Israel: “The massive police crackdown was totally unprecedented”

The latest conflict in Gaza was triggered by a chain of initially less noticed events in Jerusalem, which also sparked violence between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. Intercommunal incidents that started in Lod on May 10 were both unprecedented in scale and marked by a new level of brutality from the Israeli police. As the events unfolded, around 200 Israeli lawyers volunteered on the streets to document human rights violations and legally assist detainees. Participants included our SOS-Torture Network member the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI). Interview of PCATI’s Executive Director, Tal Steiner, who is also a member of the OMCT’s General Assembly.

What was the scope of your work in May?

In our analysis, all this started in early April, with reckless behaviour by the Israeli police, first at Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhoud where Palestinian residents face eviction by settlers, when a peaceful protest was violently dispersed by the police. Later, restrictions on gathering and prayer at Al Aqsa Mosque and the old city in Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan led to violent clashes between residents of East Jerusalem and police. We know that whatever happens in Jerusalem echoes throughout the region, but what no one had anticipated was the intercommunal violence that erupted within Israel, in those mixed cities where the country’s Arab-Palestinian and Jewish citizens live together.

Here it is very important to differentiate. There have unfortunately been a lot of incidents of vandalism, including of holy places, and there have been physical attacks of individuals, both of Jews and Arabs. But at the same time, there have been demonstrations by Palestinian citizens of Israel in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in occupied East Jerusalem and Gaza, which we deem to be legitimate, and which have been met with absolutely massive police violence. This is the scope of our work.

What did you observe?

We have seen a mix of over-policing on the one hand, with some 1,300 arrests in one week, and on the other hand of under-policing when it came to protecting citizens, especially Arab citizens, who were left to their own devices when attacked by Jewish groups. We have seen a new phenomenon of so-called militia groups of Jewish teenagers coming to mixed cities to harm Palestinian citizens with a racial motive, gathering through social media and calling to take Palestinian lives, causing a lot of distress and anxiety among Israel’s Arab-Palestinian community. The feeling among Palestinians is that a lack of police vigilance enabled violent action, or at the very least was not sufficient to provide protection.

What types of police brutality did you record?

The information comes through an initiative by over 200 volunteer lawyers, under the umbrella of Adalah and other Israeli/Palestinian human rights groups, in which PCATI's lawyers participated.

The first trend concerns arrest. Around 1,300 suspects were arrested, including 250 minors, with over 500 still under arrest. The vast majority are Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, not Jews. According to the lawyers who monitored the situation in the field, there were numerous arbitrary arrests of either peaceful protesters or simple passers-by. There are accounts of police breaking into homes or businesses close to demonstrations to arrest people, and assaults during arrests captured on video. People recording assaults by the police were arrested. There is a widely reported case in Jaffa where a Palestinian resident who was filming police officers storming the street was directly shot with rubber bullets.

We have also seen massive physical abuse of detainees in East Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and other places. Large numbers of people have come out of police stations severely beaten in the face, the head, and the neck. Denial of medical attention or long delays before those injured had access to a doctor were also reported. Our lawyer directly witnessed a situation where the detainee suffered from an eye injury that needed urgent attention, and yet several hours elapsed before the doctor was called in.

We have received allegations of undercover officers posing as protestors and inciting the situation, attacking civilians very violently and making severe threats, especially against minors. There have been cases when undercover officers pulled people, including minors, off the street without identifying themselves, which made the arrests look like kidnappings.

There were serious violations against minors: grave threats, interrogation during night hours and without the mandatory presence of a parent or a lawyer, and cases when minors who only speak Arabic were forced to sign affidavits and testimonies written in Hebrew.

We are still following up and documenting a number of very troubling cases, in which we intend to file complaints to the relevant investigatory bodies.

Could human rights lawyers work freely?

There were actually lots of infringements on the right to counsel. Police stopped taking calls from lawyers and there were delays in meeting their clients. A new procedure was put in place: instead of providing lists of people detained as is customary, police stations would instead ask lawyers to submit their own lists of people whose families were suspecting they had been arrested and follow up only when there was a match. As a result, it took up to 48 hours for families to have confirmation of an arrest.

What legal action is PCATI going to take?

Given the massive scale of violations, we can’t realistically file hundreds of complaints. We are working on at least a couple of severe incidents on principled cases, aiming to cover the main geographical areas affected.

While excessive use of force by police during arrest, particularly against minority groups – including Palestinians, migrants, or people of color - but also human rights defenders, is not new, it’s been on the increase since last year. This was related to demonstrations against the prime minister and the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations – the latter, mostly against ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. We filed 12 complaints about police brutality in 2019, 35 in 2020, and 20 during the first four months of 2021 alone, before the recent flare-up. But the massive crackdown we’ve seen now was totally unprecedented.

It is very clear that institutional impunity is the main factor behind this spiraling: over the past four years, 95% of all complaints against law enforcement have either been dismissed or closed. There is no interest in the judiciary to sanction law enforcement, and this lack of accountability only increases the violence. The atmosphere of incitement comes from the top: over the past weeks, members of the government, from the prime minister down, have publicly equated protesters with terrorists and at times granted explicit impunity to law enforcement officers.

What is the situation inside Israel now?

It has started to deescalate, with recent demonstrations in Haifa, for example, allowed to go on without police interference. In East Jerusalem though, protests have again been violently dispersed, with massive arrests and abuse. There is of course hope that with the ceasefire in Gaza, intercommunal clashes will come to an end. But there is now a question mark on the future of both communities being able to live together here in Israel, and the reaction by the justice system to the recent events.

PCATI was founded in 1990 to protect all residents of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory against torture and ill-treatment inflicted by any public official. Its lawyers monitor places of detention and provide legal support to victims, while advocating for the respect of national and international law, including via education programmes.

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