform, you’ll get some media coverage but forget justice or sentence. If you’re not Jewish and your murderer wore uniform, say thank you if you don’t get declared a terrorist post-mortem. If you’re Jewish and your attacker was Jewish not in uniform, there’s a chance that he would pay for his deeds. If you are not Jewish and your attacker was Jewish not in uniform, your family will get a full 2000 Shekels that will bury you. If you’re Palestinian, whether your murderer wore uniform or not, be sure that you will be declared a terrorist after your death”.
Commenting on yesterday’s verdict, Ronen Cohen’s attorney Zion Amir said that Cohen was a hero:
“There is no doubt that this is a big day for an officer who acted heroically during the incident, and instead of an award got an indictment. I am glad that the court acquitted him after an almost five-years legal battle.”
Cohen is not the only hero in the killing of Hafton Zarhum. The soldier and fellow defendant Yaakov Shimba deserved a medal of honor for his acts, according to Israeli general (res.) Gershon Hacohen. Hacohen testified in the case two years ago and although admitting to not even having read the charges, he opined that charging the soldier is “immoral” and that the soldier is “worthy of respect” since he “didn’t shoot one bullet”. (Neither did George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, notes Edith Breslauer on Facebook.)
Another general who testified in 2018, Dan Biton, opined that the soldier acted “calmly”, even when he cursed Zarhum.
“He came from Golani (infantry brigade), so I don’t need to add anything. If he was from Armory it wouldn’t have been like that. It is calmness (to curse) which belongs to some from Golani. Whoever comes from Golani curses unconsciously. In the end, when examining the event throughout, he acted calmly”.
Just imagine how it would have been if Shimba had a bad day. It was a good day after all, per general Biton.
There was no doubt that Haftom Zarhum was lynched. There is absolutely no doubt that the two defendants were a central part of his lynching. But because they suspected Zarhum was a terrorist, although they never saw him touching a fly nor posing any kind of danger to them, in fact was incapacitated, their bloodthirsty revenge was “reasonable”. That’s “reasonable doubt” for you, in Israeli Newspeak.