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Israeli military profiling and assaulting international observers in Hebron

5 November 2011 | International Solidarity Movement, West Bank

For over a week now, ISM activists have been continually harassed, and on one occasion assaulted, by Israeli soldiers who have frequently demanded that internationals to hand over possessions of their passports. This ongoing situation has occurred within the ‘H2’ zone in the city of Hebron, which is notorious for its intense and illegal Israeli military presence due to a small number of Israeli citizens who have illegally invaded and occupied a historically significant part of the city.

Harassment of international observers at checkpoint - Click here for more information

According to Israeli law, soldiers have limited jurisdiction over internationals as internationals are governed by civil law (unlike the Palestinians who suffer under unjust military rule) and therefore only the Israeli police have the legal authority to demand an international or Israeli citizen to provide their passport for inspection. Despite this, the soldiers have continued to attempt to abuse their power, generally using tactics of intimidation and threats, in a vain hope that they will force the internationals to submit to their inflated sense of power.

This recent change of approach from the Israeli military towards internationals appears to have coincided with a strong international presence at a olive harvest within the ‘H2’ zone during which Israeli soldiers refused Palestinians’ their inherent right to harvest their own land. It also appears that the arrival of a new commander, who infamously boasted, “I am the law, I am god” has also contributed to what incredibly may be a deterioration in the treatment Palestinians and internationals. In his short period in charge the commander has revoked a long established agreement that teachers; pregnant women and others with health issues do not have to pass through the radiation emitting checkpoint and must instead submit to being searched every time. It appears this commander has ambitions of promotion beyond the rank of, “god” and recognises that the path to this within the Israeli army is inhumane treatment of Palestinians and any who dare support them.

ISM activists have remained firm in their support of Palestinians and compliance with Israeli law, recognising that as internationals they are able to resist elements of the occupation that Palestinians are simply unable to; also and perhaps most importantly, if internationals allow the soldiers to abuse their power with internationals, it will weaken their ability to support Palestinians in their struggle and potentially open the floodgates for further abuses of power against the Palestinians. Consequently over the last week to ten days it has been a daily occurrence that internationals are refused entry into the ‘H2’ and even at times out (via checkpoint 56).

On occasions ISM activists have chosen to take the longer route into the ‘H2′ zone when they have been refused entry through checkpoint 56 and at times even avoided the checkpoint completely similar to many of the teachers and Palestinians’ with health issues. This longer route is significantly less convenient for many, and ISM activists have been informed that it can add as much as forty five minutes onto a teacher’s travel time to and from work, which has some of them considering whether they can continue to provide their invaluable service to the children of Qordoba school.

When ISM activists have refused to take an alternative route into ‘H2’ they are frequently delayed for long periods of time until the police arrive to resolve what is an unlawful situation. Reports from ISM activists indicate that the police officers who arrive at the scene are also aware of the illegality of the soldiers request, and while they are eager not to explicitly state this in front of international activists, it is clear from their gestures that they do not believe the soldiers requests are necessary.

Each time the police have arrived to such an incident, ISM activists have handed over their passports without resistance and often their details (i.e. name, nationality, passport number etc.) have been recorded. However, although it has generally been the case that the police officers have shown a lack of support for the soldiers position, clearly both the soldiers and the police form part of a larger illegal and unjust structure within the West Bank, and consequently on some occasions the police have attempted to intimidate ISM activists by claiming that soldiers have the authority to arrest internationals who refuse to show their passports. This is also illegal according to Israeli law. On a couple of occasions the police officers have handed over possession of international’s passports to the soldiers, who have then retained the passports for significant periods of time, illegally and without any genuine explanation.

