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Attacks by Masked Cops and Fears of Reprisal: The Reality of Bedouins in Israel’s Negev Desert

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Mousa Abu Merimi, a resident of the Bedouin village Bir Hadaj in the Negev, was driving home one Wednesday in mid-December with his 2-year-old daughter, who suffers from a muscular disease, after picking her up from a special-needs nursery school in Be’er Sheva.

As they drove home via Route 222, between their village and the Tze’elim army base, masked Border Police officers stopped them and forced Abu Merimi out of the car. The 37-year-old father trembles as he describes how they pushed him onto the road, cuffed him, sat on his chest and beat him severely for an entire hour. Throughout this time his daughter was locked, alone in the car, watching the goings on, crying and screaming.

This wasn’t the only incident involving Border Police stopping (and beating up) drivers in the south that day. The type of officers in such cases – whether in the Border Police, Israel Police or the army – usually belong to undercover counter-terrorism units (mista’arvim, in Hebrew). Other drivers say they were also detained and violently attacked for no reason by the same unit that Wednesday.

About two hours before Abu Merimi was attacked, two brothers from his village said they ran into the same officers. Local residents report a number of similar assaults in recent months, since the unit has been stationed nearby and is now closely patrolling their village. But the victims are usually afraid to talk about what’s happened.

“I was driving on the road a little after 4 P.M. with my little girl in her car seat,” says Abu Merimi, owner of three camping-goods stores. “Four police jeeps and pickup trucks were driving toward me in the opposite direction and two of them suddenly blocked the road. I stopped. Even before they got out of their vehicles one of them had his gun pointed at me. I think there were almost 20 of them, five in every car. They came toward me. I told them there was a child in the car and I didn’t want her to be alarmed – but they didn’t want to hear. One of them grabbed me by the neck while I was still inside the car and another started punching me.

“Another one entered from the child’s side, jumped over her. The child is underneath him, screaming. ‘My daughter, be careful!’ I shout, but he doesn’t care. Someone turns the engine off, she is still screaming, and they take me out of the car and throw me onto the road, shouting and cursing at me. I was on the road for three or four minutes; they all gathered around and beat me up. In the end one officer shouted to another to bring handcuffs. They bound me with my hands behind my back; they pushed my face into the road and I tried to lift my head. Then they yanked me by the cuffs to a standing position. It was incredibly painful.”

According to Abu Merimi, who emerged from the encounter with the Border Police with a hemorrhage around his left eye and bruises all over his body, he was tossed onto the side of the road by the masked officers; one knelt down on his chest, occasionally punching and kicking him.

Abu Merimi: “To everything I said, he replied ‘Shut up, you son of a bitch’ – and hit me. One officer came over and I asked him why I had been arrested, and he answered ‘for assaulting the police.’ I said: Wow, look at that. There’s like 20 people here, and I assaulted them.”

An Israel Police patrol car then arrived at the scene, and one of the officers asked what was going on, he recalls, “but the masked men paid him no mind. The police officer asked my name. Made phone calls and tried to have someone come get my child. Then an Israel Land Authority inspector whom I know came by; he also tried to speak with the masked men, but they didn’t listen to him either. He saw that I was bleeding and brought me water. All this time the child was in the car. The inspector opened the door near her seat, and finally they let me go to her. I kiss my little girl, tell her everything is okay – with my hands bound behind my back.”

Abu Merimi says that once the Israel Police officers arrived, the physical abuse ended, but he was detained for another hour. He was released without any charges and drove with his daughter to get medical care.

“The ‘blue’ police officers were fine. They seemed pained by the incident. The inspector too. But the masked men were in control,” he says, adding that the following day, his daughter refused to go to nursery school. “She didn’t want to get in the car, or the stroller. She really cried.” Abu Merimi filed a complaint that day with the Department of Internal Police Investigations.

In response to a Haaretz query about the incident, Israel Police said that “undercover Border Police fighters operated for a few hours that day in the vicinity of Tze’elim. The troops carried out an arrest of two suspects near Route 222. The subject of your query, who drove along the road at the time and encountered the troops while they were conducting the arrest, was asked to vacate the route but refused, obstructing the operations there. Later on when he was asked to identify himself, he cursed the troops and refused to open his car door. Upon exiting his car, he attacked several fighters and was therefore arrested. At the end of the operation, and as per the judgment of the commander of the force, he was released on the spot and not taken in for interrogation out of consideration for the fact that he was traveling with a child at the time, and claimed to be unable to locate relatives to assist him in removing her from the location.”

For his part, Abu Merimi vociferously denies the police’s claims that he refused to clear the route, obstructed any activity, or cursed or attacked the officers. In recent months, he notes, “the police show up in Bir Hadaj and just beat up whoever they want. We see them a lot, always wearing masks. When I asked them to identify themselves, they refused.”

On top of all this, Abu Merimi participates in a local forum that aims to increase trust between residents and the police, and to encourage the Bedouin to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. So far, the trends are in the opposite direction.

‘Powerful kicks’

Abu Merimi says that as he was being assaulted, he noticed another resident from Bir Hadaj, looking battered, in one of the Border Police vehicles. It was Karim Abu Jalidan, who was in the car with his brother (who does not want to be identified), shortly after they claim to have been assaulted by the officers.

According to Abu Jalidan, 29, he and his brother were assaulted at about 2 P.M. on that same Wednesday. “We were out near the village and suddenly I saw a Mitzubishi pickup truck with four masked officers in it. I’d heard of them before, that people flee from them, that it’s a mess, that even if you have done nothing – they beat you up and mess up your car,” he tells Haaretz.

