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Tractors in the fields of Turmusaya. Photo: Iyad Hadad, B'Tselem, 5 April 2009
From the field

B’Tselem investigation: Settlers assault Palestinians and file false reports against them; military arrests the victims

State-backed settler violence against Palestinians – which ranges from killing and injuring individuals to damaging property and land – has long been a routine part of the occupation. The military allows these acts to occur, and in some cases soldiers provide the settlers with back-up and even join in on the attack. The Israeli law enforcement system investigates such incidents on rare occasions only, and hardly ever holds the perpetrators accountable. The settlers, well aware that their chances of facing consequences for harming Palestinians are low, carry on with their violence unimpeded.

In two cases B’Tselem documented in March and April 2020, settlers not only injured Palestinians and damaged their property, but also alleged that the victims had been the ones to attack them. Backed by the military, settlers live in a world of nearly automatic impunity. Palestinians, in contrast, are guilty until proven innocent. If a settler files a police report against a Palestinian, the latter is immediately arrested and given high bail for conditional release – even in the absence of any evidence for the allegations.

In one of the above cases, soldiers arrested three Palestinian brothers who were grazing their flock when settlers arrived and tried to drive them away. The brothers were detained for five days and eventually released on a 3,000 NIS (~870 USD) bail. In the other case, soldiers arrested a Palestinian tractor driver who was attacked by settlers who then claimed he had tried to run them over. He was held in detention for ten days and released on a 4,000 NIS (~1,160 USD) bail.

A person who has been violently assaulted or whose property has been damaged normally expects the authorities to hold the perpetrators accountable. However, in the abnormal reality of 'bare life' under Israel's occupation regime, Palestinians do not receive even minimal protection. In the two cases detailed here, the victims were assaulted twice – first by settlers with state backing, and then by the authorities, with encouragement from the settlers.

A description of the two cases follows.

Turmusaya, Ramallah District, 10 May 2020: Settlers assault farmers; military detains one farmer for 10 days

The settlement outpost of Adei Ad was established near farmland belonging to residents of Turmusaya. Two years ago, settlers built another outpost next to the first. Since then, the village residents have avoided their land for fear of being attacked or harassed. This year, ahead of the plowing season, the village agricultural committee organized the plowing to encourage owners to return to their land.

On Sunday morning, 10 May 2020, at around 8:00 A.M., two tractor drivers the committee hired, Suliman ‘Asfur (27) and Yusef Muzahem (38), went to the land with several farmers from the village. Immediately after they began plowing, three settlers arrived bearing stones and pipes. Two of them started to harass the tractor drivers and tried to prevent them from plowing the soil. The settlers tried to remove the tractors’ keys, lay on the ground to block their path and even tugged at the drivers’ shirts to try to pull them out.

At some point, a settler who was trying to pull Suliman ‘Asfur out of his tractor slipped and fell. He pretended he had been run over and started screaming and shouting in pain. Yet a few minutes later, he got up and went back to harassing the drivers as though nothing had happened.

In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad on 13 May 2020, Yusef Muzahem recounted:

As soon as we got to the plot, about three settlers in their 20s and 30s appeared, holding stones. They were unkempt and had skullcaps (kipahs). Two of them lay down in front of the tractors and blocked our path, while the third filmed them. We tried to drive around them, but they held on to the tractors and tried to pull the keys out by force. They grabbed at our shirts to pull us out of the tractors.

This went on for about five minutes. Then, as one of them was trying to pull Suliman out of the tractor by his shirt, he stumbled over a deep furrow and fell. I saw this happen from about ten meters away. At first, the settler tried to pretend he’d been injured and started groaning as if he was in pain. We drove away and tried to continue plowing. A few moments later, he got up and started blocking our path again as if nothing had happened.

Minutes later, the same settler sprayed Muzahem in the face with pepper-spray while he was driving. Muzahem felt like he was suffocating and his eyes strung, and tried to drive away. Meanwhile, the settler flung himself in front of ‘Asfur’s tractor and pretended he had been run over again time. At that point, a settlement security coordinator drove up. When he saw the settler lying on the ground, he pulled out two stun grenades and hurled them at the tractor drivers.

‘Asfur, who was in the middle of an argument with the settlers, got into the tractor and tried to get away. The security coordinator chased him, climbed onto the tractor, pulled out his gun and threatened to shoot him if he didn’t stop the tractor. When ‘Asfur stopped and climbed out, the security coordinator ordered him to sit on the ground, took the tractor keys and ‘Asfur’s ID card, and called the Israel Police and the military. Border Police officers arrived, arrested ‘Asfur and took him, handcuffed and blindfolded, to the Binyamin police station.

