Gideon Levy: Why Israeli Police Are Terrorizing This Palestinian Village

Gideon Levy: Why Israeli Police Are Terrorizing This Palestinian Village

Mohammed Obeid’s picture on a door, his brother next to it. Credit: Alex Levac

Israeli police in the village of Isawiyah have an agenda, and it involves brutality, incitement, humiliation, and violence.

by Gideon Levy and Alex Levac, reposted from Ha’aretz

On Sunday, the Obeid family wanted to arrange a meal in memory of their son, who was killed by Jerusalem District police, to mark the conclusion of the traditional 40 days of mourning. Mohammed Obeid, 21, had worked in the dining room of a company in the city’s Har Hotzvim high-tech park. Police officers claimed that he had thrown firecrackers at them near his home, and therefore shot him at close range, killing him.

None of this surprised anyone in Isawiyah, a Palestinian village at the foot of Mt. Scopus that Israel annexed to Jerusalem following the Six-Day War. During the past two months, many residents, terrified of the police, have been afraid to leave home. Parents are sending their children to stay with relatives to keep them out of trouble; every trip in the car is liable to end with a bizarre but extremely costly traffic ticket; checkpoints are frequently placed at the village’s two main entrances; everyone who leaves or enters is scrutinized; and law enforcement operations take place virtually every day.

Mohammed Obeid’s mother, in the armchair, and sister, with his memorial poster. Immediately after his funeral, hundreds of police officers raided their village. Alex Levac

According to Amer Aruri, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, about 80 villagers have been arrested in recent weeks, although local social activist Mohammed Abu Hummus puts the number at 200. A night doesn’t goes by without a police invasion and arrests, tear gas fired into homes, beatings or the firing of rubber-coated metal bullets and sponge-tipped bullets. Last Sunday, the police threw a stun grenade at a resident they were arresting, causing him severe burns on his back and arm. More about that later.

The incredible report by Haaretz’s Nir Hasson this week about a rifle being planted by district police officers in the home of an Isawiyah resident, in order to make themselves look good in a docudrama television series produced by the Kan public broadcaster, only underscored the grotesque dimensions of the police operation. When we visited Isawiyah this past Monday, armored white vans of the Yasam, the Israel Police’s Special Patrol Unit, were driving through the village slowly in a lordly procession – it wasn’t clear whether they were looking for illegal activity or trying to provoke people.

Locals offer several explanations for the iron fist of the police. By one account, the airing of “Jerusalem District” – the Kan documentary that portrays local cops as fearless warriors fighting for Israel’s security – spurred them to continue with their fruitless activities even after the shooting (of the series) concluded. The appointment of a new district commander, Maj. Gen. Doron Yedid, in February, is thought by many others to be the main reason for the heavy-handedness in evidence here. Although most of Isawiyah’s 15,000 residents work in Israel and speak Hebrew, drive cars with yellow Israeli license plates and belong to one of the Israeli health maintenance organizations, the village is known for its fervent support of the Palestinian national cause. The majority of them support Fatah or the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Maybe that’s why Israel is coming down so hard on the people of Isawiyah: in order to break their spirit and sear a message into their consciousness.

Abu Hummus, a member of the local village committee has another explanation: “Isawiyah is the training base of the Jerusalem police. They come here to learn how to arrest people, how to open fire, how to throw stun grenades, how to hurl tear gas and how to break down doors and break into homes. They have no other training base in Jerusalem. Where else are they going to practice in the use of sponge-tipped bullets? On Highway 1?”

Abu Hummus. \ Credit: Alex Levac

One thing is not in dispute in Isawiyah: The police violence is only heightening anger and hostility.

The killing of Mohammed Obeid by the police has aggravated the situation. He was the eldest child of Fadwa, a homemaker who’s now sitting in the family’s living room below a huge poster of her late son ringed by colored lights, and Samir, who works nights as a driver hauling vegetables from storage depots in Beit Shemesh to Ashdod, Rehovot, Bnei Brak and the settlement of Kiryat Sefer.

On Thursday, June 27, Samir was driving home from work and was near Hebron when he heard on the radio that a youngster had been wounded in Isawiyah. Then came the announcement that there had been a fatality in the village – and that the deceased was Mohammed Obeid. There are a million Mohammed Obeids, Samir told himself (the Obeid clan is indeed one of the village’s largest). Then his wife called: “Mohammed, our son, is gone.”

Samir was stunned into disbelief. Friends called and suggested that he pull over and wait for someone to come get him. He stopped the car, near the entrance to the town of Beit Ummar, on the main road between Bethlehem and Hebron, and broke into tears. Half an hour later, friends arrived and together they drove to Hadassah Medical Center on Mount Scopus, where his son had been taken following the shooting.

Mohammed Obeid’s father. \ Credit: Alex Levac

Border Policemen forcibly prevented the villagers from entering the hospital and a violent brawl erupted, after which the group was forced to return home without Samir being allowed to see his son’s body. Then followed four days of disgraceful negotiations between the family, together with the village leadership, and the police over the conditions for the release of Mohammed’s body and the funeral arrangements. At first the police demanded a bond of 100,000 shekels ($28,570) to guarantee that public order would be preserved, and demanded that the burial take place in a cemetery outside Isawiyah in the presence of no more than 20 family members. Samir refused. “You can keep him,” he told a police representative.