On Tuesday 1st November the situation reached a new level of illegality and harassment. At approximately 11 AM a lone ISM activist attempted to pass through checkpoint 56 on their way to their apartment where they were staying. This activist appears to have been the attention for much of the soldiers’ harassment particularly when travelling alone, which has led activists to questions whether this is due to the activists ethnicity (Black British). Although the soldiers are aware of the identity of all the ISM activists and have seen their passports and recorded their details on several occasions, once again the soldiers demanded that they be given possession of the ISM activist’s passport, refusing to accept that close inspection (although they do not have the authority to demand this either) was sufficient. The activist denied this illegal request and consequently the two soldiers controlling the checkpoint  refused to allow the activist to travel freely to their destination. In addition the soldiers refused to call the police and suggested that the activist simply would have to exit the checkpoint. Aware that often the only effective weapon against the abuses of Israeli authorities, both committed against internationals activists, but most important Palestinian civilians, is the scrutiny of international eyes via the camera lens, the activist called two of his colleagues to come and record the incident.

Once two other ISM activists arrived to the checkpoint (from their apartment within the ‘H2’ zone) with their videos camera aimed, the ISM activist being refused entry again attempted to show the soldiers his passport and valid visa, but the soldiers continued to  deny them entry. The soldiers were then asked to call the police so the situation could be resolved according to Israeli law, but the soldiers also refused this, appearing eager to simply punish the activist for daring to resist their attempt to abuse their power as they feel entitled to do with innocent Palestinians.

Under the gaze of the cameras the ISM activists then attempted to make their way to the apartment, with the soldiers unwilling to resolve the situation legally. At this point the two soldiers began to physically prevent the activists from making progress, with both becoming aggressive and violent as they pushed the activist towards a nearby wall. Under threat  from the soldiers the activist instinctively raised his hands to defend himself and attempt to remove himself from the grip and the force of the two soldiers. Perhaps indicative of the deception used by the Israeli government, the two soldiers who were clearly the aggressors in this situation, attempted to claim that they were under attack and had been assaulted by the lone activist. This type of blatant manipulation of the facts appears to be a common theme through much of the Israeli government propaganda about this illegal occupation.

The soldiers then claimed that they would call the police to report this factious assault and ordered the activist to remain beside the checkpoint until the police arrived. Naively believing that the soldiers were for once being honest the activist followed this instruction without resistance, recognising that soldiers have the right to detain internationals for three hours while the police arrive to an incident. It later emerged that the soldiers had not actually called the police, who on several occasions drove past the incident along with T.I.P.H (temporary international presence in Hebron) who were equally slow and ineffective in their response, which it seems they frequently are.

The police arrived approximately two and a half hours after the incident began, following a call from an ISM activist requesting their presence at the incident. During this period of detainment there was change in the soldiers presence at the checkpoint, with a notoriously hostile and aggressive soldier arriving (one who had previously kicked this activist while he had been travelling alone) and consequently the situation, the harassment and the assault escalated.

One of the first ISM activists who had arrived at the scene to support their colleague eventually had to leave in order go on a school patrol (helping young school children to travel home safely in the face of often vicious settler attacks) and attempted to pass checkpoint 56 and exit ‘H2’. The soldiers are generally less likely to check the ID of Palestinians as they exit ‘H2’ and almost never ask to see the passports of internationals travelling in this direction as they are travelling into the ‘H1’ zone where Israeli citizens have yet to attempt to illegally invade and occupy.

However on this occasion the soldier who is notorious for his hostility towards Palestinians and internationals, decided that he wanted the ISM activists to hand over possession of his passport before he could exit the checkpoint. When he was refused permission, to abuse his power further the soldier became violent and forcibly prevented the ISM activist from progressing into the city; chasing him beyond the checkpoint; screaming with M16 in tow and then pushing the activist against a wall. So as not to further provoke, what can only be described as an unstable and volatile soldier, the activist made his way back through the checkpoint and he too was then detained along with his fellow ISM activist as both waited for the police arrive to the incident. A third ISM activists was also later detained simply for attempting to take a mobile phone from one of their colleagues who had been detained. Both this third ISM activist and another were aggressively pushed as they attempted to make any type of contact with their colleagues.

During this period activists from CPT arrived and attempted to investigate what was occurring. They too were treated with hostility and distain, but remained firm in their determination to document what was occurring, which meant they were frequently assaulted as the soldiers arbitrarily pushed them away and insisted they stand on a particular piece of the road along with other ISM activists who were also now present and recording the incident. As the minutes and hours passed by, another group of internationals who appeared to be having a guided tour of the city also stopped at the incident and were suitably horrified by what was occurring. Despite the fact that they were at least fifteen internationals documenting the incident, the soldiers appeared oblivious and even escalated their violence against the ISM activists detained.

