x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Israel in final stages of inquiry into abuse

The Israeli army has launched an inquiry into the conduct of Israeli soldiers who were filmed abusing and humiliating a blindfolded Palestinian man.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // The Israeli army has launched an inquiry into the conduct of Israeli soldiers who were filmed abusing and humiliating a blindfolded Palestinian man. The video, broadcast on Israeli TV after having been posted on YouTube, the popular internet video-sharing site, shows soldiers forcing a kneeling man to repeat crude phrases in Hebrew. "The investigation is in its final stages," a spokesperson for the Israeli army said yesterday. Some of the soldiers under investigation are still on active service, he said, but a trial is expected in the coming weeks. The incident occurred about 15 months ago near the Gaza Strip. On the video, soldiers can be heard taunting the kneeling man and making him repeat phrases in Hebrew, fed him by one of the soldiers. At one point, the soldier has the man repeat that the elite Golani Brigade "will shove a log up your backside". Soldiers are then heard laughing and jeering. The inquiry comes at a time of increased scrutiny of Israeli army and settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories. The widespread availability of mobile phones with video and camera capabilities has made documenting instances of abuse easier and one Israeli human rights organisation, B'Tselem, distributes small video cameras to Palestinians in volatile areas for this purpose under its "Shooting Back" programme. It was with one such camera that, in June, Jewish settlers were filmed beating up an elderly shepherd, his wife and a nephew near a Hebron-area settlement in the southern West Bank. In July, B'Tselem aired footage of an Israeli soldier shooting a bound and blindfolded Palestinian man at close range in the foot after he had been arrested following protests against the Israeli separation barrier in Nilin in the northern West Bank. "There is no way to tell how many cases of abuse there are," said Sarit Michaeli of B'Tselem. "So many Palestinians are exposed to some kind of abuse, whether verbal or physical, that not many even bother to report it." In its last annual report, B'Tselem reported 74 instances of abuse or humiliation of Palestinians by Israeli security forces in 2007 that it had documented in detail. But that figure is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. Palestinians have little faith in an Israeli legal system that, according to another Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din, in 2007 brought only 101 convictions from 1,091 complaints. Punishments of soldiers, furthermore, are often mild. The soldier caught on tape in July shooting the bound man in the foot was charged with "unworthy conduct" while his commanding officer faced a similar charge of "inappropriate behaviour for a commander". Moreover, it is difficult for Palestinians to file complaints against settlers or soldiers because that has to be done at Israeli police stations or district co-ordinating offices that are located in settlements or behind checkpoints to which Palestinians have no access. B'Tselem says the number of cases reported indicate that abuse is not confined to a few "rotten apples" but is "common and constitutes a systemic failure". The recently released video showing Israeli soldiers humiliating the blindfolded man in the Gaza area "is no isolated incident", it said. "Treating it as an isolated incident completely misses the point of how the army must deal with this issue," Ms Michaeli said. "This should be done in a systemic and pro-active way. It's not enough to wait for human rights organisations or media to expose such incidents. Aisha, a 29-year old Palestinian woman from Ramallah, said she did not know anyone who had not faced abuse from Israeli soldiers either in detention or at checkpoints. The mere fact of having to pass through a checkpoint to go from one Palestinian area to another was humiliation in itself, she said, and long queues and abusive behaviour by soldiers was the norm. "They treat us like animals and if you say anything back you are likely to be punished." Aisha, who would not give her real name, said she had been beaten at the Qalandiya checkpoint when she had protested a long delay. "A female soldier came up to me and lifted my shirt up. Instinctively I grabbed her hand after which she and three other male soldiers started kicking me." The young musician said she had been lucky. First, the incident was observed by an Israeli checkpoint watchdog, Machsom Watch, which posts people at checkpoints to report on Israeli soldiers' behaviour. Their presence probably restrained soldiers somewhat, she said. Secondly, with a US passport that she said she "waved like a shield", the soldiers eventually desisted and let her pass with only bruises to her legs and arms. Aisha did not even think of filing a complaint. "What good would it do? They've done much worse, shooting innocent people, demolishing homes and taking land. Nothing happens and they always get away with it, even when it happens in full view of everyone. Every now and then they punish a soldier for something minor and pretend they are a great democracy. They are hypocrites, nothing more." okarmi@thenational.ae