Afterward the bond was reduced to 80,000 shekels, then 50,000, and finally a sum of 20,000 shekels was agreed on. The police also dropped the demand to limit the number of people at the funeral and agreed that the burial could take place in Issawiyah.

Immediately after the funeral, hundreds of Yasam officers raided the village, hurling tear-gas grenades and firing rubber-coated metal bullets, in response to what they perceived as “public unrest.” In the days that followed they also entered the mourners’ tent, tore down the photographs of the dead son and trampled them underfoot. A makeshift monument hewn in a stone wall at the site where Obeid fell and bearing his picture was also demolished by the police. A hole in the wall is all that’s left now.

Mohammed Obeid had been shot to death during an incident in which officers stopped a resident’s car in the center of the village and examined it – as they are wont to do in Isawiyah – meticulously. People gathered around and the event turned violent. The police claimed that Obeid threw firecrackers at them. They shot him three times with live ammunition from a distance of a few meters; two of the bullets struck him in the chest, leaving him with no chance of survival.

“Shoot him six times in the leg, but don’t murder him,” says his father now. “There was no mortal danger. Why did you kill Mohammed? You raise a child, he comes to maturity, says he wants to get married, and you come and kill him.”

A spokesperson for the Jerusalem District Police stated after the incident: “At 8:50 P.M. a masked suspect burst forth, holding a string of firecrackers and started to launch them in a direct trajectory at the [police] force from a distance of a few meters, thus constituting a concrete and immediate danger to their lives. In light of the mortal danger to the fighters, and in accordance with the rules of engagement, one of the fighters carried out targeted fire at the terrorist, who was neutralized. [He was] an Isawiyah resident who had been arrested previously for intending to perpetrate a shooting attack and was recently released from prison. He was evacuated by Magen David Adom [Israeli emergency medical service] to Hadassah Medical Center on Mount Scopus, where he died of his wounds.”

Not far from the bereaved family’s home, Fadi Obeid (not a relative) lives in a fine apartment with his wife, who’s pregnant, and their two toddlers – and is afraid to step outside. He’s employed by an Israeli bus company, plying the route between the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev in East Jerusalem, and the suburb of Mevasseret Zion west of the city. On Sunday evening, July 28, he went to visit his parents, who live in the upper part of Isawiyah. A Yasam force traveling in two white vans and a jeep was parked next to their home.

Fadi Obeid, with his daughter, this week. \ Alex Levac

“It was quiet, not a single bird was shitting on them,” he recalls, “but the police want chaos.” Half an hour later, officers burst into his parents’ home and demanded to go up to the roof to see if people were throwing stones from there. Obeid says his elderly father tried to explain that the roof was locked and no one was there, but they insisted on going up. Father and son accompanied them. The situation deteriorated into pushing and beating by the police. Obeid says he didn’t do anything. “They spoke to me in criminal language. I didn’t curse and I didn’t lift a hand.”

Fadi Obeid was detained, handcuffed from behind, and taken outside. One officer then threw a stun grenade at him from zero range, hitting him in the back. A report on TV Channel 13 depicted that moment: the detained Obeid being led by police officers, a grenade exploding behind him and thick smoke rising from it. He collapsed but despite his wounds, the policemen dragged him to their jeep, where a policewoman slammed the heavy door on his head several times, causing him facial and head injuries. But the most serious injury was caused by the grenade: deep burns on his back and arm. “They dragged me like an animal and threw me into the jeep,” he says now, adding that the beating continued in the vehicle.

Fadi Obeid’s back is still covered with bandages, as is his arm.

Obeid was taken by ambulance to Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Karem, treated while still bound, then brought in for interrogation to the Shalem police station in East Jerusalem. He was charged with assaulting officers, interfering with police in the line of duty and throwing stones. “It’s just the opposite!” he says. “They interfered with me in my house, they hit me, and I didn’t throw a single stone.”

A few hours later, he was released on bail and placed under house arrest for five days.

A spokesperson for the Jerusalem Police stated after the incident: “During police activity against stone throwers, the police located a building from which the stones were being thrown at them, entered it, and a suspect at the scene clashed with the police and was arrested for questioning. As the detainee was being taken to the van, locals started to gather around them and the officers were forced, in order to disperse the crowd, to use a stun grenade, as a result of which two police officers and the suspect were injured and taken for medical treatment to a hospital.”

Fadi Obeid’s back is still covered with bandages, as is his arm, and he groans in pain. The photographs of his wounds reveal a scorched, bleeding back.

“I started working when I was 16,” he tells us. “All my jobs were in the service of the Israelis. My whole life I have served only Israelis. First in a store and afterward as a bus driver. I always greet all the passengers with a smile. Serve them. And then I get a grenade in my back. For what? What did I do? What did I do in my home?”

When Obeid’s house arrest ended last Sunday, he went to visit his father, who also does not dare to leave the house now. Every morning he takes his daughters, Batil, who’s 4, and 2-year-old Taya, to his wife’s parents’s home near the Mount of Olives and brings them back in the evening. He doesn’t want them to be in Isawiyah. But this week, when he visited his father, his hand and back still bandaged, Yasam officers were again parked next to the house. One of them, perhaps recognizing him, shouted at him, “Stop looking at me, before I blow your head off!”

A resident of Isawiyah, in East Jerusalem. \ Alex Levac

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