Muzahem was rushed in a Red Crescent ambulance to the village clinic. Later, at around 10:00 A.M., he went with two members of the agricultural committee to the Binyamin police station to file a report against the settler who had pepper-sprayed him. They waited at the station until 5:00 P.M. for the officers to register their complaint.

In his testimony, Suliman ‘Asfur described the interrogation at the Binyamin police station:

I told the interrogator I had nothing to say and that I just wanted to show him the videos I’d taken when the settlers attacked us, which proved I hadn’t run anyone over. He watched the footage. There were about 16 videos and it took about two hours to go through them. As he watched, he took notes and asked me questions. All the videos prove we weren’t violent at all. In the video where the settler was supposedly run over, you can see the tractor’s wheel not moving and the settler putting his foot under it on purpose. The wheel doesn't run it over. The interrogator took my phone and sent me back to the holding room. At 11:00 or 12:00 P.M., they transferred me to detention at the Ofer military prison.

On 19 May 2020, a military court judge determined that “this incident justified an investigation and arrest to that end.” Nevertheless, as the investigation was effectively over, and as the prosecution did not request otherwise, the judge ordered ‘Asfur released on a 4,000 NIS bail (~1,160 USD). That night, after ten days in custody, ‘Asfur was released after the agricultural committee paid his bail.

In his testimony, ‘Asfur added:

The prosecution and the police refused to show the videos that prove my innocence in court. They took away my freedom for ten days without any justification. We’re always potentially guilty until proven innocent, but when it comes to the settlers, it’s the other way around.

14 April 2020: The community of Arab al-Ka’abneh, east of a-Taybah, Ramallah District,

On Tuesday morning, 14 April 2020, at around 9:00 A.M., 'Abd a-Rahman Ka’abneh (21) was grazing his flock on farmland owned by residents of a-Taybah, about 300 meters from the community’s homes. Minutes later, two settlers appeared and began shouting at him to leave the area, claiming that he was on Jewish land. Ka’abneh called his brothers, Ahmad (34) and Mus’ab (32), who quickly arrived. When they got there, a verbal argument ensued with the settlers and at one point, the settlers started throwing stones at the flock. One of the settlers filmed the incident. After the Ka’abneh brothers tried unsuccessfully to push the settlers away, they called other relatives. Two of them arrived and started filming the incident, too.

Ahmad Ka’abneh described the incident in a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad on 3 June 2020:

When we got there, we saw settlers shouting at my brother and taunting him, trying to drive him and his flock away. One of them, who was tall and skinny with a red beard and a white skullcap (kipah), kept insisting we leave with the sheep because it's the Land of Israel and it belongs to them. He demanded we show him proof of ownership. Once in a while, they threw stones at the sheep to scatter them. At one point, one of the settlers started filming us. We knew they were trying to frame us, but we hadn't used any violence against them. We just pushed them with our hands to get them out.

A few minutes later, four soldiers drove up in a jeep and one of them immediately fired two shots in the air. The soldiers took the three brothers to the jeep. The brothers tried to explain that they had not attacked the settlers, and that the settlers were the ones who had tried to drive them out of their land. The soldiers refused to listen and silenced them, while watching the settlers' footage of the incident.

In his testimony, Ahmad Ka’abneh described the soldiers’ conduct:

While they were leading us to the jeep, they slapped us, kicked us and swore at us. We tried to explain that we’d been grazing our flock and that the settlers were the ones who'd attacked us, but they ordered us to be quiet. The settlers showed them videos of us threatening them and trying to drive them away, but there was no violence. A relative of ours tried to show the soldiers the video he had taken, so they could understand the situation, but they just took his phone away and deleted the footage.

The soldiers made the brothers sit by the jeep and handcuffed them. At around 11:00 A.M., an Israel Police vehicle and a military jeep arrived and took them to the Binyamin police state.

In his testimony, Ahmad Ka’abneh recounted what happened at the police station:

One of the officers interrogated me without taking the handcuffs off or reading me my rights. He told me that I was suspected of attacking an Israeli farmer and showed me a video of us trying to drive the settler away and threatening him with a stick. But there's no footage of us physically assaulting them, because it didn’t happen. He talked to me for about half an hour and demanded all sorts of details about my life. He also asked about ownership of the land and why we were grazing our flock there. When he asked why we had a stick, I explained that we always take a stick along when we graze the sheep, to guide them and drive away flies, but that it doesn’t mean we had any intention to attack anyone. When the interrogation was over, the interrogator demanded that I sign my testimony in Hebrew. I refused, because I can’t read Hebrew and I don’t trust the Israeli police. My two brothers were also interrogated, and then they locked us together in a cell.

Later on, at around 1:00 P.M., the Ka’abneh brothers were taken to the Ofer military prison, where they were held in custody for five days. On the morning of 19 April 2020, they were brought to a hearing before the military court and subsequently released on a 3,000 NIS (~870 USD) bail.