Daniel Pinner can’t understand how an Israeli court could sentence him to two years in jail for shooting a Palestinian when the chief police investigator testified that this might have been a mistake.
In April, Pinner, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank Jewish community of Tapuah, was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for shooting a Palestinian man on the Gaza shore weeks before the Israeli eviction of some 10,000 Jewish residents and their supporters. During the trial, police acknowledged that they did not investigate the shooting because they mistakenly thought Pinner had confessed to the crime.
“Maybe we made a mistake,” Shimon Amar, the head of police investigations, testified.
The judge was not impressed and Pinner was convicted. For attorneys and civil rights group, this was no surprise. Many of them reported a trend by the courts to ignore rules of evidence when dealing with Jewish opponents of the government’s withdrawal policy from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“What this trial proved more than anything else that there is frighteningly close collaboration between the police, the prosecution and the courts,” Pinner said. “I didn’t think I would end up in “shabak” [Israel Security Agency] interrogation cellars and a couple of years in prison.”
Indeed, over the last year, scores of Jews charged with so-called ideological crimes have been kept in jail for months without charge. In some cases, judges kept Jewish dissidents in jail even after police were found to have fabricated evidence against them.
“Unfortunately, this is not something new,” Prof. David Kretzmer, professor emeritus of international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said. “I defended people who were brought to court on the basis of all kinds of statements and unfortunately it seemed to be an endemic problem in the 1970’s. It seems to be a recurrent theme among law officials that they either exaggerate or sometimes invent claims that demonstrators were using violence or disturbing the police to justify their own behavior.”
Pinner, an electrician who sought to oppose the Israeli eviction, was arrested on June 22, 2005 on charges of shooting Nasser Ahmed Wafy in the leg on the Gaza beach during a fracas between Arabs and Jews. Four days earlier, Pinner recalled that he had been walking along a coastal road after helping renovate a Jewish-owned hotel that had been left dilapidated. He was carrying a licensed Uzi submachine gun amid reports of Arab stone-throwing from the neighboring Muwasi neighborhood.
Within minutes of leaving the hotel, Pinner saw several Palestinians throwing stones toward Jews along the beach. He recalled seeing Jews being struck by a stone and an Arab injured as well and felt he was in danger as as about 50 Palestinians approached.
“I shouted some warnings in Arabic but more Arabs came,” Pinner recalled. “Then I shot in the air.”
The following week, Pinner was arrested at his home in Tapuah, regarded as a hotbed of nationalist opposition to the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At first, police told Pinner that he had shot Wafy, a resident of the Muwasi, in the chest. Later, police said Wafy was shot in the leg.
During the trial, the prosecution based its case on the testimony of Wafy, who failed to identify Pinner as the shooter. Police acknowledged that they failed to conduct ballistic or forensic tests to determine whether the bullet wound claimed by Wafy stemmed from Pinner’s Uzi.
At one point, police testified that Pinner confessed to shooting an Arab and therefore no investigation was conducted. When the video was shown in court, Pinner was shown telling police interrogators that he fired in the air.
At that point, Amar admitted that he might have made a mistake. Later, Judge Rachel Barkai of the Beersheba District Court dismissed Amar’s admission and determined that Pinner was guilty and sentenced him to two years.
“Pinner’s actions were nothing more than a show of force against Palestinians in the area, Barkai said in her decision.
To Yitzhak Klein, director of the Jerusalem-based Israel Policy Center, the practice by police to charge Jewish dissidents with crimes that would never be investigated was all too familiar. Klein, who has examined the issue, said judges have exhibited their bias against right-wing opponents of the government by accepting fabricated police evidence.
“In many cases that have come to our attention there has been a misuse of video evidence as far as misrepresentation to editing and cutting,” Klein said. “We suspect that it is endemic. It’s hard to second guess every judge. There are cases where judges are wiser than the police, or judges are not aware of the evidence or whatever… that it is actually some kind of political bias.”