Whilst being observed by a large crowd of internationals, one of the soldiers decided that they wanted to illegally search the ISM activist that they had originally detained. At this point the activist had been detained for over an hour and had peacefully and calmly remained in the same position, clearly presenting no risk. The activist refused the attempt by the soldier to humiliate him in front of the crowd by searching him, explaining that they had previously passed through the metal detector. The activist attempted to compromise with soldiers by saying that they we were willing for their bag to be searched but would not submit to a full body search until the police arrived, and they had legal authority to perform such a search if the circumstances warranted it. With their authority challenged the soldiers again resorted to violence, attempting to push and pull the activist away from his colleagues to a nearby wall. The activists was able to resist non-violently by holding onto a metal railing, while all present were horrified at what they were witnessing and demanded in vain that it end.

Eventually the soldiers relented, undoubtedly realising that in order for them to exert their will in this situation they would have to use a level of force which they were not comfortable using in front of such a large international audience.

Soon after about six more soldiers arrived on the scene which seemed to frighten many of the internationals who had gathered and they were hurriedly ushered away by their guide, leaving their best wishes with the three activists who were being detained. Perhaps the reduced level of scrutiny encouraged the soldiers to once again behave in manner which can only be described as inhumane. The third ISM activist who had been detained simply for attempting to take a mobile phone from her colleague, after standing directly in the hot midday sun for about thirty minutes, attempted to move less than half a metre to find some shade. As soon as the ISM activist attempted to move she was approached by a soldier he began to aggressively push her back, refusing to listen to her plea to stand in an area with less direct sunlight while she was being detained for a reason hard to comprehend. Anxious about the safety of his colleague who had been suffering from the flu for the last few days, and appeared unsteady under the force of the much larger and stronger soldier, another of the detained activists stood beside his colleague to ensure she was okay. The solider then turned his attention to the male ISM activist and violently grabbed him by the throat and again attempted to aggressively push him backwards.

By the time the police eventually arrived there were four people being detained, three ISM activists and one Palestinian man, who appeared to have been detained simply for daring to speak to the ISM activists as he walked past. On their arrival the police spoke to the soldiers present before asking for the passport of the first international detained. Initially it seemed as though the police officers were suggesting that soldiers would be arresting this international, but eventually after the commander of the soldier’s was called to the incident the international was arrested for allegedly assaulting a soldier and was escorted via a police car to a local police station, with two police officers and two soldiers accompanying him. The three other detainees were released without any further issue, clearly indicating that they were being held without just cause.

After several hours waiting in the police station, with limited information being given to the arrested British activist or his concerned colleagues who spent time outside the station ( unaware of whether the ISM activist was actually being detained there) and also made several phone calls to the police station, the ISM activist was eventually informed he would be spending the night in police custody and would be taken to the immigration authorities to be deported the following morning. The activist was interviewed, had their finger prints and photographs taken and after having many of their belongings removed, locked away in a cell for the night.

The following morning at approximately 8.30am two officers entered the ISM activists cell and after strip searching him and then hand cuffing his wrists and ankles, escorted him to a court in Jerusalem via a high security police van. During the journey the activist shared a small metal compartment with a Palestinian man, who it perhaps wouldn’t be too presumptuous to suggest was be held unjustly and would undoubted receive significantly more severe treatment than the international activist with whom he shared a seat. Once at the court the activist spoke with a lawyer provided by the ISM. The lawyer explained that the prosecutor had initially suggested they would attempt to have the activist deported, but the lawyer was able to effectively argue that there were no legal grounds for this. The lawyer suggested to the activist that he should agree to the new terms demanded by the prosecution, which were that the activist could not return south of Jerusalem for fifteen days. After being informed that although there was video evidence of not only the innocence of the activist, but also the various assaults committed by the soldiers, this was insufficient to stand against the word of a police officer. The ISM activist decided to sign the agreement for fear that the demands would be made even more severe (e.g. a six month ban form the entire West Bank).