After seeing the pickup, Abu Jalidan reversed and took a side road, but encountered a jeep and another pickup belonging to the undercover unit; the drivers motioned for him to stop.

“One of the vehicles drew up close to me and an officer aimed a gun at me and told me to stop and get out of the car. My brother and I got out quickly,” he says. “Me, they forced to lay down on the ground; my brother – somebody grabbed him and began to beat him. Then they made him lay down too, and because he asked questions they kicked him. They searched the car and found nothing, but after a phone call they decided to arrest us.”

Abu Jalidan says that the officers tightly bound his and his brother’s hands behind their backs with plastic zip ties. The marks are still visible on his wrists. “They spoke very disrespectfully. Curses like ‘you son of a bitch, maniac.’”

His father, Suleiman Abu Jalidan, recalls what he heard from his other son, who he says is still too hurt and angry to be interviewed: “One of the officers kept saying, ‘Where are the weapons? Show me drugs and I’ll let you go now.” According to the father, Karim didn’t receive much of a beating but his brother – because he kept asking why they were doing this to them – got powerful kicks to the head and back.

Karim continues: “They put us in their cars and one of them drove my car like a madman. The car got hit underneath and the oil leaked out, but he kept driving. Now I need to pay 4,000 shekels [$1,140] for a new engine.” In addition, the officers broke a window in the car and damaged the back seat. “When we got to the police station, the same cop who broke my window made me sign a form saying that he didn’t cause any damage to the car,” he says. “I signed it because I was afraid he’d beat me again.”

The brothers were detained in the Ayarot police station outside Be’er Sheva from the afternoon until the next morning; thereafter, they were transferred to the Rahat station, from which they were taken to a hearing. The police asked to remand them in custody for five more days, on suspicion of obstructing a police officer in the course of his duty, reckless driving of a vehicle, and unauthorized entry to a military installation, as the area is designated as a military firing zone, although it is not active.

Judge Rafael Yemini of the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court wrote in his decision that while the suspicions supported the claim that the Abu Jalidans may have constituted a danger, “as the respondents have no criminal history, and in light of the circumstances of the incident” – five days of house arrest will suffice.

“When the judge read out the decision I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to go out there anymore, anyway,’” Karim Abu Jalidan says. “We weren’t even in the firing zone, but I didn’t want to tell the judge that, to avoid any more complications.”

Suleiman Abu Jalidan tells Haaretz that “in recent months there is an incident [involving police] every day or two. They beat up a lot of Bedouin, but people don’t complain, they know the police investigations unit barely ‘checks,’ and don’t believe anything will come of it. Everything stays inside and that’s not good. It will blow up in the end. The police film videos of themselves beating people up and send the footage to their superior officers to show they’re doing something. We have no problem with the police, but they should catch criminals and not ordinary people.” His sons say they were also videoed and were told that the clip was to be uploaded to the Telegram app.

The police offered this response to a query regarding the Abu Jalidan brothers’ claims: “These are suspects who were with their car deep in the firing zones of the Tze’elim base, which they are prohibited from entering by order and according to signs posted at the location – while dozens of soldiers conduct training with live ammunition in the area. As described in your query, the two suspects illegally fled the forces that were identified at the time, in uniform and in police vehicles. In their flight they endangered their own lives, as well as those of the troops and the soldiers training in the compound.

“The suspects’ vehicle was damaged during their flight as they drove off-road at high speed. We would like to note that the fighters of the undercover unit operate in the area daily, to ensure proper governance and to eradicate the phenomenon of theft from IDF bases. Your query paints the incident in a biased and even questionable manner, in light of the fact that the suspects admit that they fled the troops in a restricted area while endangering lives.”

“It will eventually blow up”

Bir Hadaj is a recognized town, in contrast to many other Bedouin localities in the Negev, but in practice it stretches beyond the municipal boundaries appearing in the official zoning plan, due to disputes between the residents and the state; some of the houses on the outskirts of the village abut what Israeli authorities call firing zones. Until recently, local villagers hiked to these areas, which they say haven’t been used for live fire-training since at least 1993, when Bir Hadaj was established. The events of recent months have put an end to that pastime for many, as well as the ability to pasture herds in the vicinity. The road toward the Besor region, passing through Tze’elim, has also seen reduced traffic.

Residents of Bir Hadaj attest that the two above-mentioned incidents are not unusual. They say that undercover units have made a habit in recent months of arresting innocent drivers from the village and “abusing” them – but most of the victims choose not to complain. Following the surge in assaults, they say, local people are now refraining from unnecessary travel outside their community, including along Route 222. The Border Police’s southern undercover unit has been operating at increased intensity for over half a year now, to prevent the theft of munitions, in the firing zones near the base, and in the past few months by closely patrolling Bir Hadaj.

According to several residents, these masked forces are liable to stop them on the road at any time.

“If they see that you’re an Arab they motion you to pull over and then assault you,” says one village resident. “It’s either you run away or you get beaten up,” says another. “They don’t even let you speak. They approach you and start hitting right away.”

Last month, Haaretz reported the assault of cousins from the Al-Waj family from Bir Hadaj. They reported that eight unidentified men, wearing security forces uniforms, detained them as they were driving near their village, then attacked them violently and vandalized their car and possessions.

The IDF spokesman claimed then that the force that attacked the two was a combination of soldiers and police officers, and said that the army’s Military Police Criminal Investigation Division had launched a joint investigation of the incident along with the Department of Internal Police Investigations, following which the findings related to the involvement of the forces would be transferred to the military prosecution.

Article link:
Article source: Haaretz | Nati Yefet |Dec 26, 2022

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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