As a resident of Tapuah, Pinner has been a target of Israel’s domestic intelligence service for years. As early as 2003, he said, he rejected pressure by the Israel Security Agency to finger suspects in drive-by shootings against Arabs in the West Bank.
“They used a lot of flattery, telling me that I have high intelligence and initiative,” Pinner recalled. “‘Don’t be frightened,’ they said. ‘We only want to help.’ Then they threw down the challenge and offered me money — firstly 300 shekels [$65] to cover petrol costs and they they upped it to 1,000 shekels [$230].”
Pinner, who served in the Israeli military, said security agents peppered him with questions on what he thought of Israel and the government.
“You come from England,” Pinner quoted an officer as saying. “What do you think of our government system?”
“I have nothing to hide.” Pinner said.
“You are with us or against us,” the agent, who called himself Yiftah, said. “Decide and decide now.”
“I am an electrician, not a spy,” Pinner said.
In 2004, Pinner was again summoned for interrogation. He refused to show up and this time his apartment was raided by police. Officers found books by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of the far-right Kach movement, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and 19th Century English poetry.
“They suspected me of being a Kahanist, a Communist and a Nazi,” Pinner said.
Israeli police did not investigate the Pinner shooting at the Gaza beach. But they unquestioningly accepted evidence from the Palestinian Authority, despite a government determination that this was an enemy government.
The PA Health Ministry sent Israeli police a report that Wafy — who said he was shot by a fat short bespectacled man with long earlocks, which widely contrasts with the clean shaven non-bespectacled Pinner — was treated for a gunshot wound on June 18, 2005. The report, which showed Wafy pointing to a bandaged thigh, said both the entry and exit points in the leg measured one centimeter in diameter. At the trial, Pinner’s attorney, Baruch Ben-Yosef, cited expert evidence that the exit point of a bullet was larger than the entry point. Ben-Yosef cited a police memo that requested that Wafy’s trousers be sent to forensics for tests. The memo was ignored.
In cross-examination, Amar, the police investigator, was indignant.
“You’re not telling me how to do my job?” Amar asked. “We didn’t need all of this. He [Pinner] admitted it. He [Pinner] reenacted it on film.”
The judge took a recess to see the videotaped reenactment. In the recording, Pinner said “I shot in the air” rather than what the police claimed he said, “I shot the Arab.” At that point, Amar admitted that police were mistaken.
During his detention, Pinner recalled that he was denied basic rights. He was held in a 2×2.5 meter cell where he was taken for frequent interrogations. His interrogators wanted to know the names of those living in the hotel he was renovating rather than details of the shooting.
Later, his arraignment was held in camera and Pinner was not allowed to meet an attorney. The court even issued a gag order on his arrest. In the end, he spent 10 months in prison by the time he was convicted, long after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
“The actions of the defendant [Pinner] are dangerous, regardless of the political background,” Judge Sarah Dovrat of the Beer Sheba District Court said on July 14, 2005 in rejecting a petition that Pinner be confined to his home. “A person who carries a weapon and uses it attests to the threat he poses and is not a result of political tension. Under these circumstances, the end of the disengagement does not counteract the defendant’s threat.”
Pinner even tried political methods to win his freedom. During the March 2006 elections, he was placed on a list of Knesset candidates for the Herut Party. The party failed to win a seat.
In April 2006, Pinner received a break. Supreme Court Judges Edna Arbel, Elyakim Rubinstein and David Cheshin released Pinner from jail pending his appeal.
On September 10, the appeal was rejected.
Pinner was scheduled to return to prison any day now to serve the remainder of his sentence. His mother died in England and Pinner was expected to be allowed to attend the funeral in Israel.
“The police have authority and use it in a flawed way,” Miriam Leedor, director of the information department of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said. “We view this in a very grave way. He [the policeman] is an authority figure and he has the authority to use in it in a possibly deceitful way. This is very serious.”