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Black and Blue at the Orient House

by Charles Lenchner

Report from a Very Unholy Land

On Thursday, August 9, all hell broke loose; a suicide bomber blew himself up, with more than a hundred dead or wounded as a result. The Islamic Jihad took responsibility and promised more to come. But of course, this was hell primarily for the Israelis. Another kind of hell, the kind that produces suicide bombers in limitless supply, has been going on for many months in the Palestinian Territories.

On Thursday evening, the day of the bombing, the Israeli police stormed the Orient House, known as the political representation for Palestinians in the city of Jerusalem. Minister of Internal Security, Uzi Landau, had wanted to shut it down since entering office five months ago. The bombing was used, cynically, as an excuse; no one had accused the Orient House of being anything other than a political headquarters for mainstream Palestinians.

On Friday morning [August 10], the ISM group of 30 or so Americans, Italians, French, Danish, and British peace activists made their way to the closed-off street that houses the Orient House, right next to the American Colony Hotel. We joined a small number of Palestinians, and a large number of journalists. Our strategy was to try nonviolently to open the street to the Orient House, and free many people within it, as well as staff and residents at a nearby orphanage, from what we considered illegal occupation of the neighborhood.

Repeatedly, we moved against the police barricade that sealed off the street. Occasionally demonstrators were able to push aside or pull a metal barricade, forcing the police to link arms and push the demonstrators back. Occasionally, police on horseback rode around menacingly, forcing the demonstrators to lie down, a tactic aimed at preventing the horses from kicking people.

One of our members, an English woman with all the glorious history of the British anti-nuclear movement radiating from her, insisted on entering the street. Her insistence paid off, and she was finally admitted and arrested. A bit later, as I was standing near the barricade, I saw that the police had opened it up and were massed along the breach. The protesters were not next to it, although I was. I turned around, and saw two policemen with an elderly Palestinian man between them being half carried, half dragged, coming towards me quickly. Stunned a bit by the escalation in mood and police tactics, I was motionless until the three had passed me and were crossing the barricades, some of which were on the ground.

The Palestinian man had tripped, or was shoved down, and was lying face down being beaten, as the police tried to get a better grip on him to drag him away. I instinctively, and perhaps foolishly, jumped on the lower part of his body to protect what I could from the blows. (This man looked about 60 years old).

Seconds later I was dragged by my belt into the sealed off street, as an officer asked what should be done with me. A second later, someone else said authoritatively that I was to be arrested.

I was not given the chance to stand up, but carried by my belt and arms for the fifty meters or so to the police van, while I remained silent and in a fetal position. For the entire time, I was beaten by 5-7 police officers with batons, punches, and kicks. I was also dropped and kicked along the way. One officer was unable to reach me because the others were in his way, and he shoved his baton up my bottom as forcefully as possible, sometimes hitting my genitals. Upon reaching the police van, the police did their best to shove me in awkwardly, taking advantage of the metal doorway as leverage for more beating and punching. The most active participant was the plain-clothes officer in a white t-shirt and earring who was also the one I saw hitting the Palestinian man I tried to protect.

After I was pushed all the way inside, I remained curled up in a fetal position, as I had been since being first picked up. I saw that same officer enter the van, shouting and pushing another Palestinian man, as well as a French man. At one point, the officer simply slapped the Palestinian man hard, unprovoked, and when the man tried to defend himself by shouting and pushing the officers hands away from his face, he was brutally beaten by at least three officers. The action was so intense, that I was carried out to give the police more space to beat up the occupants of the van. I think that I was carried out also because my behavior made it clear that I was willing to be completely submissive, unlike the Palestinian man, who made the mistake of protecting himself. While standing outside the van, I turned and spoke in Hebrew to the officers, informing them that I am an Israeli who is planning on submitting all that I have seen as evidence in a complaint of police brutality. The violence ended shortly thereafter, and did not continue. I suspect that my statement is the basis for being accused of assaulting the police.

All of this was done by policemen or border police, who serve professionally, not by conscripts or young officers. Most were men between the ages of 30-40. Many had insignia that showed them to be mid-level commissioned or non-commissioned officers. None of them was wearing a badge or name tag that allowed people to get their name or number. At least seven different ones hit me after I was arrested, and this was witnessed by at least twenty five police, including senior officers who seemed to be in charge of the situation.

We were duly handcuffed with plastic ties by an officer. A few minutes later, the plainclothes officer came in, and yanked all of our plastic ties with great force. A few minutes later, another officer came in and cut all the ties off. A few minutes later, that plainclothes officer came in and re-applied the dreaded plastic ties. This time I knew to hold my hands in such a way that the sudden tug wouldn’t leave my wrists bound too tightly. Nonetheless, I have scabs where they cut into my flesh.

At one point, that same plainclothes officer walked around the van, shutting the windows one by one from the outside, and shutting the back door of the van, the one on the other side of the security door that kept us locked up inside. He said in Hebrew to another officer that the arrestees should sweat as much as possible. As a result of the heat, I suffered a migraine headache, which forced me to seek medical attention afterwards. The doctor who examined me was convinced that my condition might be related to blows to my head. Perhaps she was right; I’m not sure that makes any difference. At the moment, my back is covered with large bruises, up to a foot long. Most of them are from police batons, although some could be kicks. They look quite shocking. I’m getting a perverse pleasure out of showing off my back to unsuspecting friends; none of them has ever seen such a battered piece of flesh as my back. In a few days the colors will fade, along with all the other pains, scratches, and bruises on my body. I will not forget.

The next day, the police were even more brutal, choosing to beat people both before and after arrest. The head of the Jerusalem police was filmed punching a Palestinian woman in the stomach, while she was pinned down by other burly policemen. On that day I got a call from a peace activist who had read the initial report of my arrest, and wanted to know what could be done on my behalf. I explained that this is the country we live in, and just because I was beaten severely today, does not give me much pause for thought. Other friends of mine were beaten at other times, and more will be beaten in the future. This is one of the many faces of Israel: a smirking cop shoving his baton into the ass of one of the citizens he has sworn to protect, another one shutting off the fresh air to a van full of detainees.

But please, do not discount my Israeli face, which I hope is also an important part of the picture. Some Jewish Israelis are deeply concerned about what we are doing to Palestinians, and are deeply concerned about the violence done to our own national soul as a people. Some Palestinians, facing incomparably more difficult circumstances, are trying to present a vision of the future that includes respect for both peoples. Whoever behaves with great violence and inhumanity, Israeli or Palestinian, is obviously suffering from severe psychological scars and intense fear. Without trying to promote an obviously false symmetry, let me say that all of us here, Israeli and Palestinian, need the active participation of the international community to resolve our conflict. We need it to come from a place of love and understanding, and we need it now more than ever before.